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2020 in review: Iconic bookstore weathers COVID-19, Courtney Barnett's love for words


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Michael Hill: And finally, we hear from Tom Casciato on some of the stories he worked on last year.

Hari Sreenivasan: Tom, as the pandemic set in, we started doing stories about how it was affecting businesses large and small, and you focused on a bookstore in Portland, tell us about it.

Tom Casciato: Yeah, Portland's my home town. and I think anybody who's been to Portland or lives in Portland knows how central Powell's Books is to the city. It's hard to talk about a store being a major cultural institution, but that's exactly what Powell's is.

Tom Casciato: For decades, the center of Portland's reading life has been Powell's bookstore. It takes up a whole city block, houses over a million volumes, new and used. It's even a tourist destination.

Samiya Bashir: You know, when people come to visit Portland, visiting Powell's is at the top of the list. You know, when you go to a city -- when you go to Paris, you want to see the Eiffel Tower. You go to Portland. you want to go to Powell's bookstore.

Tom Casciato: Samiya Bashir, a poet, and a professor at Portland's Reed College, says Powell's is special for readers, and for writers. Each year Powell's' 500-or-so readings draw an estimated 36,000 people … big numbers in bookstore world. The bestselling author Rick Moody say's there's nothing in the country like reading there.

Rick Moody: The first time I read there, I knew a tiny bit about it by reputation. And then I had that amazing experience of coming up Burnside and seeing the marquee.

Samiya Bashir: There's something about Powell's and something about that big marquee right in the middle of downtown that gives a bit of a kind of a Radio City Music Hall vibe to the authors that come through.

Tom Casciato: It became very scary when Covid hit and it looked like Powell's might close they're still hanging on now. They've closed a couple of Powell's locations in the city. they had one at Portland airport that's now closed. They had one devoted to books about home and gardening that is now closed. The main store is still open. I talked to one Portlander on the phone the other day who said it used to be that the biggest problem standing in line at this time of year was the long line to check out. Now that it's open with limited capacity, the biggest problem is the long line just to get into the store.

Hari Sreenivasan: Your informal beat, in a way, is music. you were able to profile an Australian singer. What drew you to Courtney?

Tom Casciato: Courtney Barnett is, I think, perhaps the greatest singer songwriter of her generation. I know that Taylor Swift fans won't like hearing that. I'm also confident that Taylor Swift fans don't care what I think anyway. But she has such a command of language, such a great presence.

Tom Casciato (to Courtney Barnett): Were you a word kid? were you a kid who loved words, and playing with words?

Courtney Barnett: Yeah, I loved reading.

Tom Casciato: Were you making up words then? You do make up words.

Courtney Barnett: Have I made up that many words? I don't think I have.

Tom Casciato: Well, you used emphysema as a verb: to "emphyseme"?

Courtney Barnett (singing):

My hands are shaky, my knees are weak
I can't seem to stand on my own two feet
I'm breathing but I'm wheezing, feel like I'm emphyseme-in'
My throat feels like a funnel filled with weet-bix, and kerosene.

Courtney Barnett: That's not making up. That's just -- that's being creative. (laughs)

Courtney Barnett (singing): I'd rather die than owe the hospital till I get old.

Tom Casciato: It just seemed like an ordinary profile of a singer. It was supposed to be on the air right in the middle of March, right around the time you and I and everybody else in the office left the office and went to work at home for these many months. And we waited weeks and weeks to put the piece on the air. and finally, there was just so much Covid news that was rightly taking up so much new space. We just decided to put it online. So I fear that fewer people saw that than I would have hoped. It does stream at, and it does stream on YouTube, and I hope maybe they will take a look at it now online.

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