The first time I ever visited Portland, Oregon, it was just a hair over twenty years ago—I was helping friends move up there, and got to hang around the town for more than a week. I think my friends were hoping if I hung out long enough, I’d just flat-out decide to move up there, too.
Comparing Portland then to now is a bit like comparing the Internet of then to now: it was the same thing, but perhaps less convenience, more of a frontier feeling in that you could make it what you wanted as long as you toughed it out. But maybe that has as much to do with who I was twenty years ago, as opposed to who I am now? I’m much happier, much more comfortable in my skin, so maybe it seems only natural that Portland reflects that.
Nonetheless, it’s a pretty amazing place to visit, and Edi and I had an amazing time. I wanted to give you guys a comprehensive snapshot of all the great comic book stuff in this town, but unfortunately you’re only going to get a slender piece, a hind end, because even after all these years, Portland is still bigger (and smaller) than I can wrap my brain around.
PART I: GOLDEN AGE COLLECTABLES (SEATTLE)
Eh, not the best, leading off with an introductory section about Portland, and then leading you right into Seattle but Portlanders are probably used to that kind of treatment.
Edi and I got into Portland and decided it’d be a good idea to go up to Seattle for a day trip. We’d spent two nights there a couple years back and really enjoyed it, and our memories were we could see most of the stuff we’d enjoyed in a long afternoon. This was a total and complete misapprehension, and having to drive up in a crazy rainstorm only seemed to underline that fact.
Anyway, this is Golden Age Collectables, on one of the lower floors of the Pike Place Marketplace. I used to be a little apprehensive about stores located in high-profile tourist areas: rent is high, which can lead to really conservative purchasing habits on the part of the owner, and an abundance of high-end merch.
And while Golden Age Collectables has more than its share of the latter (yes, that is a full-size cardboard Groot for sale), my casual eyeballing of it showed a ton of comics on site, with a wider variation than you might expect (although, yeah, a ton of swag):
I suspect that GAC is one of those destination stops, the kind of “if you can get to only one store…” places, and they take that responsibility pretty seriously, with a lot of trade paperbacks:
(Also, I should apologize now for how blurry some of these dang photos turned out: clearly, I need a new prescription for my glasses….although my phone’s auto-focusing abilities seem particularly crappy?)
I didn’t pick up anything (although there was a sale set of Queen & Country comics I was pretty tempted by) but if I’d visited when I’d been in the depths of my merch madness phase, I might have dropped a lot of money here. (In fact, if I had been here the day the Kirby settlement was announced, I might have gotten more than a few of those Cap glassess).
Seattle bonus: check out these “Captain Seattle” covers, spotted in the window of a different shop in Pike’s Place:
This person had the ’70s Neal Adams aesthetic down, which you can see even more clearly in the photos from this PA forum post. If you’re the sort excited by ’70s Adams and topical Seattle references, this stuff has got to be some kind of sexual dynamite.
Part II: Future Dreams (Portland)
Ah, yes. Remember that one-two punch mentioned above? Nothing quite quickens one’s hopes quite like a comic book store logo on corrugated aluminum siding… Although Future Dreams may not have been one of the comic stores I visited my first time in Portland, it feels like it should’ve been around then, and pretty much in exactly the condition it is now, which is to say:
Look, I am aware of—and mostly agree with—the argument that comic book stores need to escape the cliché of the bunker-like basement where an unclear organizational structure and an overabundance of inventory makes the shopping experience daunting (if not downright unwelcoming) for newcomers.
But as a guy who has been reading comics for more than four decades, this kind of environment is entirely comfortable to me. In fact, it’s more than a little inviting.
To the extent comic book reading carries with it a complex experience of time—not just the salve of nostalgia, but also a banishment of time altogether in one’s page-turning absorption, or in the discovery or re-discovery of comics from before the reader ever came into existence—the windowless, clockless comic book bunker is a variation on this experience: ideally, you come here without anything else on the schedule, you and your wallet and your checklist of titles and issues, and you just dig in.
Further, I should point out that the owner—or, let me be clear, the guy I assume is the owner considering he’s the only person I’ve ever seen behind the counter—is soft-spoken, approachable, friendly, and patient. Assuming he’s that way with female customers too (honestly, I’ve visited this store maybe half a dozen times over the years, and I’ve never seen another customer), then there is none of the uncomfortable clubhouse/kingdom stuff I think is even worse for comic book shops. I’d hate it if he thought I was dissing him or his store. I always love my visits here.
And I bought a bunch of old Star Brand comics (practically the entire Jim Shooter run) for just a little over a ten-spot.
But it would be dishonest to act like this kind of shop is for everybody. But I’ll admit it, I don’t want this store to disappear. In a healthier comic marketplace, it would be just one of several options for comic shoppers…just like it is here in Portland.
Part III: Floating World Comics (Portland)
I had such a fun time at Floating World Comics, I forgot to take pictures. Of the shops I visited, they were the only ones that had the Humanoids edition of Barbarella out for display, and their selection of indie stuff is pretty much flawless.
Any shop with Copra: Round One right by the register is going to get a lot of love—but no photos?—from me. So instead here’s a photo of the Judge Dredd pinball game from 1993, which I played at nearby Ground Control. In fact, between that and the Dr. Who pinball game also onsite, Anglophile pinball junkies would probably love this place.
But, yeah. Floating World. Go there.
