Every morning, Sundays excepted, a man and his dog stand outside of the pretty Spanish Renaissance Revival building at 216 NE Knott, waiting for the doors to open at 10:00. Originally a library designed by Ellis Lawrence in 1912, it now houses Title Wave, one of the most unique bookshops in Portland, where the videos, DVDs, music CDs and books retired from the Multnomah County Library (MCL) system are sold.
The man on the front porch, rain or shine, is Fred Nemo, artist, activist and archivist of dissident literature, and he is waiting to have a first look at the morning’s new inventory.
The dog, Betty, a white-and-tan pointer-terrier mix, waits outside while Fred shops. “They sell beefsticks at the counter and I always bring her one,” Fred says. In fact, they also sell coffee, tea, soft drinks and assorted sweet and savory snacks, but it’s the beefsticks Betty likes best.
What Fred likes best is the absolute surprise of what could show up on the truck – the wheeled cart volunteers use to shelve books – though l ike Betty, his taste is specific: 20th century literature, especially poetry, was his greatest interest when he first began his visits ten years ago. In the last decade Fred has bought six or seven thousand books from Title Wave, and his shopping has expanded to include art criticism, photography, blues and jazz.
“I am interested in the quality of the literature and the art,” Fred insists. How important is the condition of a book? “Zilch!” Fred shoots back. On this subject, he points out that serious collectors are uninterested in retired library books, because of the library markings and the usage. “I think they are more interesting because Multnomah County readers have enjoyed them,” he says with amiable defiance.
Title Wave staff are fond of Fred and also of Betty, whom they might slip outdoors to pet. One or two of them – Fred refuses to name names – will even let Betty get as far as the tiny vestibule on a wet or snowy day, especially if supervisor Rod Richards is gone. Not that Rod is a heartless man; but his job, as the only paid staffer, is precisely to bring order to a project that is a labor of love for the dozens of volunteers who have run Title Wave since it first opened, in 1988.
Rod, whose list of jobs reads like the back of a book jacket – lumber mill, bakery, bookstore, baseball cards, cook, plus a stint in the Navy – has a degree in advertising and marketing. He started with MCL as a clerk at the Woodstock branch in 1998 and moved over to Title Wave as supervisor in 2001. Here he delights in working with the volunteers. “The oldest is now 82, the youngest would be my son, David, 18, who works here on an occasional basis. Eight people have been here ever since Title Wave first opened.”
At any given time, there are usually four or five people in the rear workroom, along with a couple of cashiers on the floor. In the back, volunteers will begin by unloading a bin of incoming books and check them for damage. Since everything that is withdraw from MCL is funneled through Title Wave, they must decide whether an item is in good enough condition to be resold or whether it gets recycled.
Rod Richards keeps a special bin – he’s not sure what to call it – of too fascinating to let go of. He sifts through it: a CD fractured into maybe 15 pieces and painstakingly scotch taped back together; a dog-chewed Bill Gates biography; a book on polygamy densely annotated in ink; a Harry Potter book duct taped together on all four sides; a melted plastic VHS cover; books with tire tracks and one with a circular burn mark the shape of an electric stove burner. A copy of Binge Eating actually has some bites out of it. “Maybe I should call it the box of Why-Did-They- Ever-Bother-to-Even-Turn-it-In,” Rod says.
But most items make it to the next stage: volunteers stamp the front page PURCHASED FROM / Multnomah County Library / Title Wave Bookstore, and sort the books into sections by Dewey Decimal number for the pricing volunteers.
The week of the interview, volunteers went through 75 incoming crates of books. Rod estimates that there are about 20,000 titles for sale at any given time, with overstock in the workroom and unsorted bins on the dock and in storage.
“I have 68 volunteers and need ten or twelve more,” Rod says. Volunteers work as little or as often as they wish: once a month, three times a week or anything in between. Rod is interested in recruiting people of all ages and is sensitive to differences in what someone might consider an ideal assignment. “Some people like to do the exact same thing, day in and day out,” he points out. “Others want variety.”
One interesting assignment is pricing. Six or eight volunteers price within specialty areas, determining whether a book will be marked at 20%, 25% or 33% of retail price. Even at these prices, Title Wave sales put nearly a quarter of a million dollars back into the library system last year.
Four times a year, Title Wave has a big 55%-off sale, and regulars pretty much know the dates: the anniversary sale on March 26; the ginoumous sale, always on a Saturday in July; Rod’s birthday, September 13; and customer appreciation day on Thanksgiving Friday. In order to keep inventory rotating, Rod recycles any item that goes through two of these big sales without a buyer.
Title Wave attracts buyers from all over the county and beyond. “We have a doctor from Lake Oswego who comes every Wednesday and Saturday. He drives his red Corvette over here and loads it up with science books and sometimes it’s hard for him to get back into the car, it’s so full,” Rod marvels. “And we have at least two patrons who have had to build additional rooms!”
Rod is aware of how much these books can help a cash-shy school system. “Next week I have three classes of fifth graders coming from Duniway school,” he points out. “And one elementary school teacher told me she got a sub and took the day off to come to my birthday sale this year.”
