A Last Birthday

This is what I wrote on our 24th birthday:

The other day at Portrait I was asked about how it is that we seem to know every single book on our shelves. Some people have offered that we don’t actually read all of them, that we just read reviews and synopses and manufacture opinions about the book based on our interpretation of these, then present these opinions as if they were formed after days and days of being buried in the pages of the book in question. Not so. We do read them. Our store is very small and compared to the big boxes, or even other independent bookstores, our stock is also limited. Limited or not, we have a lot of books– I once had to take all of them down for renovations and it took me one whole day. One whole 12-hour day. So how is it that you can point to any book and at least one of our eight-person staff will have read it? Even if the book was released just yesterday? The obvious answer is that we all love to read and the only prerequisite for employment at Portrait (besides being at least functionally insane or better) is being an avid reader.

The less obvious answer, and the one which is more or less romantic depending on your point of view, is that it is part of the job description. Really. This is why each of us takes so much pride in our work– we aren’t just store clerks charged with successfully completing transactions. We’re required to read and have opinions about every single book we sell. In a sense, besides working during the hours of our shifts, we also work from home. I happen to think that’s quite extraordinary and being someone loath to brag, I say that with a great deal of care.

I suppose I’m feeling pretty sentimental to be writing this for the world to see. Twenty four years for a small bookstore is no small feat. Julie and Frank and every one who has called this place home throughout the years have all lovingly and unabashedly poured pieces of themselves into these walls.  I suspect that, with the guidance of the kind, knowledge-seeking and solace-providing spirits that reside here, it will exist for many many years to come. Because it’s important to have a place to find refuge in where your hosts know their home inside out, where guided tours through unknown realms are the norm, where you know they care– not because it’s good company policy to appear like they do, but because they just do.

Happy Birthday, Julie. Happy Birthday, Portrait of a Bookstore, the little bookstore that could.

This is what I wrote on our 25th birthday:

25 is the number of years I’ve been alive. When I was born, Portrait of a Bookstore was about to celebrate one month of being in business. So, you see how grandiose statements about time and wisdom may seem laughable coming out of me.

Here’s the question: How do you celebrate a life lived across two and a half decades,  in one day? I’m already worried about what we’ll do for our 50th Anniversary. A bigger party? More people we love will show up and toast us? Of course. That has its place. It’s why I’ll blow out my own candles this year and next. But that act is only symbolism born out of tradition. Whether or not I celebrate my life is decided each and every day between birthdays. More often than not, I don’t. Some days I do, most days I don’t.

And that’s how this bookstore is different from me. That’s why yesterday’s celebration was sweet and cozy and small and felt like a special day but not much different than any other. That’s what makes this bookstore extraordinary. Every day we celebrate somehow. Even when we don’t think we’re celebrating, we are. There are no bad days here… and it’s nothing like Oz.

I was asked recently what the secret to our survival has been and my answer was an unromantic, honest and practical one: “Love.” We just love each other. We love what we do. We love books. We love talking to people about books. This love is so genuine and strong, that people recognize it and through this we connect with our community, one person at a time. It’s so simple.

Thank you for the first 25 years…

Today is our 26th birthday. All that can conceivably be said has already been said. In fact, I have been silent most of the day. As, I know, many of our staff have and many of you. We will miss you. We will miss each other. We will miss…desperately miss these walls. These walls, within which we met and fell in love, where we fought and reconciled, wept and laughed, learned and grew. This was always a place, often deemed a haven, where all who thirsted for beauty could be sated. There are so many kinds of beauty and we always had a little of each kind. How lucky we are that it will forever live inside us as just such a place.

“Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

–Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse


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Everything at Portrait of a Bookstore is now 75% off.

Including bookshelves and pens and tape…. and paper clips. And did I mention we still have shelves and shelves of books and antiques and vintage accessories and all kinds of wild and wonderful things?

This is our way of inviting you back to our house for one last hurrah. Come in for a hug and a chat and… and a final goodbye.

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“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air, December 29, 2011

I’m just pretending he was swallowed up by the lion. All we have to do is turn him upside down.

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Christmas in May

Yes, maybe our stock room is a glorious bottomless pit, as some of you have suggested. No matter how many people come through and whisk away mementos for themselves, we keep adding new things and it’s looking almost possible now that we’ll never run out!

James Fearnley’s new book, Here Comes Everybody, not yet distributed in the US, is available only at Portrait! Stop in for your copy today.

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Sometimes all you have are words. And sometimes they are even enough.

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New Things

Some of you thought it was over last week, when you came in, beheld the emptiness, and heard your own voice echoing back. Well, guess what! We have all new things.


And everything is still 50% off!

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you wake up beside your old love

Some of you are so sad it makes us want to take it all back! Some of you are also pretty confused and furious. The rest of you are loving this maniac of a sale. The bookstore is retiring for the same reasons that humans retire. Which makes sense, I guess, since it’s owned and operated by humans, who have decided to retire. We want to make the next month or so a celebration and not a mourning, but those of you who manage to relay, between gulps of air, while weeping into my neck, how deeply sad you are… well, there isn’t anything adequate to say, except to continue hugging you. Yes, this was the only independent bookstore around for many miles, and yes it was a truly magical place and though it was irreplaceable, you mustn’t ever forget that where there is great need, it will always be met in one way or another. Don’t lose hope now, don’t give in just yet and forgo a longer drive in favor of clicking a button. Hold on just a little longer.

In the meantime, it is still Poetry Month and I, for one, am glad about that. Here’s a poem for today.

by Eleanor Lerman

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to 
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a 
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have 
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman 
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night, the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological 
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old 
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it 
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the 
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you 
were born at a good time. Because you were able 
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And 
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland, 
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel, 
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.


Filed under Poetry Month 2012