Cameron's Books has been operating for more than 80 years. The pandemic and protests have reduced downtown foot traffic by 82% and the owner can no longer pay the rent.
Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Business

Cameron’s Books closes as downtown Portland businesses hope for recovery

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
April 23, 2021 1 p.m.

Cameron’s Books in downtown Portland is scheduled to close Friday after 83 years in business. It’s a sign of the economic times, and sad news for people who relied on the shop for old magazines and books.

“I felt really bad,” said Liz Nakazawa, who first found Cameron’s when she arrived in Portland in 1978. “It’s just sad that downtown is collapsing in some ways.”

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Cameron’s, on the corner of Southwest 3rd Avenue and Harvey Milk Street, is a slice of old Portland. For a few dollars, customers can buy a copy of Life magazine from the year they were born or an out-of-print tome they thought had disappeared.

Will Fairchild works behind the till and says the shop’s collection of old magazines, like Sports Illustrated, is second to none.

“A lady came in; she gave me the month for her nephew, a big Blazers fan. Well, I went up and got the magazine and Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were on the cover,” he said. “She was like, ‘My nephew is going to love this.’”

In these days of Google searches and Amazon Prime delivery, Cameron’s feels old-fashioned. There are calendars on the wall from 1942 and memorabilia from the Kennedy Administration. But it is the sort of one-of-a-kind store that differentiates a shopping trip downtown from a visit to a big box chain or suburban mall.

“It just reminds you of times from your life,” Fairchild said. “You see Time magazine from Watergate or the Iran hostage crisis or 9/11. It brings back memories from your life.

“... This is a like a time capsule right here in Portland of all the things that have happened.”

Just a few months after Crystal Zingsheim bought Cameron's Books, the downtown Portland economy was hit with everything from the pandemic to protests.

Just a few months after Crystal Zingsheim bought Cameron's Books, the downtown Portland economy was hit with everything from the pandemic to protests.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB




Cameron’s has never enjoyed the popularity of somewhere like Powell’s City of Books, just a few blocks away. But owner Crystal Zingsheim said Oregonians who know Cameron’s have a soft spot for the place.

Still, nostalgia does not pay the bills.

“Revenue’s been down like 90%,” she said. “The whole world has been in crisis mode.”

Zingsheim said she hasn’t managed to completely pay the rent and is being evicted. OPB reached out to JDSY 3RD STREET LLC, the business that owns the building, but registered agent, Michael Gottlieb, said he could not speak on the matter.

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Zingsheim started working at Cameron’s in 2002, when she was 17, after learning the joy of rare books from her father — and persuading the then-owner to sell books online. In 2019, Zingsheim bought the store by raising more than $30,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. The prior owner was threatening to shut the shop.

Zingsheim thinks of herself as a matchmaker; she’s matching customers with hidden treasures they didn’t know they were even seeking.

But her timing could not have been worse. Within a few months of buying Cameron’s, the pandemic hit and protests for racial justice began. She’s been unable to meet the rent. And, like a lot of downtown store owners, she’s seen an uptick in vandalism and crime.

“That’s why I built gates a few years ago, it’s because you just keep getting assaulted,” she said..

Store owners will tell you that worries about downtown crime keep some shoppers away, as do the visible signs of Portland’s struggles with homelessness.

The latest pedestrian count for downtown shows foot traffic has dropped 82% since the pandemic started. So it’s not just Cameron’s struggling.

Kitty corner to the bookstore, Huber’s Café has survived two world wars, the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression. Vice president David Louie says the restaurant, first opened in 1879, is hanging on, waiting for things to open up. But his windows are still boarded up.

“We’re afraid to take it down because we don’t want to have our windows broken,” he said.

But in the same breath, Louie said he has seen a few green shoots in Portland’s economic ecosystem recently, like more people shopping downtown and taking advantage of spring weather to eat outside.

Brad Popick with the Portland Outdoor Store says he's seeing some green shoots in the economy, “The last month and a half, we’ve started to see a little more input ... . I think there’s that ray of hope that people are thinking it’s almost over. But it’s this fluctuation of on-and-off and on-and-off that is really kind of disconcerting to a lot of people.”

Brad Popick with the Portland Outdoor Store says he's seeing some green shoots in the economy, “The last month and a half, we’ve started to see a little more input ... . I think there’s that ray of hope that people are thinking it’s almost over. But it’s this fluctuation of on-and-off and on-and-off that is really kind of disconcerting to a lot of people.”

Kristian Foden-Vencil, Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Brad Popick, e president of the Portland Outdoor Store nearby, agrees.

“The last month and a half, we’ve started to see a little more input,” he said. “... I think there’s that ray of hope that people are thinking it’s almost over. But it’s this fluctuation of on-and-off and on-and-off that is really kind of disconcerting to a lot of people.”

Amy Lewin, with the Portland Business Alliance, said Cameron’s is a real loss for Portland. But she also points to signs of a recovery.

“The more vaccines we get into people’s arms, the more confidence we will have about getting out and being in our communities,” she said. “And you can see that right now.”

The National Retail Federation reported sales gains of 18% in March, as some Americans used their stimulus checks on purchases.

That’s one step in the recovery. Now, downtown businesses are waiting for at least some of the 110,000 people who used to commute to Portland for work to start coming back. Nobody knows when or if the commuters — or the tourists whose business fuels numerous small businesses downtown — come back.

It’s already too late for Cameron’s, which closes Friday. The owner says she has a week to remove several tons of books and is still figuring out where to put them all.

Cameron's Books was known for its collection of old magazines, from Popular Mechanics to Life and Time.

Cameron's Books was known for its collection of old magazines, from Popular Mechanics to Life and Time.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

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Tags: Portland