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from Holt Uncensored
March 20th, 2001

Powell's Books,
Portland, Oregon

" can never say enough about Powell's. It was one of the first independents on the Web, certainly the first and most aggressive indie to take on and the chains. Today it offers one of the most extensive bookstore web sites, with its contests, online cafe, wish lists, free books, Puddly awards, small press section, technical books, dishy staff picks, referrals to 'other voices' (check out Free Will Astrology) and some of the best author interviews ever (Jane Smiley, featured now, has never been more eloquent).

"But I read Powell's on the Web because the writing is sensational. This is a very big store and a mighty presence on the Internet, but the attitude is playful, light, independent, adventurous, no-nonsense, sly and professional all at once. How can the web site duplicate the experience of walking through all those colored rooms at Powell's City of Books with their million titles and oddball matchups and used books mixed in with the new? Why, it invites us to 'Do the Shuffle' on a page where a random selection of eight books, pulled 'from selections throughout the City,' beckon in fabulous range and variety, and every time you hit 'shuffle,' you get eight more. A Powell's e-mail newsletter says: 'A reader in Oxnard, California wrote to say that the Shuffle pages are 'the most addictive book browsing feature since the invention of the shelf.'' Who could put it better?

"Then there are the Great Deals on Really Good Books – mostly new sale books (Blonde, Daughter of Fortune) – where the writing is so good you want to own the hardcovers even if a paperback is in sight. For example, I admit to avoiding the sadistic writings of A.M. Homes like the disgusting bag of tricks they are, which means I haven't the stomach to give her a chance. So what a surprise and delight it is to find that Powell's not only got through Homes's Music for Torching but found it 'exhilaratingly perverse,' even 'unsettlingly recognizable.'

"The site has partnered up with the Electronic Privacy Information Center to offer an astonishing mixture of books 'about civil liberties issues posed by new technologies and the information age.'

"Best of all, I love Powell's e-mail newsletter. 'FOR THOSE WHO ARE ABOUT TO READ, WE SALUTE YOU,' it sometimes begins. One time an update on the bestseller list was headlined 'YOU KNOW YOU KNOW BETTER' because only three books on the Powell's Top 20 were found on USA Today's bestseller list. 'Do Powell's shoppers know something the rest of America doesn't?' the item read, giving us a feeling that if we DO know something, it's about this goofball intimacy that Powell's engenders. Here's an item for the store's book of author interviews:

"LEIBOVITZ. ONDAATJE. BRYSON. HIGGINS CLARK. JIN. etc. Twenty-two authors and artists talking. What they read and how they work. What they think about. 'When I finish a novel,' Michael Ondaatje explains, 'I've said everything. I have to start again from scratch. It's a strange state to be in. I'm broke, trying to build again.' Nicholson Baker notes, 'Jiffy Pop right now feels imperiled.' Save 30% on The Interviews in paperback now and see Helen Fielding admit, "I'm not sure if I can do the long sentences anymore.' "

"I think the feeling you get at Powell's, in the store or on the Internet, is that this is one big, happy, dysfunctional, nutso book-addicted family that loves to kick it ALL around, and we're welcome to take part in it, any way we want to. Walk in or log on; this place is for real."

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Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at