I browsed a second hand bookstore known as the Clackamas Book Exchange located a couple blocks off 82nd Avenue and its swollen river of homelessness and human and commercial squalor.
It’s an excellent mom and pop shop, with tiny rooms full of weird, wonderful and cheap books. And the Western section is beyond superb, if you care for Westerns, which I do. Some writer should write a modern Western where homelessness is the core of the story. The plot would feature a hero exhibiting the outstanding character of someone like Shane who does something to solve the crisis. He or she gets shit done but without fisticuffs or gun play. Typically nothing gets done in a Western without fisticuffs and gun play, but some writer needs to take a run at it. Perhaps an idea for a plot will come to me on one of my walks.
I visit this shop at least once a month. I always enjoy talking to one of the clerks, Linda, and elderly woman who told me she began volunteering there to help out a friend who owned the shop, then the friend died of covid, and Linda took over without pay to keep her friend’s dream alive.
Yeah, there are still Americans like that. You just have to get out into the world and meet them.
I asked Linda if any homeless people come around for books. Yes, she said. All the time.
Linda told me she always has bundles of free books for them. They often insist on bartering for the freebies and provide her with cheese and crackers or chips or flavored sodas. She feels bad about taking the items in barter, but really has no choice. The homeless people won’t take no for an answer.
“So I eat a lot of cheese and crackers!” she said, laughing. “I’ve been gaining weight.”
As Linda recounted her experiences with the homeless, she also mentioned that when she first moved to Portland six years ago, rents soared, she couldn’t find a safe, affordable place to live, and she was on the verge of living out of her car. Then, luckily she found an apartment but was still barely making it. Sometimes, if the bookstore was doing well, she would draw a small wage to supplement her Social Security benefits.
I listened and marveled at her story. I also began hatching a specific scheme to distribute my forthcoming book about the homeless in my neighborhood, The Old Crow Book Club, in Linda’s shop.
After making my purchase, a $2 Western, I told Linda I was a local writer and was coming out with a book about homelessness in a neighborhood not far from the shop. I asked if she would be willing to distribute the book to her customers and the homeless men and women whom she provided free books. And I said distribute for free.
Linda was intrigued, so I ran her through a possible scenario for the shop, making it up on the spot.
We’ll set up a display on the counter and anyone who takes a copy can make a donation to keep the shop running or to set up a fund to pay for purchases of books by homeless people who may want something else besides bargain bin castaways. I mean, the Sherlock Holmes is going to cost more!
I then told her of my philosophy of distribution for The Old Crow Book Club. I was going to stock it in street libraries around Oregon, practically give it away, because I wanted as many readers as possible to consider the homeless crisis and money didn’t matter.
Linda said, “Do you realize that if your book helps one person, it could change everything?”
“Will you help me?” I said.
She was almost screaming when she said it.