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Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America

Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Scarface Nation

PART I
1
Scarface Lives Among Us
MAJOR IMMIGRANT SMUGGLING RING IS BROKEN IN PHOENIX, POLICE SAY
The New York Times February 15, 2008 By Randal C. Archibold
PHOENIX--In a case highlighting this city's prominent role in the smuggling of illegal immigrants across the border, the authorities conducted a series of raids on Thursday, arresting what they said were the leaders of a ring that helped transport hundreds of people to way stations in Phoenix ... .
The authorities made 20 arrests, including those of two Cubans accused of directing the operation ... . Oddities abounded along the way ... .
"We often see 'Scarface' or 'Godfather' posters," said Lt. Vince Piano of the Phoenix Police Department, a lead investigator. "That's the mentality."
MAN SHOWS "SCARFACE" T-SHIRT AND DEMANDS CHECK AT BANK
By The Associated Press March 28, 2007
MICHIGAN CITY, Ind.--A 24-year-old Michigan City man entered the City Savings Bank just before noon Tuesday and asked to see the manager, the police report said. Brian Nelson, vice president of consumer lending at the northwestern Indiana bank, brought him into his office and the man demanded a check for $10,000, Nelson told Michigan City police. The man ... lifted up his T-shirt, which was inside out, to display an image from Scarface. It showed Pacino's character, Tony Montana, brandishing a gun and the words "Straight to Hell," the report said. The man at the bank told Nelson "You see what I mean."
OUT WITH OLD, IN WITH THE TEEN TOUCH
Simple tips to turn kids' rooms into dream spots By Casey Capachi Contra Costa Times Teen Correspondent Article Launched: 06/15/2007
"Every self-respecting guy needs a Scarface poster in his room," says senior Robert Carrington from Acalanes High School. "If you put up that giant black-and-white Scarface poster, some of the manliness is sure to rub off."
"SCARFACE" POSTER NEAR 37 POUNDS OF COKE, DETECTIVE SAYS
Posted by Birmingham News staff, Birmingham, Alabama, July 26, 2007 3:08 PM
A poster from the movie Scarface adorned a hallway wall near a closet where Birmingham police found more than 37 pounds of cocaine inside a tote bag, testimony in a Jefferson County drug trial showed today The poster depicts Al Pacino, who starred in the 1983 movie, in front of a large amount of cocaine. In addition to the 17 kilograms of cocaine in the hall closet, police also found nearly a halfkilogram more of cocaine and pills of the illegal drug Ecstasy, according to testimony today in the trial of Derrick Phillip Ervin.
Suburban and Wayne Times, March 3, 2006
"Radnor, PA: A man was robbed while walking on Conestoga Road near County Line Avenue on Jan. 27 around midnight. Four black men ... accosted the victim, punching him in the head several times and taking a white leather coat with 'Scarface' written on it valued at $1,500 and a cell phone valued at $200."
"SCARFACE MANSION" TO BECOME CLINIC
Tom Kington in Rome Monday, July 9, 2007 The Guardian
Gangsters the world over have long looked up to Tony Montana, the fictional Cuban drug dealer in the 1983 film Scarface, who dies in a hail of bullets in his kitsch, neo-classical Miami villa.
One Naples mobster, Walter Schiavone, was so enamoured of the character played by Al Pacino he built a [$3 million] replica of the villa.
But instead of meeting the glorious fate of his hero, Schiavone was arrested on murder charges in 1999 while trying to escape over his garden wall.
The brother of the boss of the feared Casalesi clan, Schiavone commissionedhis villa by handing a video of Scarface to a local architect and telling him to build what he saw.
 

 

Hollywood Reporter, July 2006
"NBA star Shaquille O'Neill celebrated his 34th birthday with a Scarface-themed party in Miami. The venue was decked out like a 1980s Scarface set, complete with Elvira Hancock look-alikes, a "The World Is Yours" statue, and a tiger. Shaq wore Scarface's signature white suit and black shirt, and Steven Bauer, who plays Manny Ribera in the movie, even put in an appearance."
