Anne Hughes
by James Crotty
October 30, 1998

When You are Not Rich, You Either Buy Clothes Or You Buy Art

Portland, OR

ortland has seen its share of female characters. Figure skater cum white trash bully, Tonya Harding, hailed from a suburb of Portland, before migrating to nearby Vancouver, Washington to plot her comeback (she charges $10,000 an interview, in case you're interested). The irascible Queen of Dysfunction, Courtney Love, spent a significant portion of her teenage reign of terror here, before she was run out of town. Then there's renowned science fiction author Ursula LeGuin, ballsy Mayor Vera Katz, Goody Cable, owner of Portland's Rimsky Korsicoffee House and Newport's extraordinary Sylvia Beach literary hotel, jazz singer Nancy King, former Congressman Elizabeth Furse, and the inimitable Stephanie Pierce of the world famous Church of Elvis. But even with such worthy contenders, the one woman who best represents the creative, kind, casual and self-effacing ethos of Portland best is unquestionably Anne Hughes. In her sweet, spacious, aesthetic way, Anne has quietly been at the center of the city's culture for nearly three decades. Back in 1976, long before former Mayor Bud Clark exposed himself to art, Anne Hughes posed nude for her own equally memorable poster entitled "When You are Not Rich, You Either Buy Clothes Or You Buy Art." The poster was originally created to promote the Anne Hughes Gallery, which championed Northwest contemporary artists, but in the ensuing years the poster's fame has far transcended its origins. Anne is also known for walking from San Francisco to Portland (well, almost). However, she is most fondly recognized as the proprietor of the beloved Anne Hughes Coffee Room inside Powell's City of Books. Nearly every major author alive today has made it through that unassuming vortex of Portland literary life, though its real highlight is the thousands of unknown lovers, friends and solitary geniuses who've left their mark in the Coffee Room's biography. We chatted with Anne around the communal round table at her latest project, the bright and lovely Anne Hughes Kitchen Table Cafe. We've met lots of women who talk about community, but only Anne Hughes seems to exude it.

Monk: One time you walked all the way from San Francisco to Portland, right? What was that all about?

AH: Well, I walked from San Francisco to the Oregon coast. I pinched a nerve in my back so I had to stop. But anyway, I love to be alone and I love being out on the road alone. I mean, you guys understand that. Late at night some people read romance novels. I get my maps out and lie there in bed. Not to drive to things--I'm not terribly interested in driving--but to actually walk. So I had decided that one thing I really wanted to do was get up every morning and walk. That's all I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to walk somewhere but I didn't quite know where to do it. I didn't want to hike because I'm not a hiker. I'm not interested in carrying a whole bunch of sleeping equipment. I didn't know where I wanted to go, but you know how coincidence happens. So I went to see Werner Herzog. He was speaking in Portland. I go to the Film Studies Center and he's showing a few of his films. One of the things he said was that he loved to walk. Bruce Chatwin was a very close friend of his and they had done this film together, "People Loved His Son." Chatwin was dying and Herzog wanted to see Chatwin before he died, but he really wanted to walk to see him. So he did. He walked to Nice from wherever he was in Germany and showed him the film. Also, when Herzog proposed to his wife--she lived in Switzerland and he lived in Germany--he walked to her doorstep, knocked on the door, and said, "I've come on foot and I have one question: Will you marry me?"

Monk: The commitment involved in that!

AH: Yeah, and also the movement through space. You can get on a plane and you've never really gone anywhere except to get into the plane and get off of the plane. Herzog wrote a little book in the '70s called "Of Walking on Ice." It was also about one of his walks to go see another friend of his. In a way there's nothing profound about it, but when he talked I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. At that point I decided I was going to walk to San Francisco from here. And that was it. A month or so later I actually drove the route I thought I would take to San Francisco and I realized I really would have preferred to walk home. The next spring I flew down there, and on Easter Sunday a friend dropped me off on the Golden Gate Bridge and waved to me as I literally walked into the fog. I disappeared. And then I just kept walking.

Monk: What did you see? I'm interested in your first and your last days.

AH: The first day was a fabulous day. There's this road out of Tiburon and it was absolutely exquisite. But the thing I noticed was there was never anybody outside. Everybody was inside. I guess they were watching television. I don't know what the hell they were doing. That was one of my first impressions: You're moving through space on a day that is unparalleled, in a gorgeous area, and nobody's out. It was so weird.

Monk: So that's the question you have when you're going through these areas, Where is everybody?

AH: Yeah, in the populated areas, especially on the weekend, you'd think they'd [at least] be out there washing their car. That was my first impression and then on the last day, which I didn't really know was going to be the last day, was a day of absolute beauty. I was south of Yahats, right on the ocean. I was moving through space and I was part of the scenery rather than an observer.

Monk: It's just not the same when you're in your darned car looking at it.

AH: The thing is, in doing it, I didn't have huge thoughts like, Gee, now I know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. Most of the time I don't think I thought. My mind was a blank most of the time. It was just part of the scenery. I didn't really have any expectations. I go off to monasteries on occasion, not for religion, just for the silence. And there, a lot of things will happen that go through my mind, and I do a lot of writing. But it was real different on that walk. My mind just went blank.

Monk: Did you go on major paths or highways?

AH: Only if I could. I was basically on the 101.

Monk: So people thought you were hitchhiking?

