Getting to Know Your Neighbors: Joe Witt, owner of Belmont Books

As I enter Belmont Books, store owner Joe Witt sees me, picks a book off the top of a stack and places it on the podium in the front of the store. Witt, who moved to Portland in 2003, has been, at various times, a singing train waiter, a KBOO reporter, and a bartender at Farm Cafe. He started selling books on a few shelves of his friend’s indie record store, Mississippi Records. That grew into Belmont Books, where he maintains a collection of diverse and obscure titles in subjects ranging from classic literature to religious studies. 

Q: How long has your store been in Sunnyside?

A: Our official opening date was October 2nd, 2018, so this is coming up on year four. 

Q: Is this your first time owning a store?

A: Yeah, this is the first time. I got lucky that there was a space available and I was ready to go. So, kind of a luck thing for sure.

Q: Luck? Or was there a little bit of personal planning involved?

A: I was selling books at my friend’s record store for a while before that, but it was a coincidence that I was able to jump into this space.

Q: That’s really cool. That was a good way to get started, then, huh?

A: Yeah, you learn a lot about what sells and what doesn’t and you’re able to make some dumb mistakes. He was really generous.

Q: Have the tastes of Portland changed?

A: Yeah, there’s definitely been changes. But, you know, it’s subtle. It’s all anecdotal, for the most part. How much of the slice of the Portland book market do I have? Only a very small percentage—less than 1%—I’d imagine. So, what I think is going on is not necessarily going to be super accurate. 

Q: Do you live in Sunnyside?

A: No, um, that would be nice. I live near Franklin High School.

Q: What do you like most about the neighborhood?

A: I like that it has some economic diversity. It’s got a diversity of businesses.

Q: What would you change about it, if you could? Any real problems with the area?

A: [Pause.] Well, there are… It’s a neighborhood, I mean. It’s a community. So there are people who are, kind of, not super helpful and not doing much except sitting at the bus stop all day, yelling, getting drunk, and… You know, it’s pretty hard for me to come down on most people. I don’t personally enjoy them but they’re part of the neighborhood too, for better or worse. 

Q: Ya, I’ve seen the guys that hang out over there and they’re a specific breed. Not all homeless people are like that. 

A: I don’t even know that they’re homeless guys. I mean, they show up pretty regularly and just hang out there. It’s not the same people every day; it’s different groups and the mix has changed over time. People move on and go somewhere else to be annoying.

I like that there are people on the streets. It’s good that people are walking around. It’s great that we have H Mart now. People come through here and go there. It’s good that the economy’s improved and people are out doing things again.

I’m a little worried about the end of Covid restrictions. Specifically, we don’t really have any in this state, compared to other countries. You know, people not having to wear masks, I think there’s a little bit of a danger around people being very complacent. 

It’s a nice neighborhood. I’m glad we have a lot of older businesses. I’m glad we have landlords who aren’t hustling all the time trying to get every last dollar out of things. It’s great that  instead they want to have a diversity of businesses and let people keep working, and other businesses they’ve had for a long time. 

It’s a weird little time capsule in Portland that I like a lot.

Witt produces the book that he had previously taken off one of the stacks, The Unvarnished Gospels. Precognition, I can only assume, because when he produces the paperback, it’s exactly what I want. I was merely surprised at the time, but now I wonder if some magical force has been harnessed.

Q: Was there any beginning event that led you to bookselling?

A: I think bookstores are important. I grew up in Oklahoma, and where I lived didn’t have many bookstores, just a few. I always found that really frustrating and depressing. Having sought out reading material I saw a diversity of viewpoints. I always found it frustrating when you couldn’t get a broader range of ideas. So I try to have a broader range of ideas here, and I stand up for freedom of speech, making sure that people feel represented. I think that it’s more interesting when you see things you don’t necessarily agree with, at a bookstore, than when you see the same things you already picked up at a mall at the airport.

Q: What do Belmont Books and Powell’s have in common and how do they differ?

A: Well, we both love books. I think that’s the big one. No I think, really, the big thing is size. And, there are certain parts of the market I don’t go out of my way to serve–what I would term airport fiction. But, you know, this is a good place to buy that kind of thing because when I do have it, I’ll put it out for $1. 

Belmont Books (3415 SE Belmont St.; 503-236-0437) is open from 12-6 p.m. every day. To see what’s new, follow Belmont Books on Instagram at @BelmontBooksPDX or stop by to ask Joe for his recommendations. 

The Four Phases of Emergency Management

In the e-prep world, where I live a lot, these phases are ones that I am familiar with. It’s safe to say that in today’s world, all of these phases are happening somewhere around the globe. For the past four or five years I have been focusing on mitigation and preparedness in my role as a Sunnyside Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) member.

Mitigation – Preventing future emergencies or minimizing their effects

Includes any activities that prevent an emergency, reduce the chance of an emergency happening, or reduce the damaging effects of unavoidable emergencies. Buying flood and fire insurance for your home is a mitigation activity. Mitigation activities take place before and after emergencies.

