Field Tripping: Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Oregon
Can a bookstore really be a field trip / tourist destination? If you are a bibliophile, and the bookstore is Powell’s, the answer is a resounding “yes!” In case you think I’m exaggerating (I’m not) or a bit obsessive when it comes to books (I am), Lonely Planet, Time, and Travel Portland all agree with me. In a city with no shortage of appealing destinations, Powell’s still makes it into nearly every list of Things You Must Do In Portland.
The original Powell’s was opened by Walter Powell, a retired painting contractor, in 1971. Walter caught the book-bug from his son Michael who was, at the time, a grad student at the University of Chicago and a friend of Saul Bellow. Apparently Walter couldn’t say “no” to any book. He had the novel (sorry, couldn’t help it) idea of offering everything that came his way: used books, new books, paperbacks, hardcovers, in print, out-of-print, covering pretty much any topic. He soon outgrew his original storefront and the car dealership that he expanded into. Powell’s has survived the demise of most local bookstores (and continued to grow), the death of many big-box bookstores (and continued to grow), and the heyday of Amazon (and, you guessed it, still growing).
• Books. Over a million of them (literally). They take up an entire city block in the flagship store alone. They fill nine color-coded rooms which cover 68,000 square feet. In fact, it’s a maze. If you want one, they have maps. Or you can just wander. I have yet to run into a minotaur.
• The Range of topics. Powell’s divides the books into 122 main subject areas, and more than 3,500 sub-categories. Everyone in my family has different interests, and there’s something for all of us. Vintage auto racing books? Check. Books on the history of clothing that have been out of print for a decade? Check. Offspring asked for LGBTQIA literature, and the helpful salesperson asked, “Do you want teen fiction, adult fiction, biography, memoir, poetry, academic, or health?”
• Prices. I’m sure there are expensive books at Powell’s, but so far everything that we’ve found, including out-of-print works that we’ve searched everywhere else for, have been quite reasonably priced.
• The Staff. Efficient, knowledgable, enthusiastic, and genuinely nice. You can sit on the floor reading books for hours, and they will never complain.
• Open 365 Days a Year.
• Rare Book Room. Enough said.
• Other locations. Full disclosure: I’ve never felt the need to go anywhere but the main store on the corner of 10th and Burnside, but, as I mentioned, Powell’s is growing and there’s only so much expansion that can happen in the original spot. Powell’s Books Bldg. 2 is across the street from the main store and houses technical books covering math, science and computing. There’s another general bookstore on Southeast Hawthorne, and a separate store on the same block specializing in gardening and cookbooks. There’s a Powell’s at Portland International Airport, and one in Beaverton, southwest of Portland. And then there’s the online store.
• Books. If you don’t love them, this is clearly not a destination for you. If you do love them, Powell’s will bring out your worst avaricious streak.
• Crowds. Powell’s estimates that around 3,000 people actually buy books at their main location every day and another 3,000 “just browse and drink coffee.” That said, my main interests aren’t hot topics, so once I find my section I haven’t really been disturbed.
• Cafe. I’ve no idea whether Powell’s World Cup Coffee & Tea is good or not. You know the 3,000 people a day mentioned above who drink coffee at Powell’s? Yeah, I’ve never even been able to get to the counter.
featured image: Powell’s books, by Curtis Cronn
map of Powell’s from Powell’s website
bookshelf at Powell’s by the author
Miles and Miles by duluoz cats
Wordstock literary festival promo at Powell’s Books by Todd Mecklem
Better than Amazon recommendations by Peter Robinett