Early bookselling: Ticknor & Fields to Gills

Bookstores place second on my list of most favorite human-made spaces, bested only by libraries. Libraries unquestionably rank at the top by exuding an overwhelming welcome, and forgiveness for choices I may make: I can explore and expand my interests and it’s okay if I don’t always make it to the last page. I sometimes find the need to pay for books exhausting, a form of excited yet patient selectivity that isn’t easy for me among so many possibilities.

During my recent trip to Boston, I was most curious about the Old Corner Bookstore. (Okay, I sidetrack briefly to admit I may have been most excited, first, to spot and “Make Way for Ducklings” while wandering at the Boston Public Gardens earlier in the day, but that is certainly a story for another day.) Walking the Freedom Trail, my deep Oregon roots were reminded of the newness of where I come from. Relative newcomers to this United States compared to this coast, home of Plymouth Rock, Paul Revere, and the Boston Tea Party. It is good that I had sprung for a guidebook prior to walking the trail, forewarning me not to expect the “corner” storefront to vend books, but rather burritos. My disappointment in not encountering a well worn bookstore was moderated later in my trip as I learned that the rent paid by this Mexican grill goes toward the protection of historic buildings. Had I known that at the time I might have stopped in for lunch rather than continuing my walk of many more miles with a mostly empty stomach. 

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Making Way for Ducklings…what more must I say? Really! For us kids growing up with Robert McCloskey’s books…how cool is this?

Although the Old Corner Bookstore building was constructed in 1718, its first use as a bookstore dated to 1828 – still decades before any store of that sort was booming in our Oregon Territory. It was from 1832 to 1865 that the building was home to the publishing company “Ticknor and Fields,” early publisher of the Atlantic Monthly and one of the most important early U.S. publishing companies. During that time, the Old Corner Bookstore became a meeting place for long ago authors: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Charles Dickens. Might it have been I expected to see these literary ghosts in the shadows as I walked along Boston’s Washington and School Streets?

It’s impossible for me to relate to mid-1800’s bookselling without thinking about J.K. Gill, my great great grandfather. For after all, what the Old Corner Bookstore and Ticknor and Fields were to Boston, J.K. Gill’s must have been to Portland. And while I have blogged about J.K. Gill before, I haven’t referred to his Massachusetts roots except as published in my memoir My Music Man. I suspect the real story of what first brought J.K. to Oregon is unknown by most, his meeting my great great great grandmother. 

J.K. Gill came to Oregon because of Chloe. Joseph Kaye Gill, better known as J.K., met Chloe and her daughters when he rented a room in the house they stayed in after William’s death in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. J.K., then a twenty-year-old “Yorkshire-bred lad,” was intrigued by Chloe’s stories of a wild and unspoiled West. He had been experiencing severe eye problems and was advised by his doctor to give up his academic studies to rest his eyes, which made a trip West appealing to him.

From Books
My Music Man

So, while in Boston and transported back in time, it was easy for me to imagine this man intrigued by Chloe’s stories of the West, a woman referred to as “four feet of greatness.” I have no way of knowing if he then had any feelings toward Chloe’s oldest, yet still young, daughter, my great great grandmother, Frances. Did J.K. even then imagine creating such a name in books in Oregon? Or did that come only after first selling books in Chloe’s half share of a Salem, Oregon drugstore, or, more likely, a few years later as he opened his first larger bookstore located at 356 State Street in Salem. Since J.K.’s personal journal notes that he and Frances considered “taking on a school in Jefferson or Lebanon” shortly after their 1866 marriage, I am doubtful he yet had any inkling as to the book enterprise he might someday create.

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Salem store ca ~1868

It was in 1871, still early in Oregon’s history, when J.K. and Frances moved to Portland with Chloe. It was then that J.K. first formed a partnership with George A. Steel under the name Gill & Steel, purchasing the business of Harris & Holman (who purchased from J.L. Parish & Co., and them from A.R. Shipley – the first book and stationary store in Portland founded in 1857). In 1872 Gill & Steel’s added musical instruments to their stock, including Chickering and Emerson pianos, and Mason & Hamlin organs. J.K. and George Steel became dissatisfied partners soon after, settling their differences by breaking into two departments: J.K. kept books and stationary, Mr. Steel took over music. However, it was short-lived and in 1875 J.K. became the sole owner, closed out the music department, and remained as J.K. Gill & Company.

Gill’s remained an office supply company specializing in books and school supplies that many generations of Portlanders came to know and love, and where both my great grandfather (William Montgomery) and grandfather (Richard G. Montgomery, Sr….or, Daddy Dick) worked. Gill’s occupied several locations in downtown Portland, although its grandest building was that built in 1922 at Southwest 5th and Stark (today the Gladys McCoy Building). Newer Portland residents aren’t likely to recognize the store name as the downtown store closed in 1991, although smaller chain stores existed in shopping malls even though J.K. died in 1931. Late in the 1990’s with increasing competition from larger, national book companies, Gill’s was forced out of business and closed its last store in 1999. But it is those memories that linger on in many still living, from a few paid pianists playing during store hours, to others who worked behind the counter, and many, many others who came in to buy a book …or maybe, just to get out of the rain.

Read other blogs about J.K.: On the eve of Wordstock: Still talking about J.K. Gill; Diaries, notes and letters: leave ’em laughing; Portland’s coffee habit: from Boyd’s to Stumptown;

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J.K. Gill, late 1920’s.

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