I love talking books and I consider myself well-read enough to carry on an intelligent conversation about the same. Or, that is, I did until I struck up a conversation with Bob Portwood and found myself with almost nothing to contribute beyond “Wow.”
Bob is the owner of Robert’s Bookshop in Lincoln City, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this Labor Day weekend. On that three-day weekend, there will be random drawings, a contest and a 30-percent discount on everything for sale purchased with cash or a check.
The story of Robert’s begins on a summer day when Bob was running his own construction business. One day as he was flashing a chimney on a peaked roof, the ladder slipped out from under him, sending Bob on a journey that luckily ended just at the roof’s edge. He wasn’t hurt, but that memorable slide was an eye opener, indeed — one that suggested it might be wise to find a career that wouldn’t potentially be the death of him. So Bob, a lifelong avid reader, found a decrepit old building neighboring another bookstore and Robert’s Bookshop was born. When his friend and owner of the store next door died, her family sold Bob that building and he combined the two. It makes for quite the deceptively sized place.
“It’s about 6,000 to 7,000 square feet,” Bob told me. “We’re guessing there are 200,000 books in the store and that doesn’t count what is in storage.”
New customers are often quite surprised at the size, added Emily Portwood, store manager and Bob’s daughter.
“People come inside and think it is very small and there is usually that “Oh,” Emily said. “They say they didn’t expect a store this big in a town this small. When I send people to the self-help section, I say it’s in a converted kitchen. Once you are there you know you’re where you’re supposed to be.”
Or when Bob guides customers to the military section, he tells them, “It’s a block in that direction.” Later, they return to tell Bob, ‘You’re right, it was about a block.”’
In an era when bookstores seem to be closing left and right, an era that sees many readers heading to that cyberspace place Bob refers to only as the “big A,” it does a heart good to see a place like Robert’s thrive. He also owns Bob’s Beach Books, managed by his other daughter, Diana, just a bit up the highway in the Oceanlake neighborhood. Bob has a pretty good idea what makes Robert’s so successful.
“It’s a general bookstore,” he said, “and having a general store is a necessity, particularly in a small town.”
“We have everything,” added Emily.
In this case, “everything” includes sections on history, self-help, foreign language, the Holocaust and original illustration art (paintings used for the cover of books). There are children’s books, military books, books on women’s studies and, particularly Wow-worthy, books that are worth a small fortune.
“The most expensive one I sold was for $25,000,” Bob said. “It was a one-off, an illustrated book on Northern Africa. It was in French. I bought it with a collection. We have one book that was part of the Jefferson Davis library. There is a nice inscription inside saying how the owner’s brother was a forager for the Union Army and managed to track down where the Confederates were trying to hide the library. It is one of the earlier anti-slavery books. Jefferson Davis was not necessarily pro-slavery so much as he was pro-Confederacy. I put a price of about $10,000 on it which is probably four times what it is worth because I didn’t want to sell it. I had a fellow bring in a signed Winston Churchill. Another just brought in several first edition H.G. Wells. Those are pretty scarce.”
The Churchill and Wells are also not for sale, though Emily notes one day they might be.
“Some things we like to hold to for a while because they are just nice to have,” she said.
Some books are not super rare, but interesting nonetheless.
“I brought in a number of nonfiction military books. One was a history of the Doolittle Raids signed by eight members of the crew.”
As memorable as some of the books are, perhaps equally so are the people who have passed through Robert’s.
“You meet interesting people in a bookstore,” Bob said. “You never know who you are going to talk to.”
Robert’s Bookshop is located at 3412 SW Hwy. 101, in the Neslcott area of Lincoln City.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.