Powell’s City of Books

April 15, 2002
Filed under Destinations

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A college professor once advised me how to visit a museum. “Take your time,” he said, “and
try to figure out what the artist was trying to say – then learn something about yourself.”
To visit a museum without savoring the experience, he said, is to judge a book by its
cover. And he was right. Not an art teacher, but a professor of Slavic languages, Peter was
the one who introduced me to Dostoevsky. Recently, in the wonder that is Powell’s City of
Books in Portland, Oregon, I trained my eyes across volume after volume, edition after
edition of Fyodor’s works, and Peter’s slow-and-easy approach echoed in my ears. “Pace
yourself,” I said, as I walked into the entryway and looked up at the sign that identifies
the nine color-coded rooms, plus the rare-book room. The owners of this gigantic
establishment had already done the heavy lifting – buying, pricing, categorizing and
stocking the books. All I had to do was grab a map (which folds out into six sections, 12
if you count front and back) and choose which world – I mean, which room – I wanted to
explore. The Red Room for Theology and Foreign Language; Purple for U.S. History and
Anthropology; Rose for Railroads and Physics; Orange for Gardening and Business; Gold for
Romance and Mysteries; Blue for Poetry and Literature; Green for New Arrivals and Sale
Books; Pearl for Photography and Music; and Coffee for Humor and Refreshment. Of course,
these categories barely scratch the surface, since about 550 of them, from Alcoholics
Anonymous to Zoology, fill out this 65,000-square-foot tribute to books in all their
permutations. One of the unusual, if not unique, things about Powell’s is that both new and
used hardbacks and paperbacks line the same shelves, a feature that allows readers to find
the books they’re looking for, much of the time in a few editions. Then readers can decide
which selection they want to make based on price, publisher, print size or cover design.
How nice it is to comparison-shop this way. When I moved to the literature section (Blue),
my professor’s advice came back to me, so I slowed down, realizing that the store has more
than a million titles – yes, actually in stock – and that if I read every hour of every
day, I’d never work my way through the letter D, let alone the vowels. So I was free to
pluck a miscellaneous assortment and four editions of my favorite novel, Robert Penn
Warren’s All the King’s Men, which I like to give as gifts, without pondering the
cumulative weight of the written word. In the Coffee Room, as I sipped the local grind, I
wondered how this combination of funkiness and erudition had become the empire it is. After
all, the City of Books has four satellite stores around Portland and the suburbs, and three
specialty stores that specialize in technical books, travel, and cooking and gardening. And
its web site, powells.com, is more profitable than all the bigger-name-but-money-losing
endeavors out there. It turns out that Michael Powell opened his first bookstore in Chicago
in 1971, with some of the seed money coming from Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow. Michael’s
father, Walter, had started a bookstore in Portland, and father and son combined their
efforts and opened this store in 1979 in the current location at 1005 W. Burnside, on the
corner of l0th, in northwestern Portland. RV parking is available at a nearby lot at tenth
and Alder. Today, the operation is open 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Visitors
can tour the store on Tuesdays at 2 p.m. and on Thursdays at 11 a.m. Powell’s buys about
5,000 used books over the counter every day (that’s 1.8 million per year). Some 70 percent
of its stock is comprised of used, out-of-print and rare books. But guests can also enjoy
books at Powell’s that they cannot read, since the Pillar of Books is a sandstone sculpture
of eight of the world’s great works, each weighing 500 pounds. Bibliophiles and folks fond
of independents – the people who fight the good fight against the corporate glacier that’s
grinding its way across America – make their way to one of Powell’s establishments
regularly, looking for an old friend or hoping to make a new one. RVers should certainly
consider stocking up on birthday and other holiday gifts at Powell’s, and deliver their
presents in person. At the end of my visit, I stacked my 22 books into the red basket and
paid my $80. On the way home, I read Warren’s World Enough and Time, which seemed
appropriate. And I resolved to return to Powell’s annually, to work my way through the
rooms, two colors at a time.

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