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In a wide wired world people still want books

• At Great Northwest Books, Phil Wikelund unloads old inventory the modern way

Great Northwest Bookstore owner Phil Wikelund holds up a page of Langston Hughes' children's book 'The Sweet and Sour Animal Book' to a ceiling light in his store.

The veteran used-book merchant's eyes squint as he reads what he describes as 'a sweet note to somebody written by somebody else.'

'One's curiosity is always aroused by previous ownership,' the soft-spoken and reflective Wikelund says.

For more than 25 years, this has been Wikelund's world ÑÊtracking down literary heirlooms, appraising rare book collections around the country and biding his time as curiosity seekers, fresh from a hearty lunch next door at Jake's Famous Crawfish, dart out of the rain and into his store to pore over an inventory of Western U.S. and Pacific Northwest history.

Then there are regular customers like William Lang, a Portland State University history professor and Pacific Northwest history specialist, who often comes to search for exploration literature or classic texts in Pacific Northwest studies that other bookstores, including Powell's City of Books, might not carry.

Powell's, with its million or so volumes, miles of aisles and reputation as the largest bookstore in North America, is Mount Everest to Great Northwest's anthill, with its 150,000 books and 6,000 square feet of shelf space.

But Wikelund, 57, said he views Powell's less as competition than as another ardent admirer of the printed word.

'There are times when you have to battle with somebody to purchase books,' he said. 'They have a lot of clout, and they have means of purchasing books I am not aware of, but I have a love of the (book-buying and book-selling) process that precludes worrying too much what someone else has.'

Instead, the Bloomington, Ind., native tries to focus on his own business, whose yearly sales, he says, approach $1 million.

One reason Wikelund may not worry about Powell's all that much is because its proximity has been beneficial ÑÊsome of its spillover business comes to Wikelund.

'Sometimes locating a store close to another, larger competitor can have some advantages, like built-in traffic,' says Thom Chambliss, Eugene-based executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

A childhood steeped in words

Wikelund's father was an English professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, his mother an editor at Indiana University Press. Wikelund remembers as a boy eagerly plowing through buckets of books his father regularly dropped off in his bedroom.

While he's been steeped in books all his life, Wikelund didn't get into the book business until 1977, when the financial failure of a Portland area book wholesaler provided him the opportunity to acquire some 100,000 books for a paltry $6,900. Working with several business partners, he bought what was then Adrian's Bookstore on Southwest Ninth Avenue in downtown Portland and changed its name to Great Northwest Bookstore.

Wikelund moved the store to its present location, at 1234 S.W. Stark St., in 1990.

While the store's physical appearance has changed little since then, much has changed in the way Wikelund acquires and sells the works on his shelves.

Before starting a Web site seven years ago, about 80 percent of Wikelund's sales were to walk-in customers. Now, they only account for about 20 percent of sales; the rest comes from Internet and catalog orders.

Great Northwest also has a partnership arrangement with Amazon.com Ñ as many bookstores do Ñ to sell books through its online Web site for a small fee. Wikelund pays the Seattle-based online giant $50 a month plus about 15 percent of his take on any sales he generates that way.

Sellers come forward

The current stressed economic climate, to some extent, is working to Wikelund's advantage because many more cash-strapped people are unloading books to get grocery money.

'More good stuff turns up in hard times,' he notes.

Some sellers, he says, will try to inflate the value of their collections by using the 'R' word, as in 'rare.' Wikelund knows this routine well.

'When you look on the Internet and see 20, 50 (or) 100 copies of something that is called 'scarce' or 'rare,' you realize that might not be the exact expression,' he says. 'People can now shop competitively, and so you have to sell competitively.'

Wikelund laments the pre-Internet days when there were more discoveries of rare finds.

'In the good old days, it was more of an 'aha' experience,' he says. 'But now, if you search on the Net, there is probably a 90-something percentile likelihood that you will find it.'

The Internet has made pricing used books far less of an art and more of a science than it used to be, Wikelund firmly believes. He says that before online book sales, an owner's experience brought an intuitive sense of the right price both on the buy and sell side.

'Now, if you like, you can 'cheat' by looking on the Internet to see how much other book buyers and sellers are paying and charging.'

For Wikelund, the surprise may be gone, but not the pleasure. 'My whole love is books and their meaning in my own life,' he says.