Part IV: Excalibur Comics (Portland)
Luckily enough, Excalibur Comics is the very first comic book store I visited in Portland is the one closest to Graeme, so I’ve been fortunate to see it change over twenty years (with an admittedly very large gap of about 15+ years in the middle). This, for example, is their “new” sign, which, along with the “new” external paint job, I think looks pretty darned great. That said, I’m so glad they kept the cartoon duck pulling the sword from the stone, which you can see below:
That duck is a great connection to an earlier era of comic shops, an unofficial mascot. I don’t know if you clicked through on the earlier link, but the Golden Age Collectables web page has a very Bobby London-esque duck on their logo. The Underground movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, plus Howard The Duck and Frank Brunner’s assorted spin-offs plus Carl Barks and the huge popularity of Donald Duck overseas gives this particular kind of cartoon duck an almost iconic form of shorthand. It’s a way of saying there’s more than just superhero books here.
Excalibur has a lot of square footage, which is great because it’s very much an old school comic store where the back issue collection is the dominant factor. Fortunately, because of the extensive real estate, there’s also long racks for all of the new issues to be displayed cover out, and long walls of shelves holding a ton of trades.
Fortunately, you don’t have to fully take my word for it since Edi was kindly enough to snap a picture of me in action (I’m trying to fill the holes in that Star Brand collection I started at Future Dreams). Although it’s been around since 1974, like Golden Age Collectables, Excalibur has done a good job keeping itself current with comic book shop trends—it’s very well-lit and has a broad selection. Unlike GAC, Excalibur isn’t much of a merch store: it’s about the comics. Not even the graphic novels and trades, mind you: the comics.
For that reason, it may not be a perfect comic shop for beginners and neophytes, maybe? But it’s absolutely another great shop, and probably a fantastic shop for when someone makes the transition from neophyte comic fan to hardcore fiend.
(I bought another six or seven issues of Star Brand here, with the idea of making two sets for Graeme & I to read and discuss.)
Portland bonus: also in the neighborhood is a Blue Star Donuts. People talk a lot about Voodoo Doughnuts, a super-popular Portland chain that specializes in crazily excessive doughnuts (vanilla frosting with fruit loops, bacon maple bars), but I’ve always found them wayyyyyyy better in theory than practice. (Interestingly enough, this visit I went there and had a really good apple fritter after being advised by someone in the know to stick with their more basic models.)
But, yeah, Blue Star is amazing, especially if you like a more artisanal-type doughnut like the ones in the pic. Unfortunately, I cut off the sign for it, but I had the hard apple cider fritter and it blew the other apple fritter out of the water. Exceptionally good doughnuts.
Part V: Bridge City Comics
One of the great things about Portland is that it has a ton of nicknames. Rose City. Stumptown. Rip City. And Bridge City.
Bridge City Comics strikes me as the new kid on the block, and I suppose it is from the viewpoint of this survey, but it’s been around since 2005. Still, I think in just a few pictures, you can see the difference between it and the other shops I covered:
I’ve talked about the other stores being well-lit and inviting, but it’s hard to top this kind of bright and airy look. The day I came in, Merrick Monroe was behind the counter and she was helpful and approachable (even before it became apparent that she and I both knew Graeme). After a certain amount of dithering, I picked up the first issue of the new Stumptown mini here because that felt like the right thing to do. (Although arguably it’s a little too-on-the-nose? Plus, it turns out I already bought the issue a few weeks ago, dammit.)
The store isn’t entirely without merch but it’s well-integrated, and the overall emphasis is still on books and trades:
In short, it’s probably a classic example of what people want from a 21st Century comic book shop: colorful, approachable, filled with a good range of material, including stuff from the new mainstream. I tend to worry about these kinds of stores because it’s tough to hit the right balance of keeping things open and inviting but also retaining a deep enough stock to keep the store fresh (and profitable).
It looks like they’re making it work for them, though, and I hope the marketplace continues to expand in this direction…especially as long as that marketplace continues to fit in the other types of stores mentioned above. I thought I was pretty spoiled here in San Francisco, but having this kind of variety in just one city is something I hope every comic book fan gets a chance to experience.
As somebody who is going to be traveling through Portland and Seattle in a couple of months, mainly to check out the local comic shops, I found this post ridiculously useful. Thanks Jeff!
Oh, excellent! That makes this post a big win in my book, Bob. Don’t let my lack of Floating World photos keep you from it, and if you have any love at all for pinball, doughnuts, or waffles, do consider Ground Control, Blue Star, and the Waffle Window. They’re all tremendous.
Oh yeah, after listening to you guys rhapsodize about the Waffle Window for the past couple of years, that’s a definite.
Bob – as an Antipodean who went through both cities comic shops last year, I strongly recommend adding Cosmic Monkey Comics in Portland (allow a couple of hours each here and Floating World), and in Seattle: Zanadu in the CBD, Fantagraphics Bookstore in Georgetown (a long way out by public transport, but you’re likely to get served by the IRL Leonard “Stinky” Brown), and Arcane in Ballard, if you’re on that side of the bridge.
(There’s one on Capitol Hill that seems a pleasant new-release environment, but not much of a visitor’s shopping destination. However, it’s right next door to Dicks, and you’re going to want to visit Dicks, so.)
Thanks for the additional recommendations, Kit I’ll try those when I get back up there (though it might be a while before I hit Seattle again).
AWESOME, I’m headed to Portland this week! Waffle Window was already on the list, but it looks like I’ll have to leave some luggage space for the trip home. Thanks!
Oh, definitely: and if you didn’t have Powell’s Books on your original list, add it (and then double that available luggage space).