By J. Michael Kearsey
If you love the written word, one of Portland’s last and finest independent bookstores can be found in our midst at SE 14th and Division St.. Many know the Longfellows building because of the murals on its outer walls: a dragon to the East and the Madhatter’s Tea Party on the West. Alice seems to invite us into the building as the hare led her into his dreamlike netherworld.
Longfellows Books is truly a world of its own, where one can seek and find, buy and sell, listen and learn about the many forms of the written (and printed) word.
Built in the early 1900’s, the shop once housed a local grocery and later a comic book store, until Jon Hagen moved his small bookstore from Milwaukie Blvd in 1991.
Hagen and his son, Nile, run the business which they describe as “One of Portland’s last stores to buy and sell a variety of rare and unique books, posters, vintage photographs, paper ephemera, programs, catalogues, magazines and related materials.
We focus on being the best rare book store in Portland, actively acquiring rare books and periodicals.”
Nile mentioned his father was a pianist and the president of Rose City Sheet Music Society; thus the fine collection of sheet music, LP’s and even piano rolls for the player piano. There is little room for a piano though, considering the immense amount of bound books and paperbacks on nine rows stretching to the high ceiling. Nile estimates over 25,000 titles can be found in the store, with 7,000 viewable on their website, which hosts a highly navigable set of categories for the bibliophile to search.
Both Hagens are PSU grads whose passions for reading has kept the shop afloat during a tough time for all bookstores. It’s been a labor of love that has held on to a loyal clientele and they are thankful for Portland’s ongoing affair with the literary arts.
Nile, who grew up just ten blocks away, moved to France to teach in Lyon and Lille after college, but returned in 2006 to bring the company onto the Internet, organize the inventory and manage the store.
“These days,” the younger Hagen figures, “We sell about 60% of our books on-line. It is definitely a new era in the book world but with rare books, brick and mortar stores are still important. Although the term, antiquarian books, refers to pre-nineteenth century books, not many made it all the way to our Northwest homes, but through acquisitions and estate sales, we have found quite a few over the years. We just sold a 1719 edition of the Lives of the Apostles to a Portland collector.”
During my visit I was shown several hardbound, leather tooled, gilt edged folio size beauties including a medical book on skeletal and musculature from 1786 and an exquisitely-illustrated treatise on architecture and design by James Gibbs, circa 1788.
An autographed copy of Theodore Roosevelt’s tome, Big Game Hunting in the Rockies and Great Plains Comprising “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and The Wilderness Hunter is one of Longfellows’ prized possessions. It is one of a thousand printed in 1899 and is on sale for $6,000. Other prices vary from the $5 paperback to an 1865 New Testament Bible that goes for $650. The store does accept consignments, some selling for over $2500, and is available for private estate sale evaluations.
“First edition books are one our specialties,” Nile notes with pride. “We have Dr. Seuss’s first Cat in the Hat from 1957 and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer first published in 1876. People do love Jack London and we have a first edition of the 1912 Smoke Bellow: A Novel.
The rare and the highbrow adjoin shelves with the thrilling and informative, and with the global and regional writing. There is an excellent Oregon section with both writers and topics on the Northwest. There are several signed Ken Kesey books to be found. There are magazines from every era and every subject: Playboy to Opera to Mickey Mouse Club to George Plimpton’s Paris Review of the 1950’s.
Hagen notes that many of these magazines become date specific birthday presents, a trend amongst baby boomers.
In addition, politics, Americana and music are represented in the posters, books and artwork available. Upon entering the building, you can spy both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy on presidential posters, Wayne Morse and his senate campaign, journalist Doug Baker’s caricature as he ran for City Council, Oregon Country Fair and obscure concert and book fair posters as well.
With so many generations ahead who may lose the joy of holding a volume of imagination and turning pages of enlightenment, a visit to Longfellows can be a spiritual adventure as well as bit of whimsy under the helpful eyes of Jon and Nile Hagen.
Longfellows Books is located at 1401 SE Division St. Phone 503.239.5222. Open Monday through Saturday from 1-5 pm. www.longfellowspdx.com