As its name suggests, Mother Foucault’s is not a typical bookshop. Or rather, it might’ve been a typical bookshop in, say, early-20th-century Paris. Thousands of used books weigh down teeming shelves, while hundreds more are stacked waist-high on tables, desks, upholstered chairs, the floor—everywhere. An upright piano stands in one corner, also burdened with heaps of books. The news program Democracy Now! plays quietly from a small vintage radio as Walt Curtis, the “unofficial poet laureate of Portland,” rhapsodizes nonstop about poetry while sharing a bottle of red wine with the shop owner, Craig Florence, who will likely offer you a glass as well. Mother Foucault’s, in other words, is a bibliophile’s paradise.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Florence, who grew up in Portland, worked at Shakespeare and Company for a spell in the 1990s, and Mother Foucault’s is in many respects a tribute to the iconic Left Bank bookstore and its storied past as a mecca for expat writers. Only instead of encountering Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Baldwin, you’ll find local literati holding court. Florence opened the Southeast Portland shop in 2010, in a former tattoo parlor, and soon expanded into the neighboring space, installing a rare-book room, a book-lined catwalk, and a small stage for author readings. Everything from the shelves to the molding to the banisters was built with reclaimed wood from a local nonprofit.
Though every category is represented, the shop skews toward literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, and criticism. Of note: Mother Foucault’s shelves various languages side by side, so if you’re looking for an Italian or German translation of For Whom the Bell Tolls, you’ll find it next to the English version. But don’t reach for your phone to look up which edition to buy. Signs throughout the store warn shoppers that “the use of mobile phones is prohibited.” The 45-year-old Florence is something of a Luddite. He doesn’t use the internet, he doesn’t own a smartphone, and the bookstore has only a limited web presence. Mother Foucault’s is a community space—a place for conversation and contemplation. You won’t see any laptops here. Don’t even ask about the Wi-Fi.
In the pre-pandemic days, Mother Foucault’s hosted readings and other events, with dozens of attendees crammed shoulder to shoulder, sipping from paper cups of wine or cans of cheap beer. Florence hopes to return to hosting events soon, but first he has to do something about the piles of books that have since accumulated on every conceivable surface. He is, he admits, “drowning in books.” Visitors shouldn’t expect a quick and easy shopping experience, but that’s entirely the point. Mother Foucault’s is a place to spend an entire afternoon, either browsing the shelves, digging through the random stacks of books, or just having a seat in a cozy chair, cracking open a well-loved paperback, and sharing a long conversation (and maybe a bottle) with a friend.•
Mother Foucault’s Bookshop
523 SE Morrison St., Portland, motherfoucaultsbookshop.com
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