 

As soon as I started work on this book, I was immediately inundated, impressed with, and sometimes overwhelmed by the way Scarface has continued its ceaseless commercial intrusions into the marketplace, its non-stop permeation into all media, the way it continues to influence a new generation of pop-culture creators.
Consider the following current phenomena:
Scarface as Video Game
Scarface: The World Is Yours (Vivendi/Sierra) was first released for the Xbox in late 2006, and even more sucessfully in the Wii format in 2007, featuring a what-if-Tony-didn't-die scenario conceived by screenwriter Dave McKenna, who wrote the Edward Norton feature film American History X. "I wrote forty hours' worth of dialogue [for the video game]," McKenna told me. "Because you have to write for every possible situation that the gamer moves Tony into: If he walks into this room, he talks to his lawyer; if he walks outside, he talks to a babe at the pool. It's basically how many different ways can I invent to have him tell people to fuck off." Although Al Pacino declined to record new dialogue, a surreally diverse voice cast includes Bauer and a posse that didn't appear in the movie: James Woods, Wilmer Valderrama, Bai Ling, Tommy Lee, Desperate Housewives ghost-voice Brenda Strong, and the semi-reunion of the head-trip comedy duo Cheech (Marin) and (Tommy) Chong (they recorded their parts separately). The video game--which has sold more than two million copies--takes place in a post-Scarface landscape where Tony has survived his movie-finale shoot-out and must rebuild his empire, attacking Sosa and other villains and obstacles which even include the tigers Tony stocked his estate with. Manny and Gina are dead, their ashes kept in urns that the game-player can find in a remote room and buy for safekeeping. Scarface: The World Is Yours features a "Blind-Rage Mode," which when set compels Tony Montana to spray machine-gun bullets indiscriminately, at anyone or anything he encounters, and has a "Fuck You button" that when pressed causes Tony to utter obscenities. (Scarface in the gaming world is nothing new; one of the genre's most popular games, 2002's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, was heavily based on Scarface plotlines. The game's protagonist, Richard Diaz, has an opulent mansion, and the climactic battle that takes place in it at the game's end, is very similar to those in Scarface. (There is a hidden apartment room with blood on the bathroom walls and a chain saw.)
Scarface by the Numbers
In 2006-2007, Scarface: The World Is Yours was the number-one-selling game in the Wii, PlayStation2, and X-Box formats, selling over two millions copies combined, according to numerous video-game estimates.
Scarface's 2003 two-disc DVD release sold over five million units in '03 alone; its 2006 "Platinum" edition has sold over four million copies.
Scarface Telephone
Scarface wouldn't be vibrant without a ringtone: From scarfacemobile .com, you can download wallpaper images and ringtones with Scarface theme music or cleaned-up versions of the most famous lines from the film. The Scarface franchise is licensed from Universal via Starwave Mobile, owned by the Walt Disney Company, which results in the nice irony that "Say hello to my little friend" could possibly refer to Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. By mid-2007, more than two million downloads had been reported--more than 1 percent of all mobile consumption revenue--with more lines and scenes from the movie planned for release. These include "Scarface Casino," which is described by the company as "a casual game" inspired by poker andcard games where players strategize against one another, and "Scarface: MPR (Money Power. Respect.)," a "more immersive game that's task-driven." (I think that's tidy corporate-speak for: "Kill the cocainecartel guards, seize the product.")
A Starwave Mobile executive was quoted in the Hollywood Reporter in May 2007 as saying that Scarface is "such an iconic brand that it can reach pretty broadly and continues to inspire us. Thinking broadly about how to drive that story line to new story lines, and thinking about the content as part of a new entertainment platform, has made it successful."
It's Not TV, It's HBO-Scarface
It makes sense that a TV show such as The Sopranos would have its Scarface moment ... and it did, in fact, in its very first, pilot episode: Christopher, always the fledgling screenwriter, bleats to Tony, passionately urging a bloody showdown with a rival mobster: "This is Scarface, final scene, fuckin' bazookas under each arm, say-hello-to-mylittle-friend time!"
