The Marketplace of Ideas

Fifty years on, students still love browsing Bill Nelson’s books on the SU porch.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | March 1, 2012

Friday of O-week. Afternoon sunshine dapples the SU porch as new students browse the books on display under the shade of an old sycamore tree. A handsome edition of Tennyson sits cheek-by-jowl with a dog-eared copy of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. A soft breeze rustles the Complete Guitar Player and animates the Principles of Chinese Painting. One student contemplates Anna Karenina, while another shrieks in triumph over a 1946 edition of the Joy of Cooking. “Finally, my own copy!” she exclaims. “It’s like a rite of passage.”

Surveying the scene beneath a charcoal gray fedora, Bill Nelson ’62 cracks a wry grin. He has been buying and selling books at Reed for 50 years, virtually his entire adult life. His khakis may be worn and his shirt rumpled, but his eyes have lost none of their sapphire sparkle. Books are his hobby, his passion, and his profession. His collection, which totals more than 30,000 volumes, is like a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy of ideas, touching on every conceivable subject from the Indians of the Pacific Northwest to sorcery in New Guinea. 

What keeps him coming back to the SU porch, however, is neither money (he doesn’t need it), nor any fetish for ink and paper, but rather the sense of camaraderie and kinship that books inspire—and the thrill of introducing students to new ideas for three dollars a pop.

Bill caught book fever young. In grade school, he would join his uncle on sorties to Portland’s legendary used bookstores, filling shopping bags with his discoveries. By the time he graduated from Grant High School and came to Reed, he had collected more than 1,000 titles. 

Reed gave his passion an intellectual focus. “Math 110 changed my life—literally,” he says. “It introduced me to the concept of mathematical proof and opened up a whole world—and I don’t mean just learning algorithms, I mean original thinking.” Inspired by professors such as Lloyd Williams ’35 [mathematics 1947–81], Joe Roberts [mathematics 1952–], Michael Litt [chemistry 1958–66], and Marsh Cronyn ’42 [chemistry 1952–89], Bill began to read more widely, and started scouring church sales, rummage sales, and library sales as his collection grew. 

In the early ’60s, Bill was involved in setting up a book gallery in the loft of the SU to raise money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an activist group opposed to segregation. Student interest in SNCC eventually waned, but Bill kept the book gallery going, even after he graduated from Reed in chemistry and got a job teaching math, chemistry, and physics at the Catlin Gabel school in Southwest Portland. (Catlin’s legendary annual rummage sale became another source of books.)

In 1970, the city of Beaverton bought Bill’s house by right of eminent domain, and he was suddenly faced with a big headache: what to do with his gargantuan collection, which by then occupied five entire rooms. In a flash of inspiration, he loaded a bunch of books in a trailer, hauled them to Reed, and set them out in the Quad. Thus began an itinerant tradition that would continue to this day. “It’s just so rewarding,” he says. “The students really appreciate the books.”

Over the years, Bill has perfected his formula. He doesn’t keep a regular schedule, because the first ingredient for a successful sale is a sunny day—a rare commodity in winter and spring. The next ingredient, of course, is the right selection. He hauls between two and three thousand books in his battered red ’85 Toyota pickup to the SU porch, and spends several hours arranging them to show off particularly unusual or beguiling titles. He has developed a sixth sense about titles that appeal to Reedies. “There has been incredible consistency,” he says. (See sidebar.)

Booksellers typically stay in business by selling rare books to wealthy collectors for a hefty fee. Bill turned that model upside down. His top price for Reed students is usually five dollars, whether the book is a well-thumbed Dr. Seuss or a first-edition Hemingway, and he sells most of them for two or three dollars. He is able to do this because he pursues a frugal lifestyle. “I enjoy growing and preparing my own food too much to ever even think of eating out,” he says. “And there has always been so much free reusable material and repairable equipment that the concept of shopping became largely irrelevant.”

Bill’s Thoreauvian lifestyle underwent some uxorial adjustments after he married Susan Olson, a genetics professor at OHSU, with whom he has raised three daughters, but he has faithfully returned to the SU porch, year after year. He has also been a loyal donor to the college. “I really appreciate the opportunity to be a student myself,” he says. “Reed changed my life and forged my interests. I feel a real debt to those years.”

By the end of the day, his throat is hoarse and his back is sore. It doesn’t matter. Students by the score have gone back to their dorms laden with literary treasures, made new discoveries, new connections, and new friends. For Bill, that’s reason enough to come back. 

Dog-Eared Classics

We asked Bill to list some Reed student bestsellers, based on his years hawking books on the SU porch. 

I’ll begin with this category, since all subjects at Reed are treated with philosophical rigor. The number one author has to be Friedrich Nietzsche, but Bertrand Russell has always had a stalwart following. Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre is the single most popular title.

Religion & philosophy
The top seller is definitely The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. The most popular author is the prolific Alan Watts, whose book The Way of Zen was first published in 1957. That and Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi are runners-up. Another perennial favorite is Be Here Now by Ram Dass.

English literature
First and foremost is Shakespeare’s Complete Works in any of its myriad editions. The most popular English novelist is George Orwell.

American literature
More difficult, but Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is probably the single most popular title. Other perennial favorites are the books of J.D. Salinger, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Richard Brautigan, and Dr. Seuss.

Science fiction
A toss-up among Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut, with a strong showing by Philip K. Dick.

German literature
Hermann Hesse reigns supreme. Thomas Mann and Günter Grass have had their moments but never seriously challenged Hesse’s hegemony.

Russian literature
Dostoevsky is number one, followed by Tolstoy, Chekov, and Nabokov.

French literature
Top billing goes to Albert Camus’s existential novel The Stranger. Runner-up is Voltaire’s hilarious satire Candide. Sartre and Proust are perennial favorites.

Spanish literature
Gabriel García Márquez, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Political science
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, followed by the books of Hannah Arendt.

Cooking & lifestyle The Joy of Cooking has always been the number one cookbook (sorry, James Beard). Books on self-sufficient living such as How to Live on Weeds or the Whole Earth Catalog remain as popular today as they were in the Sixties.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn remains unchallenged.

 Max Weber and Emile Durkheim.

Carl Jung, followed by Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, and Viktor Frankel.

Tintin and Calvin and Hobbes.

—Bill Nelson ’62

Tags: Alumni, Campus Life