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Real Life in the City of Books

by Peter Fish
Sunset Magazine, May 1994


 
When it comes to the information superhighway, I'm still creeping down the slow lane. I've sampled Internet and talked to visionaries who salivated over virtual reality and interactive TV. I've surfed the on-line services for those scintillating conversations said to echo out there in cyberspace. But so far these electronic rendezvous remind me mainly of a bad college mixer. Inanities -- "Hi! Are you new in the Conversation Connection?" -- scroll across my screen, and I think of Henry David Thoreau's remark about the communications wonder of his day: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

So don't expect to find me at one of those cryptic addresses that end with fish@sunset.com. But when I'm in Portland, I can often be found on Burnside Street, at a place that buys, sells, lives, and breathes artifacts that even the most dedicated cyberspace jockeys may dimly remember: books.

To call Powell's City of Books a bookstore is rather like calling Mount Hood a nice hill. Powell's is not quaint, not cute, not anything you might expect a beloved literary landmark to be. It is a 43,000-square-foot, block-long, dull yellow building that looks as though it should be filled with drill presses or Linotype machines but that is instead filled with books: new books, old books, aisles of books, rooms of books.

"We sell 3 million volumes a year," says Michael Powell. "At any given time, we have half a million titles. We buy about 1,500 new books a day, and about 3,000 used books."

Balding, bespectacled Michael Powell is the City of Books' mayor. The Portland native opened a used-book store while a graduate student in Chicago, inspiring his retiring father, Walter, to open his own shop back in Oregon in 1971. Son returned to join father eight years later, and together they created a bookstore that was unique. It stocked paperbacks on the same shelves with hardbacks, mixed used books and new. It was open 365 days a year. The recipe worked. Walter died in 1985, but Michael today commands a megalopolis of books that includes six specialty bookstores scattered across Portland as well as the Burnside store, one of the largest in the nation.

Even confirmed bookstore devotees can find Powell's Burnside store overwhelming at first. You take a map to guide you through the color-coded rooms: rose for science, purple for history, orange for art. You find, of course, all the authors you would expect to find, from Shakespeare to Danielle Steel. But then you find other books you never knew you were looking for but to which you are inexplicably drawn: Gem Minerals of Idaho, A Service Manual for the 1958 DeSoto, A Well-Travelled Casket: A Collection of Oregon Folktales, How to Prepare and Pass an Astrologer's Certificate Exam.

Indeed, if you don't pace yourself, a sort of Faustian obsession sets in. You begin to think, if only I could browse at Powell's long enough, I could be the smartest person in the world. At this point, you need to take a break and head for the Anne Hughes Coffee Room, to be calmed by that most soothing of Northwestern sounds, the steaming of an espresso machine.

Powell's is, unsurprisingly, a labor-intensive operation. "Other retail operations would think we were nuts," says store manager Craig Roethler, a 10-year veteran, who explains that the store has more than 200 employees, including 80 new-book buyers and 30 used-book buyers. Because computer software has not yet been devised to cope with both used and new books, Powell's employees have to keep track of the store's stock in their heads: "It's very difficult to teach. You just have to learn it over time."

Although only 23 years old, Powell's looms so large in Portland's literary life that you almost think it must have been founded by Lewis and Clark. Writer Ursula K. LeGuin (whose recent book, Blue Moon over Thurman Street, celebrates the Portland thoroughfare that has been her address for more than 30 years) calls Powell's "the mother monster of bookstores." A frequent writer of science fiction, she's drawn particularly to the Rose Room: "They're very good for science for idiots." Poet and essayist John Daniel gravitates toward the nature studies. "It's an extraordinary store. You're liable to find what you're looking for and several other books to boot."

It's all enough to make book lovers almost cocky about the future of the printed word. Certainly that's how Michael Powell feels. No technophobe, he's linked Powell's technical bookstore to the Internet, and he sits on the board of a CD-ROM company ("Just to keep my feet in the water," he explains). But he still believes in the book. "The technologies that were thought to be competing with books have actually created markets. I think of this as almost a golden age for books. Americans are excellent readers. I believe in that passionately. People are buying books in unprecedented numbers."

So plotters of the information superhighway had better reserve a lane or two for the medium that began with Gutenberg. The last time I visited Powell's, I went to the cafe and perused a stack of books I had no intention of buying but did. I was surrounded by people talking and reading, in some cases talking about what they had just read. They were doing multimedia, I decided. They were being interactive. They had no need for virtual reality -- Powell's made them very happy with the real thing.

Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside Street, Portland. Open 9 A.M. to 11 P.M. Mondays through Saturdays, 9 to 9 Sundays; (800) 878-7323.

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