 

Indeed, anything-goes pay-cable HBO is a logical locus for Scarface humor: On Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, a rapper calling himself Krazee-Eyez Killa (played by Chris Williams) gives David a tour of his mansion, saying he fantasizes about having a big-screen plasma TV on his bedroom ceiling in order to "play Scarface 24/7."
On the same cable network's Entourage, an ongoing subplot introduced during the series' second season involved pretty-boy moviestarVince Chase hoping to do a little indie film called Medellin in which the young actor would portray drug lord Pablo Escobar: "This movie is gonna be, like, the new Scarface," says Vince Chase; he then does an imitation of Pacino snorting coke off a desk. A few episodes later, Vince's agent Ari Gold crows of Medellin, "This could be your Scarface!" By the third season, Entourage was working old Scarface cast members themselves into the show: a May 2007 episode featured Harris Yulin (the film's corrupt cop Mel Bernstein) as the aging producer of Medellin who decides Jeremy Piven's Ari is too much of a pain to deal with, and shuts the project down. (Yet, neither this producer nor Ari takes a bullet to the gut as Mel did from Tony)
Finally, Scarface looms unexpectedly in HBO's The Wire, the great urban drama of the new century, a pitiless, wrenching, often stingingly funny look at the effects of the drug trade on poor black neighborhoods in Baltimore. There, in the show's fifth and greatest year, which launched in 2006, the terrifyingly cold-blooded young drug dealer Snoop (the awe-inspiring Felicia Pearson, in her first professional acting role), wears a Scarface jacket in one episode. One can't help but view it as emblematic of her ruthless determination to nullify her opponents and competition in the drug trade. Al Pacino's face on Snoop's clothing is a debonair, nonchalant act of homage by this young woman: not by Simon and his fellow scenarists, who have no use for Scarface's baroque excess--who, in fact, by their muted style of storytelling and the sophistication of their moral layering, probably view De Palma's work as melodramatic, if not crude--but who nonetheless on some level have been forced by Scarface's cultural pervasiveness to recognize that even some of the young fictional characters they have created would inevitably find the movie's street code embedded in Scarface DNA.
Cartoon Scarface
The Simpsons, South Park, and The Family Guy have all Scarfaced:
 

In the sixth-season episode of The Simpsons called "Lisa's Rival," Homer assumes a Cuban accent to speak of one of his favorite topics--donuts and their allure: "First you get the sugar, then you get the powder, then you get the women."
In the ninth season of South Park, the squat bully Cartman addresses a school assembly dressed in a white Scarface disco suit and addresses the students as "cock-a-roaches." "You need people like me,"says the 'toon series' prime "bad guy," "so you can point your fingers ... Well, say good-night to the bad guy!" Cartman concludes; the auditorium curtain is hastily closed.
On YouTube.com, you can see a section of The Family Guy recut so that its precocious baby, Stewie, becomes Scarface: http://youtube.com/watch?v=BPH9BIGbyLM.
Harry Potter as Scarface
On numerous Internet sites, you'll find Harry Potter fan-fiction that makes a connection between gangster and fantasy hero: The lightning bolt that creases young Harry's face earns him a fan's fond nickname: Scarface. Of course, Harry Potter is the mannerly Tony Montana, not so much rebellious underdog as magical scamp, yet he is still a persecuted youth who slowly, steadily, discovers his enormous power.
Scarface Country
Most people know at least something about Scarface's hip-hop influence. But there's a different-genre music-video that's striking: Johnny Cash's recording of Nine Inch Nails's "Hurt," set to a well-edited, slowly paced sequence of wordless scenes from Scarface, in black-and-white, drained of color: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WasMSZZCt-w.
Tagged on YouTube as "Johnny Cash Meets Scarface," it showsMontana in his final stages of cocaine stupor, as Cash sings in the solemn croak of his own final years, "I focus on the pain/The only thing that's real." While scenes of Montana shooting Manny and Gina play as if they're memories Tony is having shortly before picking up his machine gun one final time, Cash sings, "What have I become ... Everyone I know goes away in the end ..." and during the last blazing shoot-out, Cash's voice rings like a death knell as Tony is torn by bullets: "My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt." It's spookily effective.
