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Paradise Tossed

Remembering the greatest bookstore on earth.

By 8.13.03

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After he graduated from high school, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk moved to the Rose City from his small Eastern Washington hometown. He explains in the new guidebook Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon that he chose this location in order to leave the past well behind. All of Palahniuk's friends were either sticking around or moving to Seattle, so Portland looked like a place where he could start over -- make new friends and a new life from scratch.

As I surveyed the list of haunts (sometimes literally; one chapter was about places where apparitions are known to appear) that Palahniuk threw together so that visitors can get a taste of the non tourist trap aspects of Portland, I grew more and more excited. Was it possible that the greatest living apocalyptic lapsed Catholic novelist, with his finger on the pulse of all that is cool, could have slipped up? Had he really written a whole book about Portland without mentioning the booklover's Eighth Wonder of the World?

Admittedly, the label is my own designation, but the readers who frequented Fritzler's Books are likely to agree. Located for years in northeast Portland, on the intersection of 33rd and Killingsworth, the place was never easy on the eyes or the olfactory sense. The dust mingled with the must of old books to send people with allergies away in coughing and sneezing fits. It was in a rough enough part of town (near my home from years one to six) that most literate Portlanders gave it a pass.

But the books! Granted, there were the normal shelves of literature and sci fi and such, just as in any other bookstore. The aisles, the back room, and the hallways were also packed with new shipments that arrived throughout the week. Owner Ken Fritzler would heap more and more boxes, attempt to process them on the weekends, and usually fail.

So: Customers were always awash in a sea of books. This discouraged many but inspired an odd cast, including yours truly, to wade right in. Occasionally, from the recesses of the store, someone would unleash a tidal wave of print and we would all stop digging until we heard the usual yell: "I'm OK!" When our arms tired of treading, we would stop to smoke or bicker about local goings on or tell stories or argue about whatever came to mind.

Fritzler would often get a phone call and take off for half an hour, with the final words "nobody take anything," and, the hell of it is, while I was in the shop nobody ever did. It's conceivable that somebody snuck out with a book under his shirt, but if the shoplifter had been obvious about it, he would not have made it out the door on two legs. The regulars would have tackled and hogtied him, and called the cops.

A good deal of this fanaticism was due to self-interest: We knew a bargain when we saw one and they simply did not come any better than Fritzler's. For years the shop got overstock from Powell's, essentially for the cost of carting off the books. Fritzler would purchase private collections, skim off a few choice volumes, and dump the rest in the store. He also bought overstock from thrift stores for pennies apiece, and sold the books to customers for not all that much more.

Hardcovers were a dollar, at most. A whole box of books was between five and 15 bucks. If you knew what you were doing that box would net you $100 or more when you shopped it around to other used bookstores. And you would lard that box with a few titles that caught your fancy, because, at those prices, how could you not? Among the gems that I discovered over the years were Henry Van Dyke's The Story of the Other Wise Man, Joe Heller's God Knows, Walker Percy's Lancelot, Stephen Fry's The Liar, the novels of Geoffrey Household, and Harold Bloom's The American Religion. As I prepared to go to Portland for my quasi-annual trip, I wondered how in the world Chuck Palahniuk could have missed this.

I saw the answer last Friday. The storefront where the shop used to be is now filled by a carpet business or some such. Dumbfounded, I drove to Fritzler's home and by chance I caught him coming in. He said that with the relocation of a few years ago (the old landlord kicked them out and they had to move several blocks away) and the truly goshawful turn that the Portland economy has taken in the past year, they couldn't afford to keep it going.

Such is life, I suppose: Businesses, like the seasons, come and go. But it feels like something more was lost here. As I kid, I thought that the laws of space and time must have been suspended to shoehorn so many books into such a small space. It was like my own designer Paradise. Thanks in large part to Fritzler's, I became not just a reader but a lover of books -- a debt that I'll never be quite sure how to repay.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.