Melissa Marsland is one of the many teachers who haunt Title Wave. “In 2001, when I began teaching at Cleveland High School, I started buying Spanish books and audio cassettes and videos for the classroom,” Melissa says. These purchases – she estimates maybe 250 items over her first five years of teaching – came out of her own pocket. “At Cleveland we each got a $75 allowance and I used it on supplies.” As of this school year, she’s at Roosevelt High School, teaching Spanish and helping other teachers use the arts across the curriculum. The most ethnically diverse school in the Portland Public School system, Roosevelt serves students who come from homes representing 20 different languages. Fortunately, Melissa brought her Spanish language resources with her, since there is not even the customary $75 available. “At Roosevelt, we get nothing.”
To her interview, Melissa brought six of her favorite Title Wave treasures, three in English (including Mexican Papercutting: Simple Techniques for Creating Colorful Cut-Paper Projects) and three in Spanish (Los cuadernos de Juan Rulfo, a 1996 paperback from Mexico with plates showing the handwriting of Mexico’s beloved novelist; the copiously illustrated Veinte años de Comic; and the hefty Reader’s Digest Spanish edition of the Illustrated Atlas of World History).
“Usually my limit is around eight dollars,” Melissa says. “Most of my best books I didn’t get at the sale because you can’t count on them still being there.” But of course she still goes to the sales. “Once I was there waiting to get in at 8:00 in the morning on a sale day.
“I love that it’s like a scavenger hunt. You never know what you’re going to find. You can’t go in there with a set idea of what you want; it’s all about happenstance.
“But I feel sometimes that somebody is not paying attention to the long-term historical value of the works they get rid of.” She points to Contemporary Mexican Artists, a 1937 volume by Agustín Velásquez Chávez that contains thumbnail biographies of 25 artists, along with 100 full-page b&w reproductions.
“Or I feel like a thief, like I’ve just gotten something that is way too good.” By way of illustration, she lovingly opens one of the books she’s brought, The Bazaar: Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World (London, 1994). “The pictures capture a lot of individual aspects of markets. I love the fact that the maps also show trade routes and how those routes connect and integrate cultures, how holy places connect with markets. There’s a glossary and a chronological table and separate chapters on craftsmen working in metal, glass, wood, leather.”
To ease her anxiety, we went online and, sure enough, MCL still has three copies of this book in their system.
“We aren’t looking to have everything, everywhere,” says Ty Thompson, Assistant Manager for Collections and Technical Services, “just that it be somewhere in the system.” Ty is head of the team that visits the branches – each month a different ranch – and, working in concert with branch staff, tries to weed the collection according to the guidelines developed for removal.
“The choices are to keep the book, remove the book, or replace the book,” Ty says. “The goal being to keep each branch’s collection fresh, current and appealing. Not so crowded on the shelf that it’s a chore just to pull out a book.”
The guidelines sound easy but quickly get complex. “Let’s say nonfiction,” Ty explains. “If it’s older than a certain date and it’s no longer useful, maybe new information has come out, we get rid of it. But if it’s Northwest history or another field like that where the date doesn’t matter, we keep it. Also, something we can’t update or replace, we keep.”
I asked about neglected classics, say a Goethe novella in English that no one has checked out for ten years. “We’d probably keep that at Central,” Ty replies. (In fact, Central does have two copies of Goethe’s novellas, and one is checked out.)
Title Wave customer Lulu Green spends not one minute worrying about the policies of what is or is not withdrawn. “I just want to go there more often than we do,” she says with mild impatience. “I like getting books cause I like reading,” explains Lulu, who is nine and a fourth grader at Winterhaven.
In fact, Lulu’s appetite for books is so enormous that her family has had to devise a system to keep her supplied: Lulu and her mother go online to choose books from MCL and her father picks up her choices at Central on his way home from work.
On her most recent visit to Title Wave, which is five blocks from her house, Lulu selected the Random House Book of Ghost Stories, a lavishly illustrated hardcover that she was thinking to read to her sister Francie, who is four. “Francie says she’s going to read a book,” Lulu explains, “but she just looks at the pictures.”
After a moment, Lulu confides that she did not read until she was five and a half. “Before that,” Lulu recalls, “I’d pretend to read. I’d tell my stuffed animals, ‘This is Japanese,’ and I’d just make up a language.’”
But Fred Nemo shares Melissa Marsland’s worry that his good luck may be the system’s loss. A fan of Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr series when he was a kid, his taste ran to science fiction for many years, until he discovered Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel, We, a model for both Huxley and Orwell. “That launched me into Soviet dissident literature,” says Fred, who is inclined to choose, as his greatest Title Wave treasure, a ten-pound volume of Samizdat art and writings, entirely in Russian.
Now who could ever get rid of that?
Title Wave is open from 10:00 to 4:00, Monday through Saturday. And lest you worry that the Lulus and Melissas and Freds of the city are buying up all the best books, consider this: if the book is already in their collection you only need wait for it to come through again. And it will.
While you’re waiting, you might consider becoming a volunteer, which gives you an inside edge. As Rod Richards likes to say, “This could be the most expensive volunteer opportunity you ever had.” To volunteer, phone 988-5461 or 988-5731.
Portland writer Martha Gies teaches at Marylhurst University and at a summer writing workshop in Veracruz. The last book she bought from Title Wave was A Taste of Old Cuba, which has a wonderful recipe for the very same carne con papas that the boy uses to revive the old fisherman in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.