On the eve of Wordstock….still talking about J.K. Gill

As you can tell, I’m often consumed with Oregon history. But I haven’t stopped being surprised when I read discussions about the J.K. Gill Bookstore in Facebook groups like Dead Memories Portland or Forgotten Oregon. With the downtown store closing in 1991, you’d have to be 25 now to be alive when Gill’s still had a presence downtown. Most likely, though, you’d have to be at least in your thirties to really have any of your own memories of shopping (or working) in the store.

As a soon-to-be-first-time published author, I was thrilled to hear someone I’ve never met tell me how she can barely wait till my memoir is published to read a bit more about J.K. Cool – now I have at least one buyer outside of the copies I’ll give family! But seriously, it did seem like a reasonable thing to share a few photos and details about J.K. that won’t be in my book.

In my last post you “met” my great-great-great-grandmother Chloe, whose daughter Frances ended up marrying J.K. – that’s how it happened that he is my great-great-grandfather. J.K was born in Yorkshire, England in 1841 where his father worked in the woolen mills and J.K. was the oldest of 11 children. The children were all expected to help support their family from an early age, but were remembered as being a musical family – lying in bed on Sunday’s (their only non-work day) they would sing their favorite hymns, often in harmony. When J.K. Was 14, the family emigrated to Worcester, Massachusetts where his father continued to work in woolen mills. A few years later, J.K. was enrolled at Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham Massachusetts but came out to Oregon in 1864. While there are lots of details in between, those most interested in his business might like to know that although he co-owned a store earlier, the first J.K. Book Store opened in Salem at 356 State Street in 1868. It was a few years later, in 1871 that he moved his store to downtown Portland where it became the legacy that so many of us still remember.

On the eve of Portland’s Wordstock, it seems particularly relevant to remember this bookseller. I’d love to hear from you – do you have memories the J.K. Gill Bookstore?

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Joseph Kaye Gill

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J.K. Gill in 1930 with my dad, Dick Montgomery, as a baby in his lap (and my Uncle Bill to right). J.K. died in 1931.

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J.K. and brothers (Joseph Kaye, Benjamin, James Walter, John Kaye, Samuel Fenton)

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Early Salem streets – not sure of year.

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Salem store in 1866.

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Downtown Portland Gill’s in the 1940’s

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Downtown Portland Gill’s in the 1940’s

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Portland in 1880 ca. Publishing credit: J.K. Gill

5 thoughts on “On the eve of Wordstock….still talking about J.K. Gill

  1. I will be another one of the people that buy your book. I am a great, great, great , great granddaughter of JK. I live in salem and my late husband is buried in the same grave as Chloe Clark Wilson and William Wilson in Pioneer cemetery in salem, oregon. I well remember the store….my father worked their for over 60 years…..he used to let my twin sister and I operate the elevators when we visited the store when it was closed on Sunday. I love to drive down state street in Salem and absorbe the feeling of standing where the original store was.

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    • Hi Mary! Thanks for reaching out and for your comment. You may remember that we met at Katie’s memorial service last year. I think you will enjoy this! What is most interesting to me, is how the stories may differ a bit – depending on which branch of the family we come from! I’m J.K.’s great great granddaughter (he was my grandfather’s grandfather), so imagining either with Mark being an older sibling than Georgia, and perhaps quicker generation turnovers in your side (younger parents!) or…?

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  2. I worked at J.K. Gill’s for a about a year in 1968. I remember it as a wonderful store, a magic kind of place for me. I was very young (22) and worked in the art department. That meant I sold art supplies to many artists, and they included many interesting characters as you can imagine. There were oil paints, water colours, lots and lots of paper that we had to measure and cut to their specifications. Probably canvas, too, although I cannot remember too much about that. We were in the bottom floor of the establishment and it was where you could also find supplies that were needed by architects and engineers.

    Mr. Flint was my boss. And one of the other employees on our floor was a woman named Beverly. She was an artist that produced magnificent portraits from pastels. She was well-known in Portland for her portraits. However, Beverly has what was called schizophrenia at that time. She was convinced that someone on a local mountain was controlling her and sending remote messages to do this and that. She would talk about if you were interested. Mr. Flint kept her as an employee because her services as an artist were in demand and he would have faced an outraged public if he had let her go.

    I was interested in doing block printing and had easy access to all the supplies I needed – including great paper that was left over after other artists took what they needed. And I certainly enjoyed that.

    But my best memories are actually from books, because J.K. Gill’s was well-known as a bookstore. Every weekend the deliveries were made at the basement level of the newest books to put on the shelves. I think the workers in the bookstore did not work on the weekends (at least shelving new books) so they would come down at the beginning of the week and carry the loot upstairs. But in the meantime, I who did work on the weekend could go through the bins and choose a book that caught my interest and just read. I did this by a little trickery, sort of. Part of my job was inventory control. I would just say, I am going to count this or that downstairs and hide behind a big file cabinet and just read. If somone was looking for me — “has anyone seen Dale?”. I would just pop up and say “Here I am I was just counting, paints or whatever”. One book I read this way was The Fixer by Bernard Malamud.

    Those are my 1968 memories for now.

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    • Thanks so much, Dale, for sharing. Being a bit younger than you, my memories of the Gill stores are mostly as a kid shopping for a few things – and mostly after Gill’s left family ownership in 1970 – though still a cool store. You might enjoy the chapter I talk quite a bit about J.K. Gill in my memoir (My Music Man) – called “Books.” Easy to buy but Multnomah Co. library and many others also have a copy or two. I’m looking at doing an updated blog on J.K. Gill soon. You have some interesting stories about your time at that store! I would have loved getting into the bins. My grandfather in 1918-ish time period while working for his grandfather (J.K. Gill) as a young man would buy books cheap and then “rent” them out to summer folk on the Long Beach Peninsula during the war years.

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      • Thank you for answering, Mary. I wasn’t sure your blog was up-to-date, but kept an eye on it just in case. I do have a couple of things that might be of interest and I will add on to what I wrote. But later. I no longer live in Portland, or Oregon or even the United States. But not that far away (British Columbia, actually). I will write more later. Dale

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