Up in Smoke 

Poet Walt Curtis Loses Everything in Fire

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A FIRE RIPPED through a historic church in Southwest Portland last week, destroying some irreplaceable pieces of Portland's cultural history.

The fire destroyed the home and unpublished works of local poet Walt Curtis, who had taken up residence in the basement of the Great Northwest Bookstore, a dusty Portland institution in the Lair Hill church, which specialized in rare and out-of-print books about the Northwest.

Curtis is a prolific white-haired poet most famous for penning the novel Mala Noche, which was the basis for Portland filmmaker Gus Van Sant's first feature film. Curtis lived in a basement apartment under the East End bar on SE Grand for decades before recently moving into Phil Wikelund's Great Northwest Bookstore, surrounding himself with old books and new paintings.

Wikelund was in the store with a friend when Curtis smelled smoke in his basement room on Sunday, May 2. Then all the lights went out, says Wikelund. The flames spread quickly. After briefly trying to douse the flames with a fire extinguisher, the three friends escaped out a window.

Seventy firefighters battled the flames, but the 120-year-old church stuffed with paper burned and burned. The current culprit seems to be decrepit electrical wiring, say Curtis' friends.

There was no insurance on the building whatsoever.

"It was too expensive [to get insurance]," says Wikelund, who owned the building outright and had no mortgage to pay off. "I'd given it up because of hard times."

The fire bureau is continuing to investigate the source of the blaze.

Friend and gallery owner Mark Woolley came across the scene in the late afternoon, when firefighters had contained the fire. "The windows were blown out and in all the doorways, burned and soggy books were just spilling out," says Woolley.

Woolley, Wikelund, and Curtis returned to the bookstore a few days later to salvage what they could.

"The rooms were filled three or four feet high with charred, sodden books," says Woolley. Digging through the wreckage with masks and gloves, he unearthed some treasures: a box of Curtis' letters corresponding with Ken Kesey, for example.

Up in smoke are some of Curtis' earliest publications, as well as boxes of unpublished writings, old poetry chapbooks, and recent paintings.

Wikelund estimates he was able to save only 2,000 of the 100,000 books in his store. The book collection, like the building, was completely uninsured, leaving Wikelund scrambling to find a warehouse space where he can host a fire sale to help him get back on his feet. "If I'm going to save this stuff, I'm going to need volunteers to be some sort of bucket brigade, a book brigade," says Wikelund.

Friends have also set up charity funds for him and Curtis.

Not only has Portland lost some irreplaceable art and history, the Great Northwest Bookstore is no more.

"It was an intersection," says David Milholland of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission. "It was a place you could go to get your questions answered."

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