I'd Rather Be At Powell's

After living in Portland, Oregon for most of my adult life, I recently moved to Honolulu largely to escape the long, cold, wet winters in the Northwest. It is almost March and a friend wrote me today that in snowed last night in Portland.

I think often of the city and what I’d be doing there now. Even when it was cold or rainy, I went to Powell’s Bookstore several times a week. I was fortunate in that it was located a few blocks from my home. Of all my favorite places in Portland, Powell’s is the one place I miss the most.

Just before moving to Hawaii, I went one night over to the store. It was the first time I had been there in a while. I went upstairs to the book holding room. I had ordered a book from their warehouse the day before and here it was the very next day. It is a long walk up to the 5th floor but I didn’t mind, since it took me through the philosophy section with all those treasures I wanted to read or read again. I came downstairs to the 4th floor where a reading was about to begin and stopped to scan the book the visiting author was going to discuss. It seemed interesting and I thought about staying. Afterward, I regretted that I didn’t.

And then I wandered around the travel section on the third floor and eventually returned to the new book section on the 1st floor. It felt really good to be there, so close to where my home was, even though the night was cold and wet. And the next morning I thought it might be hard to live in a place where Powell’s wasn’t just a couple of blocks down the way. And then I wondered if a bookstore, if Powell’s, could keep a person, keep me, in a town that I found so cold and oppressive most of the year.

Many writers have written about Powell’s. Many Portland area writers work there and many others would like to. Most writers speak at Powell’s on their national book tour. I have listen to former students talk about the books they have written and well known writers read from their latest novel. More often than not I must stand to listen. Even though there is an ample supply of seats in the Reading Room, it is always filled to capacity long before the author arrives.

The writer Laila Lalami recently left Portland for a teaching position in California. Here is what she wrote just before leaving:

We went to Powell's last night, and being in those aisles almost brought me to tears. The Blue Room! The literary magazine rack! The Cavallini notebooks! I picked up two travel books by Pico Iyer (The Lady and the Monk and Video Night in Kathmandu), a used hardcover, in excellent condition, of Moroccan anthropologist Abdellah Hammoudi's A Season in Mecca, Coetzee's memoir Youth, and a few other titles for fall. Few places give readers so much opportunity as Powell's to explore and try something different. I don't know what I'm going to do without it.

David Shipley, coauthor with Will Schwalbe of their recently published Send, a guide to e-mailing wrote:

I was born in Portland (1963) and grew up there. Powell's was a fixture of my childhood, … The store was smaller, colder, dingier, moldier. The windows — and this could be memory talking — seemed perpetually steamed up. I can't help thinking back to those days now — back to those afternoons when my mom carted my brother and sister and me (all of us crowded in the wayback of her deep green 1972 Volvo, long before seatbelts were mandatory) downtown to hang out at Powell's and get lost in and among books.

The late Susan Sontag called it the “best bookstore in the English-speaking world.” And Susan Sontag usually knew what she was talking about. If you do not live in Portland, I invite you to visit Powell’s website, where you can stroll about the shelves, buy a book or two, or subscribe to their several e-mail newsletters.

Powell’s has been widely written about in the press. From the many observations collected on its website, I have selected a few to post below:

"The point is Powell's probably is the world's greatest bookstore. It is a place of staggering ambition, hidden in the very humble wrapper of a worn-out warehouse. Any library we seek tax money to build ought to measure up to Powell's or it isn't worth it." The Seattle Times

"And I love the unique sense of expectancy that, time and again, carries me into Powell's. It's not unlike the anticipation wrought by a great book ... and it is the hallmark of a great bookstore." Steve Dunn, The Oregonian

"The once heretical notion of putting new books next to used ones turned out to be absolutely brilliant." Inc. Magazine, May 2004

"Party crasher Ralph Nader, on walking Monday night through Mike Powell's bookstore: 'This is what civilization should look like.'" The Oregonian, January 23, 2002

"There simply is no place in America like Powell's. No bookstore is so big or so meticulously organized, and none has such a psychic hold on so large a community.... Authors on book tours have been known to ask for an extra day [in Portland] just to wander its aisles." John Balzar, Los Angeles Times

"They are just one of the finest operations in the country, the most innovative and creative..." The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 1998