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Looking back at the stories he covered in 2020, NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Tom Casciato joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss his profile of singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett and his reportage on the pandemic’s impact on small businesses through the lens of the iconic Powell’s Books in Portland.
And finally, we hear from Tom Casciato on some of the stories he worked on last year.
Tom, as the pandemic set in, we started doing stories about how it was affecting businesses large and small, and you focused on a bookstore in Portland, tell us about it.
Yeah, Portland's my home town. and I think anybody who's been to Portland or lives in Portland knows how central Powell's Books is to the city. It's hard to talk about a store being a major cultural institution, but that's exactly what Powell's is.
For decades, the center of Portland's reading life has been Powell's bookstore. It takes up a whole city block, houses over a million volumes, new and used. It's even a tourist destination.
You know, when people come to visit Portland, visiting Powell's is at the top of the list. You know, when you go to a city — when you go to Paris, you want to see the Eiffel Tower. You go to Portland. you want to go to Powell's bookstore.
Samiya Bashir, a poet, and a professor at Portland's Reed College, says Powell's is special for readers, and for writers. Each year Powell's' 500-or-so readings draw an estimated 36,000 people … big numbers in bookstore world. The bestselling author Rick Moody say's there's nothing in the country like reading there.
The first time I read there, I knew a tiny bit about it by reputation. And then I had that amazing experience of coming up Burnside and seeing the marquee.
There's something about Powell's and something about that big marquee right in the middle of downtown that gives a bit of a kind of a Radio City Music Hall vibe to the authors that come through.
It became very scary when Covid hit and it looked like Powell's might close they're still hanging on now. They've closed a couple of Powell's locations in the city. they had one at Portland airport that's now closed. They had one devoted to books about home and gardening that is now closed. The main store is still open. I talked to one Portlander on the phone the other day who said it used to be that the biggest problem standing in line at this time of year was the long line to check out. Now that it's open with limited capacity, the biggest problem is the long line just to get into the store.
Your informal beat, in a way, is music. you were able to profile an Australian singer. What drew you to Courtney?
Courtney Barnett is, I think, perhaps the greatest singer songwriter of her generation. I know that Taylor Swift fans won't like hearing that. I'm also confident that Taylor Swift fans don't care what I think anyway. But she has such a command of language, such a great presence.
Tom Casciato (to Courtney Barnett):
Were you a word kid? were you a kid who loved words, and playing with words?
Yeah, I loved reading.
Were you making up words then? You do make up words.
Have I made up that many words? I don't think I have.
Well, you used emphysema as a verb: to "emphyseme"?
Courtney Barnett (singing):
My hands are shaky, my knees are weakI can't seem to stand on my own two feetI'm breathing but I'm wheezing, feel like I'm emphyseme-in'My throat feels like a funnel filled with weet-bix, and kerosene.
That's not making up. That's just — that's being creative. (laughs)
I'd rather die than owe the hospital till I get old.
It just seemed like an ordinary profile of a singer. It was supposed to be on the air right in the middle of March, right around the time you and I and everybody else in the office left the office and went to work at home for these many months. And we waited weeks and weeks to put the piece on the air. and finally, there was just so much Covid news that was rightly taking up so much new space. We just decided to put it online. So I fear that fewer people saw that than I would have hoped. It does stream at PBS.org, and it does stream on YouTube, and I hope maybe they will take a look at it now online.
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