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Portland's Powell's: A Book 'City'

by Larry Bleiberg (Dallas Morning News)
The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 12, 1995

PORTLAND, Ore. -- With coastline, forests and mountains, Oregon has no shortage of sunny-day diversions. But when it rains -- as it often does in the Pacific Northwest -- visitors can find an indoor attraction of equal stature here in Portland.

Powell's City of Books, one of the largest bookstores on the continent, covers a city block, with three-quarters of a million volumes of new and used books.

To call it a city of books is only a slight exaggeration. This is a place that requires -- and provides -- a map to negotiate its maze of offerings. It hosts literary events, has a coffee shop and publishes a 35-page field guide to the store.

"If you like books, this place is heaven," said Portland resident Roy Beeler. The 23-year old bookstore sits near the Old Town district on the northwest edge of downtown Portland. Its seven rooms sprawl over three stories to fill several buildings, including a former car dealership, for 43,000 square feet of retail space in all.

The store is divided into 122 major subject areas and hundreds of subsections, covering a bewildering span of topics.

Anarchy area

Readers can find areas devoted to anarchy, appliance repair, etiquette, espionage, quilting and insects. Typing, tattooing and taxes each have special sections, too.

The store owes its existence to Michael Powell, who in 1970 took over a bookstore near the University of Chicago at the urging of classmates and professors, who included author Saul Bellow. Michael's father, Walter, who was still back in Portland, helped his son during the summer. He liked the business so much he opened shop in Oregon. Michael later came out and joined him.

The bookstore boomed at least partially because of two innovations, the company says. The Powells were one of the first to break bookstore practices by shelving hardbacks and paperbacks together. The arrangement meant shoppers had to look in only one place to find a book.

New and used together

A few years later Powell's took the concept a step further when it began shelving new and used books together. Today, for example, a Powell's shopper can choose to pay $24.95 for a new hardback, $15 for the same volume used, and even less if the same book is available in paperback.

In recent years, Powell's has expanded like a romance series. The company now has separate specialty stores for travel, cooking, technical and children's books, although all subjects are well-covered in the flagship store.

On most nights visiting authors offer readings. Past guests include Jimmy Carter, Larry McMurtry and Anne Rice. But any day can offer entertainment. The store hosts children's events and Saturday-morning storytelling. Among the store's 185 employees are several musicians who often give recitals: On a recent Sunday afternoon it was classical piano music in the U.S. History section.

The place also has a sense of humor. Its front bookcase is always a trip to the literary far side. Take its display of the oddest cookbooks imaginable: Joys of Jello, The I Like My Beer Diet, Cooking in the Nude and 50 Wonderful Ways to Use Cottage Cheese, to name a few.

One thing the place does take seriously is politics.

This fall it opposed a statewide referendum that would have tightened Oregon obscenity laws, which Powell's felt could lead to book censorship. The company fought the measure with bright orange markers that were placed throughout the store under potentially controversial books, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Satanic Verses. The store said the volumes could have been banned from public schools and libraries if the measure passed. It didn't.

Those who are hooked can keep shopping from home. The company takes phone orders and can be reached through a toll-free number, fax or the Internet, the international computer network. For a $2 fee, employees will even try to track down out-of-print books.

For more information, call 800-878-7323, or 503-228-4651. Those looking for a specific book are asked to call between noon and 11 p.m. Eastern time.

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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