Scarface the Merchandiser
The Internet offers a cornucopia of Scarface merchandise. Aside from the obvious--posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains that when pressed say, "Say hello to my little friend!"--there are items such as Scarface dartboards, poker chips, flip-flop sandals, and a set of shower curtains that sold for over $300 on eBay. Among the more pricey items of clothing are short-sleeved, Hawaiian-style shirts into which the word "Scarface" is woven into the shirttail, and the character's initials, T.M., are discreetly embroidered on the sleeves. As The New York Times reported in a 2005 trend piece, "[Tony Montana's] initials gracethe buttons, too: no detail spared. The orange buttons glow in the dark like sinister fireflies, real attention-getters at nightclubs."
I visited a Greenwich Village store selling these shins--"one hundred percent polyester!" crowed the owner. These fancy loose-hanging, Hawaiian-style shirts sell for between $60 to $80, and include versions with Scarface reclining in the tub with a cigar, or brandishing an Uzi. I admit it: I passed. Now, an Izod shirt with a little Tony-head instead of an alligator--that's something I might invest in.
 

Want to be Scarface in October? There's a 549.95-retailing Halloween costume consisting of a white disco-era suit, a red wide-collar shirt, and a machine gun. (The package notes that the gat is "not available in some states": One supposes you then trick-or-treat saying, "Say hello to my leettle thumb-and-forefinger pointing!")
There are, of course, posters galore, but the most unusual one is a hand-drawn, pointillist portrait of Pacino/Scarface shooting a big automatic rifle in full going-to-glory grimace: When you move in closely, you see that the picture was formed by writing out the entire script of the movie--every word of it--in a tiny hand, in black and red ink. Los Angeles Pop Art, the company that manufactures the poster, refers to this method as "micrography"--"tiny writing to render the illusion of an image," says the company Web site. Well, there's nothing illusory about it: you can read Scarface with one's face pressed to the poster, or stand back to look at the Pacino in extremis photo-image.
Scarface in Prime Time
On TV, Scarface references range from the most generic to the most specific, assuming a knowledge of the movie's details. The NBC sitcom My Name Is Earl, whose premise is built around a list of sins for which Earl must atone, found a way to imply a Scarface-favorite fourletter word without uttering it. One of Earl's sons tells the show's hero that his ex-wife, Joy, calls his piece of paper "the 'idiot list.'" "But," says the little boy, "she puts another word in front of it. But I don't know what it means--the guy in Scarface says it a lot ..."
On a September 2006 episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Chris Noth's Det. Mike Logan explains to a colleague the definition of a "police surgeon" as they examine a doctor's murdered body: "He stitches up cops when they don't want to look like Scarface."
During a September 2006 Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update," coanchor Seth Meyers told the following joke: "A South Floridateenager used his father's credit card to run away from home and back to Cuba. For more on this story, see Scarface: In Reverse."
The teen drama The O.C. likes the movie: In the second-season finale, after a drug deal turns into a shoot-out at the kids' hangout the Bait Shop, Rachel Bilson's Summer is hungry for some pancakes: "After that scene from Scarface we just lived through, I could use a short stack, stat." And in the show's final, 2006-07 season, Adam Brody's Seth is seen playing the Scarface video game.
Scarrace as Pop-Culture Influence
Does all of this have any collective meaning? Certainly In the firestorm debate that flared in 2007 over radio and TV personality Don Imus's racist jokes and subsequent firing, the media turned its gaze once more to the gangster culture that Scarface helped to implant in our collective mind. Once again, the argument about how much violence and misogyny in pop culture seeps into real life was brought to the fore. And here again, De Palma was prescient. In a 1984 interview-essay about De Palma, the novelist Martin Amis wrote, "Brian De Palma once described, with typical recklessness, his notion of an ideal viewership. 'I like a real street audience--people who talk during and at a movie, a very unsophisticated, 42nd Street crowd.' He is right to think that he has an affinity for these cineastes," Amis continued, going in for the kill, spilling his contempt on both the director and his audience as "[people] who have trouble distinguishing filmic life from the real thing. De Palma movies depend not on a suspension of disbelief but on a suspension of intelligence such as the 42nd Streetcrowd have already made before they come jabbering into the stalls."
