In November’s literary arts profile, we talk to Casey Jarman, the author of “Death: An Oral History.” In his new book, Jarman explores our cultural anxiety about death, how it clashes with capitalism and what renowned writers and thinkers told him about the ultimate existential subject.
When I arrived to meet Craig Florence of Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, the front counter I had seen being torn apart the day before was being replaced by something that Mussolini would have owned. “He wanted a unique frontispiece for the shop,” said the builder Adam Monkaba as he made the finishing touches. Only a true bookseller would think in classic book design terms when planning renovations for his store, but that’s what he’s all about. “It’s the teeth of the shop,” says Florence, “A new grill!” While Mother Foucault’s can easily be appreciated for its old-world charm, it should not be mistaken as a dusty old bookstore. It’s a sanctuary for writers and poets, new philosophers and world travelers. It’s a place to check your phone at the door (not literally, but they are prohibited) and explore the history of human ideas.
Craig Florence has seemed to have lived a charmed life. At 22 he was wandering around Paris, practically homeless, and was brought in by George Whitman at the famed bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. He slept in one of the many beds tucked under the bookshelves in exchange for helping around at the shop. “Time was soft there,” says Florence, remembering the time spent learning the shopkeeper’s life. “You’re not going to get rich, but you’ll live a rich life.”
Fast forward twelve or so years to 2010 and Florence had a newborn son and needed to make a living to support him. So he applied what he had learned in Paris into his own vision here in Portland. “There was a habitat and ecology for booksellers that the Internet kind of ruined,” explains Florence. People thought he was crazy by taking on Amazon and all of the big name booksellers and opening a small bookshop. The Kindle, the new revolutionary device that was supposed to make books obsolete had just been released. Florence knew he was not going to compete with the corporations on volume, but he could still fill a much needed demand for the real bookshop experience. So with the support of well-respected bookseller and appraiser Charles Seluzicki, he opened up Mother Foucault’s on the gritty inner edge of SE Morrison Street. Mr. Seluzicki’s wide breadth and depth of experience in the book trade helped form the shop in it’s early years, and grow the shop into one of the few places to find truly rare and sought-after books.
In 2015 he expanded to the larger main room, with a stage for readings and other performances. It’s hard to imagine that the store wasn’t always laid out the way it currently is. Compact, but with a carefully curated collection of books ranging from Irish poetry, Polish literature, French philosophy (of course) and books on all branches of theological thought. The collection is ever growing, with Florence now scouting internationally. Today he’s planning a trip to Mexico “just to pick up a few books.”
While Powell’s may be the city of books, Mother Foucault’s can be likened to a small Irish village, full of friendly and thoughtful folks there to help you find your way. Florence is ever present at the shop, but if he has to step away, there is always a clerk around to recommend a book or help you find what you’re looking for, or get into a discussion about existential literature, or the next letter-writing workshop.
What Florence has created in Portland is not far from what Sylvia Beach did in 1919 in Paris with the original Shakespeare and Company bookstore. She was a young woman from New Jersey who wanted the cultural center of Paris to have a place where they could feel at home with their ideas. She ended up hosting the likes of James Joyce, and being bold enough to publish the controversial Ulysses when no one else would touch it. Mother Foucault’s has been that sanctuary for many local writers in residence like Zachary Schomburg and Carl Adamschick, who have gone on to have their work published. Florence is a tangent to the entire community in the way he makes space for them to write, hold readings and circulate their books throughout the literary community here and to wider audiences around the country.
Readings and events are more and more frequent these days, especially on the weekends. There are rock shows now on the third Thursday of every month, with huge shelves of books behind the stage to absorb the sound. If you walk by the shop on any given Thursday, Friday or Saturday there is likely to be somebody reading at the podium on the small stage. On this Saturday, I hung around to hear the editors of Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute read from the book and go into some serious detail about the life of a sex worker in the early 1900s. Portland legend Walt Curtis arrived mid-show and offered some thoughts on the subject in his traditionally mellow way. Curtis was one of the first writers to read at Mother Foucault’s, and believes in how vital the shop is to the community. “It is the literary and intellectual center of Portland. A living room space with a human persona.”
For most people anymore, the constant influx of texts, emails and social media posts that demand an immediate response allows little time for everything else. The thought of sitting down and reading a book for a few hours would seem so absurd to the point of feeling guilty for it. It’s not, however, like stepping back in time or some kind of escapism. It’s following a certain ethic of living that has been largely forgotten about by the general public. The thing that struck me most when entering the doors of Foucault’s is the way that time seems to settle down for a while. Actually, it’s always 7:30 at Mother Foucault’s. The minute hand has seemed to have come to rest at the bottom of its swing, tired of its task of keeping time. Maybe that clock should never be fixed.