PORTLAND, OR. -- Let's play word association. Or destination association,
Even while luring travelers with widely diverse enticements, most American
cities are best-known for a single landmark or tradition. In San Francisco,
it's a bridge; in Philadelphia, a bell; in New York, a statue in the
harbor; in Seattle, a coffee pot; in Dallas, an attitude.
Boston possesses its Freedom Trail, San Antonio its Riverwalk, Los Angeles
its movie studios, Orlando its mouse and Memphis its King -- dead or alive.
And Portland has its bookstore.
Well, a clarification. As writer Peter Fish suggested in Sunset magazine,
"To call Powell's City of Books a bookstore is rather like calling Mount
Hood a nice hill."
Shelf upon shelf
Standing outside this inauspicious, dull-yellow building at 1005 W.
Burnside St., a short hike from the heart of downtown, it's hard to imagine
Powell's as a popular tourist attraction. Or a popular anything.
But you get an inkling you've arrived at an unusual place when, just inside
the front door, someone hands you a map. And don't stuff it in your pocket,
because this 43,000-square-foot former car-repair shop is crammed with more
than 1 million new and used books organized into 122 subject areas with
Looking for the latest publications about beekeeping? Try Shelf 614 in the
Rose Room. Dungeons and dragons? Shelf 308 in the God Room. Utopian
studies? Shelf 756 in the Purple Room. Body piercing and tattooing? Shelf
520 in the Orange Room.
Powell's motto: "From aardvarks to zyzzyvas."
"We don't have every book," concedes section head Elizabeth Law. "But I
think that eventually every book makes its way through here."
Among its several hundred employees, 80 work as new-book buyers, and 30
others are used-book buyers. Each buyer trains for at least three years.
Powell's purchases more than 3,000 books every day just over the counter.
And part of its charm is that all volumes -- glitzy new coffee-table
picture books, well-worn hand-me-downs and paperbacks -- are grouped by
subject, with 65 percent of the stock and 40 percent of the sales in used
For browers and sippers
This is believed to be the largest combination new/used bookstore in the
nation, in terms of space and inventory. About 3 million books are sold
annually. At any given time, half a million volumes are stored in
warehouses awaiting shelf life. Six thousand people visit on an average
day, half to browse or to sip an espresso in the Anne Hughes Coffee Room.
It's no surprise that familiar subject areas -- religion, cooking,
gardening, sports, romance, history, art, travel -- are covered
exhaustively. Or that visitors tend to linger longest in the children's and
science fiction sections.
But we also discover shelves devoted to appliance repair and Arthurian
legends, comics and cognitive science, etiquette and ethnobotany, paper
dolls and power tools, voodoo and vaudeville.
Enlightening, too, is the ever-changing "weird books window display" near
the main entrance. Among titles here at one time or another: Know Your
Toes, A Boy and His Battery, The South Sea Cult of the Abdomen, Margarine
Modelling and The Pantyhose Craft Book.
No, Marv Albert didn't author that last treatise.
A Rare Book Room, usually open 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Thursdays through
Sundays (appointments are advisable), includes more than 3,500
collectibles. The inventory during a recent visit ranged from an
autographed limited edition of The Complete Works of Mark Twain to Les
Champignons de Jean-Henri Fabre, a book on mushrooms in which all
illustrations are hand-painted.
Most major authors find their way here to autograph and read new books or
to speak. Or to shop. Indeed, so respected is this "city" that the Nation
magazine quipped earlier this year, "If there's a new edition of the Bible,
people expect God to be at Powell's to sign books."
Separate locations in or near downtown focus on
technical sciences and
computing (at Northwest Park and Couch streets),
cooking and gardening
(3747 SE Hawthorne St.) and
(Pioneer Courthouse Square).
Virtual travelers can preview the entire operation -- and even order rare
books -- via the Internet by accessing http://www.powells.com.
But only a real visit allows full appreciation both of Powell's, which is
open 365 days a year, and of numerous other attractions in Portland, the
City of Roses.
Call 800-878-7323 for more information about Powell's. Call 800-345-3214
for general tourism information about Portland.