Amis, go home: The sneery novelist's cheap condescension entirely bypasses the independence and originality of moviegoers' response to Scarface--their refusal to do what so many haughty culture observers like Amis usually accuse the masses of doing: of falling for the hype--or in the case of Scarface, the initial film-critic hype-dismissal that this was not a movie worth attending to.
A November [6] 2006 New Yorker piece by Nick Paumgarten proposed that a new primary text for the gangsta code of honor is Robert Greene's 1998 book, The 48 Laws of Power, with its Scarfacian dictates such as "Crush your enemy totally," and "Play a sucker to catch a sucker." Quincy Jones III, son of the music producer, goes so far as to say that hip-hop has evolved beyond its gangsta period, which was, Paumgarten writes, "exemplified by its fixation with the movie Scarface, [but is now] into a more mature phase, for which the cold-eyed but buttoned-up ethos of The 48 Laws is better suited." For music's sake, one can hope Jones and Paumgarten are right: the gangsta tropes snatched from Scarface--the ostentatious jewelry, the glorification of drug-taking as well as drug-selling, and the images of women as nearnaked arm-candy--are largely played out, exhausted via endless repetition, leaving behind a few but significant albums or songs that retain, and sometimes exceed brilliantly, the brute power and angry despair of the film.
Paumgarten's promotion of The 48 Laws does not mean, however, that Scarface itself will dissipate as a pop-cultural influence. By now, its effect is deeply ingrained in the realism of the hard stare, in the romanticism of loyalty and respect, and in the efficiency of the big gun--all of that permeates action movies from directors such as Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, and an upcoming generation of young directors.
These directors include Geo Santini, twenty-eight years old, a prolific director of music videos and director of the 2008 urban thriller Hotel California, starring Yancey Arias (the title star of a prime-time Scarface-inffuenced TV series, Kingpin) as a drug dealer trying to go straight. Santini says he has "a Scarface tattoo on my arm--my right arm, with Al Pacino's face as Scarface. Underneath that, is written, 'El niño sin amor,' which means 'A child without love' in Spanish. I've had it since I was seventeen.
"I did a video for [the rapper] Cuban Linx, who also has a Scarface tattoo, also on his right arm: he has the actual poster [for Scarface]. We were talking about the movie and we agree: We all want the cars, we all want, like Tony wanted, to prove to his mom, 'Hey, I'm better, I made it, I'm a good son, I can provide.'
"He's using a negative avenue [drug-dealing, to achieve his goals], but that's the only avenue he can follow ... [But] he crossed the line, and that's when everything went wrong: When he killed Manny, he killed a guy who had his back, the guy that helped him get to where he was. And that's also what drowns a lotta people: their egos; getting too infatuated with who they are. That was his downfall. That happens a lot with any person in business, in the music or movie game--whatever. It affects their work and they start to decline."
Santini has a theory about why Scarface has such lasting power. "I call it 'The Guy Romance.' It's a movie about the young man who comes from the gutter, and doesn't let nobody stand in his way He just used whatever way he could to get to the top, to get the things he wanted. And he earned the respect of the people around him. So I think it's the guy romance--movie: he got the woman he wanted; he saw something, he took it. It's what a lotta guys fantasize about, just like a lotta of girls fantasize about, 'Oh, that guy's so sweet, he comesback to the girl at the end.' In our case, he goes after and gets what he wants and takes it to the top."
Yancey Arias, Santini's star in Hotel California, says he was "only eight years old the first time I saw it. One of my aunts brought me. I think over the years what the movie has glamorized was that kind of rags to riches thing, but even more exotic is that this guy did something that, in order to make that kind of money, you had to take the riskiest job around which was, you know, selling drugs.
