Wallace Books in Sellwood offers “treasure hunt” shopping experience

Photograph by Emily Wagner

Just A 13-minute walk from the Pioneer Express’ new weekend stop at Southeast 13th Avenue and Southeast Tacoma Street, Wallace Books has been serving the Sellwood- Moreland neighborhood for 24 years. Operating out of a yellow house with bright blue trim, the independent bookstore is practically bursting with books, both new and used.

Wallace’s front room is in vivid technicolor, rows of new arrivals on top of bins dedicated to canonical writers such as Virginia Woolf and Barbara Kingsolver. A portrait of Jack London, acclaimedauthorof“WhiteFang”and “The Call of the Wild,” peeks out from the top shelf behind the cash register.

Julie Wallace owns the bookstore, which is chock-full of her personal touches.

“(The London portrait) was a gift from my mom,” Wallace said. “She gave it to me when I opened.”

Wallace originally bought the house with the intention of converting it into a bookstore.

“I was 30 and had been working in the hospitality industry for quite a few years after college,” Wallace said. “I was like: Okay, what could I do long term, big picture, that I would love?”

Over two decades later, Wallace’s background in customer service is still relevant in her day-to-day work.

“I love finding the right book for the right person,” Wallace said.

As she answers phone calls and greets time-honored customers from the cash register, it is clear that Wallace is quite the people-person.

Wallace is especially proud that her store was not only able to keep all its employees, but also take on a new team member during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every day, my people were coming to work hearing the horror stories of their friends spending eight to ten hours on hold with the unemployment department, so I feel good about doing that,” Wallace said.

Loyal customers helped keep the store afloat in 2020.

“Both new people who discovered us through Instagram (and) people who’ve been shopping here for 24 years, since literally the first day we opened, all came together, placing orders over the phone, picking them up on the porch,” Wallace said. “That being said, we’re thrilled people can come back in, just wearing their mask, of course.”

Wallace Books has an impressive Instagram account (@wallacebooks), but browsing the labyrinthine aisles in-person is a huge part of the bookstore’s appeal. Look left, and you might spot a display for Native American Heritage Month. Look right, and you could see a series of ornate, gilded editions of “Candide” and Agatha Christie’s mystery novels.

Just be sure you look where you are stepping, or you might topple over a three-foot-tall stack of science fiction novels.

Wallace believes that sometimes customers don’t know what they want until they see it in-store.

“(The building’s quirkiness) makes that treasure hunt feeling a little more pronounced.” Wallace said.

Wallace Books also includes sizable collections of Pacific Northwest authors, nonfiction award winners and children’s literature. The back room is entirely for kids, featuring a “Black Lives Matter for All” section and a Beverly Cleary crate.

Despite the tumultuous past year and a half, Wallace remains optimistic about the fate of Portland’s independent bookstores.

“One of the silver linings of the pandemic — and it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic — is that people have rediscovered the joy of reading for pleasure,” Wallace said.

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