AH: Not really because I was walking against the traffic. I never had any trouble. People just thought I was this lady walking around. I met some really interesting people. But mostly I met ordinary people. You know, you go into a restaurant and you order a sandwich, and they're just people. It was fun to talk with them. Most of the time, when people knew what I was doing, it just didn't register. There was no expression and they didn't understand.

Monk: They didn't think it was a big deal?

AH: No, I don't think they understood it. I think they didn't really believe it.

Monk: You know, when you do something like that you really get in touch with how huge this country is.

AH: And how the different little areas are like individual countries. You sort of start out in a town and end up in a town. That's how it worked, pretty much, and there wouldn't be a lot in between. But there was not even a bus in a lot of these places to get to the next town.

Monk: You're originally from Portland?

AH: I was raised out here.

Monk: How did you end up being the woman who runs the Anne Hughes Coffee Room at Powell's City of Books?

AH: Well, I just spent a lot of time there. It was kind of like a library back then and it really needed a place to sit down. It seemed to me that all they would need would be a coffee machine and a few little tables that people could sit at. I opened it 13 years ago. I wrote a little note to Michael Powell saying, "this is what I'd like to do" and he said, "Well, have you ever done anything like this before?" And I said, "No." So he said, "Let's go look around . . . How about right here?" So I just did it.

Monk: It's still the reading room of the city. You go in there and it's always packed.

AH: Yeah, it's a wonderful thing. Sometimes every chair is taken and nobody's talking and I just think that's fascinating.

Monk: And, now, given the number of years you've been here how has Portland changed?

AH: I've been here almost 50 years. It's not the same place. Certainly any city that gets bigger has its problems but it's the most wonderful city. You don't see a city in this country with a downtown like Portland. It's to human scale, it's on the river, and when you want to do something at night you go downtown. You don't even do that in Seattle or San Francisco. And there are so many neighborhoods in this city that are really neat places to live.

Monk: In terms of a city it's kind of a miracle. It probably has to do with some enlightened city planning. I don't know what the reason is.

AH: Well, I think there were some people who knew what they were doing and who put themselves on the line. Like building the light rail was hell while it was happening and it was real risky business in many ways. But it was Neil Goldschmidt [former Portland Mayor] He was young, vibrant, attractive. And he hired people who were even smarter than he was. One of the people he hired was Dick Lakeman, who was an architect from Harvard, who came out and did the downtown waterfront. He brought downtown to the water because before that it really wasn't accessible. Here in Portland, since we were kind of a backwater, since we really hadn't gotten caught up with things that other cities had done, we were able to do what we did. But again, if we hadn't had people like Goldschmidt and Dick Lakeman it wouldn't have happened.

Monk: So it's just the luck of having great people or is there something about the Portland character?

AH: I think a lot of it's luck but we're also such a plain little town. My Philadelphia brother calls Portland a hotbed of social rest. There's nothing pretentious and glamorous like there is in San Francisco or Seattle. Seattle wanted to become a northern L.A. and it feels like L.A. Portland is kind of slow and you've got time to mull things over. When you're not stimulated all the time you can think. And Portland didn't really have anything to attract people to it except that it's a nice place. So people here have a lot of time to think and to look at stuff. And it's smaller scale so if you want to get something done you definitely can. Gertrude Stein had a saying about France. "It's not what France gave to us. It's what it didn't take away." And I think with Portland it's not what it gives you, it's just that it doesn't take a lot away from you. And I think that's a real important concept.

Monk: Give me a couple of the oddest things that have happened in the Coffee Room over the years. You've seen so many people come through that place. Everybody's come through there, haven't they?

AH: To me it's the crossroads in the city. And there are very few cities that have [such] a place, in terms of a commercial place. I actually have the autobiography of the Coffee Room. They were blank journals that people filled in over the years. I have 19 volumes that people have written.

Monk: So you just put these journals out by the coffee stand?

AH: I'd give it to one of my customers to start and then it would be at my table and you could just pick it up and take it to your own table. It's from the first day it opened, so it wrote its own autobiography.

Monk: So people could just write anything they wanted?

AH: Anything they wanted. They could draw. It's really something. I stopped doing it because the place got so crowded and somebody took one of the volumes. But I have ten years in 19 volumes. If you did read through the whole thing you'd see what was happening politically. You'd see what's happening with young people, what's happening in the city, with people's love affairs. It has some of the most amazing stories. These things that just happen when you let people be themselves.

Monk: We are randomly looking [at the books]. This is from 6/1/96. "Hello, book readers. My name is Helen. I am here with my lover, Tom, and his son. The first day of Rose Festival seems like a good day to announce that I plan to marry Tom. Let's now hear what he has to say about this. Here's Tom: Yes. The first day of Rose Festival one can dream." Tom's a little reticent about that marriage.

AH: Here's a great one. It says, "Doctor Miles Parseck is pleased to announce that he's through grieving and ready for love. Interested parties are urged to make contact. Hoi polloi need not apply. Dr. M.P., Main Library."

Monk: Here's somebody's New Year's resolutions. "My New Year Resolutions for 1989. 1)Solve the world's problems. 2) Grow up. 3) Try not to solve all of the world's problems today." And "4)Understand I'm only 16." [Laughs] That's just so sweet! It's just too good.

If you want to reach Anne, or purchase her poster ("When You are Not Rich, You Either Buy Clothes Or You Buy Art"), write to AHUGHES105@AOL.COM