A Bookstore Like No Other

"Who says the traditional bookshop is dead? In this age of chain superstores and online selling, it often seems that the days of the old-style independent dealer are numbered. But one American bookseller, at least, refuses to believe that." The Independent (London), September 6, 1998

I went to Powell’s bookstore on the weekend and was floored by the number of people there. Yes, it was a rainy afternoon in Portland, Oregon. Perfectly normal day. And it was the day before Valentine’s Day but I can’t imagine that many booklovers were giving their lover a book. And they don’t sell candy at Powell’s. What they sell is an incredible number of new and used books.

There was not a free table in the room where you can get coffee and read for a while. Elsewhere the aisles were filled with serious looking people searching intently for their next acquisition. Many devoted readers were sitting on the floor, pouring over the books they had pulled from the shelf.

Upstairs a large group had gathered for a poetry reading. There were long lines at the two checkout stands, one upstairs on the main floor, the other downstairs on the lower level. It just felt really good to be there on that a dreary Saturday afternoon. And whenever I walk into Powell’s when it is as jammed as it was that day, I break out in a big smile.

Let me tell you a little about Powell’s that many claim is the world’s largest bookstore. I remember when it opened in a run-down warehouse and sold only used books, mostly beat--up paperbacks. Then one day they started to sell new books. After that, the store seem to take off. It now occupies a full block at that same location in a part of town that has become rather gentrified of late.

But still the store has that same dusty-musty warehouse feeling and is but one of several other branches—a couple of stores at the airport, a technical bookstore a down the street a ways, one in the suburbs, and two on the other side of town, one of which specializes in books for home and garden. It also has a widely visited Web site that I am sure is a major source of its revenue. And it has become a must-visit for the increasing number of travelers who come to Portland. No doubt many come primarily to stock up on books at Powell’s.

Powell’s has nine rooms on four floors of one city block. It seems immense. Each room is known by a different color—go to the green and blue rooms for literature, reference, and poetry, the gold room for mysteries and science fiction, the orange room for cooking, crafts, and gardening, the red room for young readers, games and sciences, the purple room for social sciences, history and ethnic studies, the red room for religion, travel and foreign language, and the pearl room for art, drama, music and dance.

During a period when one bookstore after another is closing and when it is reported that two bookstores close every week in England, even Powell’s has been affected by the current economic crisis. Sales have declined somewhat perhaps most notably in online store purchases and plans to expand the store by adding yet a new floor, have been abandoned. I confess, you’d never imagine that was possible after visiting last Saturday afternoon and no doubt the day after either.

It is easy to get lost in Powell’s and I have a hunch more than one booklover has ended up spending the night there after the store had closed. Indeed, as it says on the stores brochure, The City of Books, “Once you visit you won’t want to leave.”

To those of you who fear for the future of the book, take heart, and come to Powell’s any weekend afternoon. Your fears will vanish the moment you walk in the door.