HI BOOKS: An Homage to Connection
Words by Ella Ray
Images by Tracy Kernell
Portland is a bookish city. Home to notable publishing, writing, and literary organizations, as well as the nationally adored Powell’s, it feels obvious to note that there’s plenty of printed matter within reach. Despite this bevy of books and with a handful of exceptions, at times Portland lacks consistent access to weirder, smaller, and more diverse publications. Think the full bleed photo books from Pomegranate Press and Loose Joints that you special order or the Rave Flyers catalogs from Colpa Press that scratch your itch for archiving or a facsimile poster you didn’t know you needed. While one offs might float around or a friend may bring you back goodies from their journeys outside of the city, there’s been a void waiting to be filled by a bookstore that caters to readers and collectors. Hi Books opened in Fall of 2022, in turn giving space to the curious and the critical.
Hi is located smack in the middle of the old guard arts scene of downtown. Step out of the 240 sq ft store and you’ll run into the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Portland Art Museum, and the Oregon Historical Society, among other prodigious institutions. Jeff and Fawn, the owners of Hi, are acutely aware of where they are–using their small, but forceful space to stock rare, out of print, and distinct titles in hopes of inviting patrons to connect with books in meaningful ways. Hi entered my orbit in October 2022. As a library worker and a freak for printed things, I blossom in spaces where I can geek out over ephemera. Beyond content, I want to talk about the binding, the paper weight, citational ethics, matters of circulation, and all the elements that allow us to hold books in our hands. As we are thrust away from libraries, reading groups, community centers, and other third spaces that have historically allowed us to get close to the material, tactility is refreshing, jogging the memory of learning as a haptic journey. For me, flipping through a book is an embodied gesture that invites a spiral of annotation, dog-earring, voice memos, and recollection.
After one visit to Hi–where my partner and I spent the better part of an hour pouring over a copy of Black Phoenix (a compilation of three issues of the radical, anti-imperialist Black Phoenix journal from the 1970s edited and published by Rasheed Araeen and Mahmood Jamal)–the shop fell into our Sunday routine. Eat something, go for a walk, window shop at Hi, write, repeat. Since that first connection, I’ve been in near constant conversation with their Instagram account (@/hibookspdx), mutually gushing over the exhibition catalogs and TBR stacks that litter both of our feeds. Until recently I had no idea who I was dm’ing. Earlier this year I sat down with Fawn and Jeff of Hi to put faces to the name and to discuss their relationship to art and information.
Jeff and Fawn are illusive by nature, explicitly stating that they want to be a “conduit for creativity” instead of centering themselves in the narrative of the space. Our conversation felt like a love-letter to all the people, places, and things that lead them to Hi. At an arm's length, it could look like the shop appeared out of thin-air. According to the owners, it did and it didn’t. The bookstore is both the sum of 20 years worth of collecting, art making, and daydreaming plus a right time right place moment that presented itself late last year. In their words: “when we saw the space, we jumped and here we are.”
“Our store is a combination of things we love and things we want to learn more about,” said Fawn. As collectors and archivists who have vowed to remain curious as time passes, it only makes sense that their store would become a space filled with work by the likes of Carlos Jaramillo, Wendy Redstar, and Shikeith. Jeff, a photographer with record store roots, and Fawn, an illustrator who toured with punk bands, see their store as an investment in the grass roots ecosystems that helped their younger selves to become the artists they are today. “As we grow older we are less interested in our own stories and we want to use Hi to direct attention towards the future” said Jeff. Both of them emphasize the important role books and ephemera play in introducing people to the work of independent artists and collectives. Entering Hi is like going to dinner with your smart, funny, kind friends–you rhapsodize over the writers, artists, and musicians making work that feels like a reflection of your worlds, but, more importantly, you leave with a laundry list of images, sounds, and words to look up.
"“As we grow older we are less interested in our own stories and we want to use Hi to direct attention towards the future”
Hi specializes in photo books because that's where Fawn and Jeff’s individual collections converge. Fawn has what she calls a “completist problem” when it comes to collecting, particularly with vintage magazines–specifically fashion magazines from the 1960s and 70s. As someone immersed in zine culture in the 1990s and 2000s, she also has a large and treasured archive of small press zines from that era. On the other end of the continuum, Jeff has “too many interests” to be a hyper-focused collector and finds joy in a little bit of everything. Their passion for media is palpable when you speak with them, creating an auspicious atmosphere. Our time together was punctuated by tangents about everything from my father’s vinyl collection to the failures and dangers of AI-generated poetry. All of us took turns rambling, but we always came back to a shared affection for analog material. At one point in our rumination, the conversation turned toward corporate emulation of archival techniques. Fawn very succinctly called this tactic “intellectually lazy,” stressing the importance of old-school research techniques as artists/consumers/humans in general.
The pair are thinking deeply about what it means to run a bookstore in our present world and trying to face the responsibility of their labor head-on. “Our hope is to quietly deplatform canonical artists knowing that they, or their estates, receive more than enough attention and financial support,” said Fawn. In an era of mass censorship and book-banning, selling material created by systemically neglected and oppressed groups–particularly those who are making work outside of the realm of “respectable representation”–is possibly more important than ever. They see Hi as a document of the present and potential futures, using their curatorial power to make a modest, but decisive push toward more challenging media. And they’re learning as they go, being responsive when they learn about a harmful artist or publisher and pulling that material instead of doubling down. Jeff and Fawn noted that they have an obligation not to separate the art from the artist.
"We picked ‘Hi’ as an homage to the beginnings of a conversation…an attempt to reach out for connection...”
Fawn and Jeff repeatedly stated that buying and selling books requires time. They sell enough books to buy more books and enjoy what they call their “turtle pace.” Hi is open Friday through Sunday from 1pm to 5pm not because they are catering to the weekend-clique, but because they run the store between their 9-to-5 jobs. The slowness of their practice is both functional and reflective of what they are trying to put into the world. For Hi, it’s less about consumption and more about the bookstore as a space where knowledge is created and shared. This pedagogy seeps into every aspect of the operation, even their name. “We picked ‘Hi’ as an homage to the beginnings of a conversation…an attempt to reach out for connection,” said Jeff. Regulars who are not shoppers, coming in for inspiration or to share ideas or to update them on the neighborhood going-ons, are more than welcome and have become beloved community members.
Both are grateful that people continue to show up and hope to see a new crop of independent bookstores open in the city. “We are against the capitalist scarcity mindset,” they declared as our chat was winding down, emphasizing how bookstores should be about adding to environments rather than extracting.
In the future Fawn and Jeff intend to continue their gradual evolution, using Hi as a platform for collaborating with and supporting the artists they love. Jeff ended our conversation by saying that all they’ve “ever wanted was to pay forward what others have done for us in the past.” After a pause he turned to Fawn and they both nodded in a kind of deep, meaningful agreement. In that moment it became apparent to me how important this work is to both of them. Loving books is a constant cycle of learning and unlearning. There is something so significant about finding a bookstore that plays a part in nurturing that turnover. Hi has the potential to be that for a whole network of Portlanders looking to connect through books.