Preparedness – Preparing to handle an emergency

Includes plans or preparations made to save lives and to help response and rescue operations. Evacuation plans and stocking food and water are both examples of preparedness. Preparedness activities take place before an emergency occurs.

Response – Responding safely to an emergency

Includes actions taken to save lives and prevent further property damage in an emergency situation. Response is putting your preparedness plans into action. Seeking shelter from a tornado or turning off gas valves in an earthquake are both response activities. Response activities take place during an emergency.

Recovery – Recovering from an emergency

Includes actions taken to return to a normal or an even safer situation following an emergency. Recovery includes getting financial assistance to help pay for the repairs. Recovery activities take place after an emergency.

Early on, I went door to door with my neighbor Karen and her girls passing out materials to help neighbors get, and be, prepared. With the help of some neighbors on SE Taylor and Yamhill, I created a neighborhood list for those willing to share their phone numbers and email addresses. Sometimes I put on my NET vest and pick up garbage on SE Taylor, especially the day after garbage, recycling and compost have been picked up. I periodically check the storm drains for clogged leaves on the northeast and southeast corners of Cesar Chavez and report the need for them to be cleared, if necessary.

It’s important to mention that I am not the only one doing work to keep our neighborhood safe. Others are cleaning up around Walgreens and reporting stolen cars and keeping their sidewalks and stairs clear for pedestrians, bikers, and essential workers who deliver food and other essential items to our front doors.

It takes all of us to be active members of our community and keep each other safe. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Step up, step up, step up.

Thank you.

Questions? Comments? Need support in getting prepared? I have the time and the resources to support you. Email me: [email protected]

Sunnyside Neighborhood Community Cares (SNACC) Committee Updates

The SNACC committee discussed high level findings from the December 2021 Needs Assessment survey done at the Sunnyside Showers. The team will be conducting interviews with some participants and wrapping up analysis of results over the next few weeks. Then we will share the results with participants and committee members and discuss how to implement feedback. We also discussed the ongoing trash removal services at various high-need areas in the community. A weekly trash removal will occur at SE 36th and Hawthorne on Mondays at 11 a.m. Finally, we began logistical planning for regular outreach to our houseless neighbors. The intention of this outreach effort is to build and strengthen relationships between housed and houseless folks in Sunnyside and connect houseless folks to resources when possible. Those present and able to volunteer divided up the neighborhood and will begin monthly walk-arounds in February. We will continue planning for supplies that volunteers can bring as well as training that volunteers might need in order to meet the needs of the community.

We encourage anyone who is interested in these efforts to attend our next SNACC meeting on Thursday, February 18th at 6:30 p.m. Meeting details will be posted on the SNA website Monday, February 14th.

Emergency Preparedness

Mise en place and e-prep

Almost all my conversations with friends here in PDX are centered on food and emergency preparedness. Having moved here from the Chicagoland area, the food here, all of it, tastes fresher and more vibrant. My weekly outing to the PSU farmers market reinforces the idea of eating, and shopping locally supporting farmers year-round and eating through the rainbow of foods sold there.

So, what do e-prep and mise en place have in common?

For me, it’s the mindset that the more prepared we are, the better our lives and those of our friends and family and neighbors. And, the meals we cook will taste better because we have prepped ahead of time so that we have all the ingredients we need measured and waiting BEFORE we actually cook or bake.

Emergency preparedness in this time of COVID may seem unimportant or unnecessary. I disagree. We have all learned to be more in the present moment. We check for our masks before we go out in public and probably check the hours and guidelines necessary to enter and shop at local stores, restaurants and food pods. It’s worth the bother, always. Hopefully, we all use what we have learned during these pandemic times to make ourselves more resilient in the future.

We are all more prepared for a disaster than we think. The skill sets and learnings we have acquired will serve us well in the future if we use them going forward. Find an e-prep buddy and help each other. Engage your kids in this work. 

Questions? Comments? Need support in getting prepared? I have the time and the resources to support you. Email me: [email protected]

Sunnyside Neighborhood Community Cares (SNACC) Committee Updates

The SNACC committee began its monthly meeting debriefing what we know following recent sweeps of houseless neighbors from Laurehurst and Sewallcrest parks. We will meet in two weeks to discuss ongoing conflict resolution and transformative justice strategies to strengthen relationships between housed and houseless folks in Sunnyside. In the long term, we hope that strengthening these existing relationships will help us advocate for greater City investment in providing services to houseless people, instead of sweeping camps. We will also be moving forward with a needs assessment survey of the Sunnyside shower program in early December. Finally, we will begin exploring fundraising and leveraging the giving season to solicit donations from the community to fund other projects, like paying houseless volunteers for the work they’re doing for the community.

We encourage anyone who is interested in these efforts to attend our next SNACC meeting on Thursday, Dec. 16th at 6:30 p.m. Meeting details will be posted on the SNA website the week of December 13th.