Reading Frenzy in North Portland is a must-visit stop on any literary tour of the city. Part bookseller, part art gallery, host to lively and stimulating literary events that showcase celebrated local authors and illustrators, the store is a haven for book, graphic art, and zine connoisseurs. Here, the owner provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at her business and passion.
Chloe, how did you get into the book business?
Books and libraries have been my sanctuary and escape since I was little. I was a quirky, precocious, and often lonely kid growing up in a small, rural Oregon town. Books gave me a window to the outside world. The Central Library became my second home as a teenager. At eighteen, I discovered the world of zines and underground comics, which I became immersed in as a reader and contributor, and never really looked back. In my early twenties, I was a collective member at the now-defunct radical bookstore, Laughing Horse Books, and I also did a stint at the oldest used bookshop in Portland, Cameron’s Books. Those jobs gave me a basic overview of the book business. The impetus for opening Reading Frenzy was threefold: I wanted to provide an outlet for the kind of literature I was into, create a gathering place/trading post for local writers and self-publishers, and I needed to invent a job for myself that didn’t fill me with despair.
Your bookstore is sometimes described as an art gallery, with books as the art medium. What is your process for deciding which books to carry?
Reading Frenzy has always been a challenge to describe succinctly. Zine shop, comic shop, bookstore—nothing quite summed it up. I used to call it “An Independent Press Emporium” but that’s fallen by the wayside and now I just call it a bookshop. I have some basic criteria: independently published (with a few exceptions, especially in the kids’ section), books that are nicely designed and produced as well as having compelling content. I’m most interested in radical and outsider perspectives, self-taught artists, and writing by people who have lived the experience they’re writing about, rather than researched and/or observed.
Can you describe your relationships to your authors?
We’ve hosted nearly six hundred events and sold the work of thousands of indie, small-press, and self-published authors, so I’ve got lots of great stories. The most satisfying experience for me as a bookseller is putting the right book into the right hands. My favorite stories are the ones where in the course of simply doing my job, I helped someone find their voice, make an important discovery, take a leap, or believe in their work. I just learned that one of my favorite artists who we’ve been carrying for more than a decade was inspired to start self-publishing after visiting Reading Frenzy for the first time. I take very little credit for this, as it’s incidental to what I do, but it does make me feel good about what I do.
Can you describe your relationships to publishers? What are some of the highlights and frustrations of working with local, small, or independent publishers?
We’ve worked with a number of the same indie publishers for most or all of our existence. I’d say we’re mutually appreciative of each other’s efforts. Reading Frenzy has been through some serious rough patches in our twenty-year history. Nearly all our publishers have been supportive and willing to work through them with us; there are a few notable exceptions, which is unfortunate because if they had stuck by us, we’d both be selling more books now. But I don’t really have any consistent complaints, things go wrong, you deal with it. We’re pretty nimble.
What are some of your favorite Ooligan titles you carry or have carried?
I’m a big fan of Michael Munk’s The Portland Red Guide, and not just because a friend of mine miraculously identified me in a photograph among a sea of people at a protest against the first Gulf War! It’s so important that these stories of activism and resistance are preserved and passed down because history will pave over them if we don’t. We recently did a Veterans Day event with Sean Davis, author of The Wax Bullet War. After listening to the veterans share their stories, I realized they are also part of a marginalized group that needs to be heard from. They also reaffirmed my belief in the healing power of creative self-expression, specifically writing.
What’s the best-selling author or title you consistently carry?
That would have to be my friend Sean Tejaratchi’s publication, Crap Hound, that he started the same year we opened (1994) and I took over publishing in 2005. This year we’ve sold dozens of the locally published pamphlets How to Talk To Your Cat About Gun Safety and How to Talk to Your Cat About Evolution. Both This is Portland: The City You’ve Heard You Should Like by Alexander Barret and Sarah Mirk’s recently published Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules have been consistently selling out.
Reading Frenzy is located at 3628 N. Mississippi Ave, Portland, OR, 97227. Follow them on Twitter @rdngfrnzy, on Facebook, or sign up for the mailing list and shop online at Reading Frenzy.