Former Hazel Dancer Fred Nemo Now Runs Black Hat Books, Perhaps the City’s Most Quixotic Repository

The grand majority of the store’s stock comes from Nemo’s personal collection of some 40,000 titles.

Black-Hat-Books_Gotis_Finder2019_shop Suzie Gotis

As the hyperkinetic dancer for Hazel, a sometimes overlooked yet integral component of Portland’s ‘90s indie music heroes, Fred Nemo was a madly gyrating enigma. Even during the height of his star turn tripping the light fantastic—”the tall, wild-eyed Fred Nemo, dancing at center stage in sporadic twitches and poses,” wrote The New York Times’ Jon Pareles—the leaping legend seethed insularity.

However, Nemo regularly collaborated with Los Angeles singer-songwriter-polymath Tara Jane O’Neil, spent years managing the accounts of ‘70s underground paper The Portland Scribe, and became a lead plaintiff in the landmark Critical Mass lawsuit against the city of Portland after police kept participants from distributing flyers without a permit. And, since 2015, he’s served as Black Hat Books’ owner, operator and curator of what is perhaps the city’s most quixotic repository.

“A number of striking differences make this shop not like every other,” Nemo explains. “Underserved racial minority literature—African American, Native American, Hispanic—[represents] about half of what’s here. There’s a robust African section, East Asian section, Middle East, Judaica, Caribbean, Eastern European, Russian, feminist.”

Two shelves of true crime are broken down into nine groupings. African American literature, including the permanent archive of 5,000 titles viewable upon request, has 30 classifications.

“We subcategorize promiscuously,” Nemo says.

Fascinated by ethically ambiguous black hats—from Richard Boone’s Old West mercenary Paladin to Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, the inventory isn’t meant to discredit the white Western canon (here filed under “Bad Boys”) so much as champion dissidents of every stripe. The grand majority of this stock, after all, comes from Nemo’s personal collection of some 40,000 titles.

“It never occurred to me to have a bookshop until, driving down [Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard] one day, I saw a ‘For Sale’ sign in front of this ugly-ass ex-wine bar named Alu. This was 2011, during the absolute nadir of local real estate, and I had a house full of books—like, too full, the kind of house where hoarders need to cut little paths through each room.”

The Black Hat space does catch the eye, all the more so after a small structural elevation to maximize floor space lent the graying, rusticated edifice a familiar bearing—imperious, austere, somewhat ridiculous, and thoroughly captivating.

“The building lifted 30 inches,” he recalls. “It was originally two stories. I think the top floor caught fire in the 1950s, and instead of restoration, they put on a new roof and turned it into a bungalow. This used to be the basement, but 6-foot-4 ceilings work better in a wine bar—those low velvet divans—than bookshop. So, for $12K,” Nemo smiles, “I made the house dance.”

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