"People come to this country looking for that American dream and several options are closed off to them and they find themselves saying, 'Well, to hell with it--I'm gonna be Scarface,' you know? Which is unfortunate, but it does happen, and Brian De Palma did an excellent job of evoking not just that world, but that attitude. Because if you take the drugs out of the equation, the little man with the big heart who just wants to make himself into somebody--you know, the guy says 'the world is yours'?--for guys like myself, who make an honest living, you can still apply a lot of the metaphors or a lot of those phrases in your own life. There was definitely a code of honor in that film. It becomes a profound experience to a lot of people who say, 'You know, I'm not going to be a timid person; I'm not going to let people exploit or manipulate me.'"
Arias calls Scarface "the godfather of all the drug movies, and no one else has ever gotten it as right again. They can't touch it. Even [De Palma's] Carlito's Way didn't come close. I remember sitting in the audience the night Carlito's Way came out. Everyone around me was a big Scarface fan, and they couldn't wait to see Al Pacino. He had just won an Oscar for Scent of a Woman, he was a huge mainstream star, but this was in a big movie theater in Times Square, and you have all these urban kids, not just black and Hispanics, white people as well,and they wanted not Scent of a Woman--Al, they wanted Scarface-Al. So they went nuts when [in Carlito's Way] he finally opened fire in Grand Central Station, because that to them is what the grandeur of Scarface was about, the final scene when he's fighting the Colombians.
"It's like these people weren't even watching a movie called Carlito's Way. They were literally trying to revisit Scarface."
Another Hispanic actor who feels an intense, ongoing connection to Scarface is Vincent Laresca, best known as the terrorist Hector Salazar in the 2003-04 season of TV's 24. He saw Scarface at the tender age of ten, and as he grew up, he says, "as a Latino man in New York it was like, 'I wanna be Tony Montana; I have a shot at being Tony' It really hit my generation of Latinos as, 'Man, that guy looks like me. That could be me.' He was the first character that, it wasn't about the mob position you held, or about the mob tradition and all this 'made-man' stuff--he was a Marieleto; he came here on a boat and he was gonna live the American dream, at any cost, by any means necessary."
Notes Laresca, "All these rappers that are out there rapping about how much money they got, and all the drugs they sell--that's who they're emulating: They're living their little Tony Montana dream.
"It's hard to say: Had that movie not come out, would pop culture be the way it is? I honestly don't know. When you listen to a song by Jay-Z or a young rap star like a Young Jeezy, what are they talking about? 'Yeah, man, I sold drugs and I got away with it.' That was the whole story of Tony Montana, he sold drugs and got away with it.
"He's a real contradiction--a real hero, and a real tragedy"
Scarface is in many ways a simple-minded movie--a big-budget exploitation film--that has taken on a moral complexity only because of what its viewers have brought to it, read into it, and made of it. It's not what's onscreen so much as how what is onscreen altered the livesof its viewers. Sometimes these alterations are merely crass and kneejerk (getting off on the carnage and the obscenities), and sometimes these alterations verge on the profound. It's not within this book's scope to speculate on this with any thoroughness, but I do ask this: How many young lives--urban and suburban--might be less caught up in criminal behavior had Scarface not codified a certain set of rules to live (and die) by?
What follows is what is known about Scarface's impact on entertainment and the world--and that world, to quote the words that appear in the film's bitter, mock-triumphant final image, is ours.
SCARFACE NATION. Copyright © 2008 by Ken Tucker. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York. N.Y 10010.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780312330590
Subtitle:
The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America
Publisher:
St. Martin's Griffin
Author:
Tucker, Ken
Subject:
Film & Video - History & Criticism
Subject:
Film - History & Criticism
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
20081111
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Includes 30 bandw photos throughout plus
Pages:
288
Dimensions:
9.25 x 7.13 in

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Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America
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Product details 288 pages St. Martin's Griffin - English 9780312330590 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , On the 25th anniversary of the release of "Scarface," Tucker's work follows the film's influence throughout movies, music, television, graphic novels, and consumer culture. 30 b&w photos throughout and one 16-page color photo insert.
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