Dateline: Portland, Maine—April 1, 2011
Portland, Maine is an interesting place to find oneself, especially on April 1st and in the midst of a blizzard. I’ve come here this weekend to attend the Northeast Regional National Collegiate Honors Conference, held at the historic Eastland Park Hotel. Now that I’ve been here for just over 24 hours, I think I have a good grasp of the layout.
Like most cities I’ve visited in New England, the contrast between the haves and the have-nots in Portland is striking. It’s not unusual to come across multi-million dollar mansions and dilapidated housing within a few hundred yards of each other and on the same street. The mansions are as beautiful as expected. Most of them are made of brick, Victorian, and contribute to the Norman Rockwellish charm that those from outside New England have come to expect. On a tour this morning I was chatting with our driver, Dave, and he informed me that taxes for most of these mansions can be as high as $25,000 a year, and that the cost of heating has forced many owners to sell, divide into apartments, or live in Portland and the surrounding area seasonally. Nevertheless, the mansions are something to see and they reflect an age of exuberance that serves as a precursor to the current McMansion fad.
Yet, there is another reality existing side by side in Portland (and all over New England, in fact). The evidence of poverty here is overwhelming. Dave also told me that Portland has the largest number of public housing recipients in the country. (Given Maine’s population of around three million, I find this difficult to believe.) Interestingly, Dave further points out that those living in public housing have some of the best views in the city, and he was careful to point these buildings out to us as we drove around in the driving snow. Likewise, one can see evidence of poverty in the people coming and going. Many look homeless and several were completely drunk as I made my way down streets after the lighthouse (or, headlights, as they call them in Maine) tour.
Nevertheless, all of this makes Portland an incredibly interesting city. Later in the day, and despite the slush and wind, I made my way from the hotel down Congress Street. One immediately notices the art scene here. I walked through what is called the “art district,” which is really a series of art galleries, art schools, and art supply stores. From the looks of it, the art scene in Portland is really growing. A number of galleries had exceptional photographs and art hanging from their walls. Tonight is the first Friday art walk, but it’s debatable, given the weather, on how well attended it will be.
Along Congress Street I stopped into a coffee shop called “Others.” I went in and ordered a small black coffee. I was the only one in the shop, and the owner, an older gentleman who was overly friendly (and I mean this in a good way) began to tell me about his shop. He pointed out his coffee grinder and roasting machine. It seems that Others roasts its own beans, all of which are organic. The coffee shop had a number of small tables and a large couch for its customers. They also sell gelato and other light fare. The owner handed me my cup of coffee, but without a lid. When I asked him for a lid he gave me one and informed me that the lids, cups, and cardboard holder are all environmentally friendly, which means that they cost a lot more money. The lid for the coffee costs 9 cents, while the cardboard holder costs 27 cents. I felt a little guilty asking for them, but I was walking.
After coming to Monument Square I stopped into Longfellow’s Bookshop. This is a wonderful independent bookstore that sells new and used books, though it leans more toward the used. I spent about an hour browsing the shelves and listening to the playful banter among the three employees working. I picked up a couple of new hard covers I had been waiting for, and although I didn’t receive the ten percent discount I get at Barnes & Noble, I felt pretty good buying from an independent. I wish I had the courage to buy my books exclusively from independent bookshops.
After that I walked back up Congress Street planning to get some work done in my hotel room before the conference dinner that evening. That’s when I saw it: Yes Bookshop, specializing in used, rare, and first edition books and prints. I walked inside and entered paradise. In a dimly lit, narrow, and overcrowded space were more books than I could count. The shelves were overflowing and piles of books were placed all over the floor making it hard to move. Behind the counter was a man, late middle age, with a mop of curly black hair. His face was very pale; as if he had just shaved a beard he kept for many years. In any event, I spent not nearly as much time in this store as I could have. I nervously began to calculate how much money I could spend without drawing my wife’s attention to our checking account. I found a first edition John Gardner, Italo Calvino, Vladimir Nabokov, and those are just the ones that I bought.
Yes Bookshop is the ideal place for those of us who live and breathe old books. It had that incredible feel and smell of paper and glue that only old books can give. There was no café here to spoil that smell, just books and prints. As I was looking a young woman asked me where the prices of the books were located. I pointed the place out to her and she said that she was an English major from a college in New Jersey. We talked about books and how wonderful they were and the magic they held for people who possessed them. It was a good feeling to know that some young people still take books seriously. In fact, Yes Bookshop was full of Honors students buying books. It was a good day for the owner.
Portland has a strange, hippie feel to it. Earlier, Dave told me that the city was in the process of remaking itself. New hotels were being built, and all sidewalks were going back over to brick to celebrate the city’s heritage. It was just too cold to spend much more time walking around. I went in search of another cup of coffee, recalling that earlier Dave proudly told me that he had never once tasted coffee.