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Tour Powell's City of Books

Better than Bread Crumbs: The Store Map

Updated to reflect the three rooms added during our November expansion, our free store map is now more colorful than ever. It's also quite helpful, apparently — visitors to the City use more than a hundred thousand in a year. Many people, of course, prefer instead to wander aimlessly from room to room and aisle to aisle just to see what they might find. We don't judge you, either way. (Feel free to follow along at home with the City of Books store map in PDF format.)

But first things first: let's get you in the door.

As you make your way up Burnside Street past the Park Blocks, wave to the two giant Fups on the Tech Store's sign, then cross Ninth and continue past our oldest office building, the Dr Martens office, and Gunnary's (with the resurrected portrait of a dark-haired woman in the window). Cross Tenth — grab a Willamette Week from the box on the corner if you like; it's free — step on the porch out of the rain, and come inside.

Beware: The Green Room is a trap. Just about the smallest room in the City, our store-within-a-store, it's entirely possible to enjoy your Powell's experience (and walk out with an armful of great books) without making it more than a hundred feet past the entrance.

But you can't stop at the Green Room, not today — that would be something like leaving the amusement park without riding the coaster, the teacups, and the Ferris wheel. Resist, then: the new arrivals and award winners, the shelves of staff picks, the sale books, the east walls lined with almost a thousand different magazines and periodicals, those darned Sirens singing (they didn't come cheap).... grab a basket from beside the Donut and keep your head down; you've only just begun.

Perhaps this isn't the most direct route through the City, but there's a certain undeniable pleasure to be gleaned from entering Powell's most storied borough from the east, where the alphabet begins. Welcome to The Blue Room. Help yourself to a free copy of Umbrella, Kevin, Julianne, and Jon's guide to the wildly eclectic shelves in the corner, or curl back around through the Lit shelves and lose yourself in the twelve-foot stacks, which will it be? Hey, isn't that Edward Abbey camped high on that ledge overlooking the voices rising from Small Press and Journals?

"I stayed up one night until 3:00 a.m. finishing this brilliant story," a voice declares. And when you turn there she is, Nicole, craning her neck up from a low shelf: an honest-to-goodness Shelf Talker. Nicole says, "Many of its pages will require a major act of will power to put the book down long enough to eat, sleep, or attend to the many other necessary functions of living." It is an intriguing cover. What is that font called, anyway? And why are you hearing voices? The woman sitting on her backpack down the aisle doesn't seem to notice, but maybe she's just enjoying that Aimee Bender book. (She is laughing. But at you?)

Browse, browse, find an interesting looking collection of stories and drop it in your basket; grab that Delillo novel you swore you'd read now that you have a little more time; check the Reading Group bulletin board. Gradually meander westward.

Poetry will come in handy later, in the coffeeshop — at least one book of bite sized delectables, something to cleanse your palate between courses of prose. No, not an anthology today; try something you'd never think to read: the first two poets you see whose initials are all vowels.

Any minute now an owl will swoop out of the ceiling, snatch a paperback from one of the Endcaps, and make off to read in peace somewhere in Reference. Owls live here, you can sense it.

Approaching the west hills, the land begins to open up a touch. Relax. Enter The Gold Room, room of notable poles. Room of goblins and cowboys, sailors and space monsters, blood and guts; lovers, clones, detectives; a room brimming with strong personalities. But where's the secret passageway to the conservatory — it's clearly marked on the map — and why is your watch running so far ahead? Could it be two o'clock, already? Perhaps you'd best move on. You'd promised to be home in time to help with dinner. Yes, proceed. Whistle as you pass the home of Philip K. Dick; ask the guy at Info to take your picture kissing Queen Amidala's cheek. Now aren't you glad you brought the comb?

Continuing west, between Romance and Graphic Novels, bright natural light pours forth. Do not resist! Here, among the audio book and humor sections, step right up to the World Cup Coffee and Tea House. It's the perfect place to browse Alternative Comix and catch a caffeine buzz on the same time. But why stop there? Why not load up on cookies or delicious sandwiches? Nobody will be the wiser (except for, perhaps, pedestrians gazing in from Burnside Street, but pay no mind — we're all friends here).

Now double back through the Gold Room and skip out onto The Mezzanine. (Skipping is optional, but The Mezzanine does provide the best straightaway in the store if you're in the mood.) Gigantic blackboards loom overhead in the distance. The ground rises up to meet you, and your fingertips almost touch the floor; surprising, it is, you hadn't lately realized how close your feet are to your chin.

But go. Your legs have taken control — follow them. Turn left and head down to The Rose Room.

In a perfect world, a berm would overlook The Rose Room — shoppers would picnic on the grass, parents snacking on basil, havarti, and tomato sandwiches while their boys and girls roll down the easy slope in turns, arms held in tight in front of their chests, spinning dizzily down. But, alas, there is no berm, just a flight of stairs. We try not to hold it against The Rose Room. We hope you'll do the same.

Children's books to your right. All ages are welcome. The way heads north toward the Columbia. You wander out along back roads until you come to a clearing.

From beside the table in the corner, a young boy attracts your attention. You assure him, "I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!" He nods, winks, steals a glance at Mimi (who's too busy shelving Caldecott winners to notice), and pulls a crayon drawing from beneath his miniature chair. The paper has been decorated with green, coniferous trees. "Where the wild things are?" you ask, already knowing the answer. Someone, or something, is waiting for you in the forest.

Oddly enough, however, no one is waiting in the forest. What's more, there is no forest, only Powell's Forestry section. Well, it's probably for the best: perhaps you could use some grounding. Oceanography, Math, and Physics, Chemistry, Agriculture, and the Environment. Facts and figures, they're all here; quantifiable evidence abounds. Plenty of vitamins and minerals to be had.

Get outdoors, then. Take in some of that soupy winter air. Nothing like exercise to clear the mind — hiking, camping, sports. For a minute back there, things were starting to get weird, but there's nothing quite like a brisk walk in the woods to get you seeing straight again.

You want to like The Purple Room. Purple is your favorite color. But how humbling is this? Maybe even a bit embarrassing. Could there really be this much to learn about your own country — not to mention the rest of the world? Baby steps. Catch up a little, quickly.

Choose a book at random. Pull it off the shelf, open to any page, and read a paragraph.

"The meeting of Florence wrote the real problem of government across the sky. On October ninth, by way of starting that sky writing, I made an unadorned speech. I made clear appeal to the subversive forces of the nation. On the next day, after a sharp, needle-pointed speech by the poet F.T. Marinetti, the secretary, Pasella, presented a resolution in which the Fasci di Combattimento claimed the right to formulate for Italy a fundamental transformation of the state. It was a clearly defined programme of political convenience and expediency, aiming to create an absolutely new social and economic state." — from My Rise and Fall by Benito Mussolini

Walk to another part of the room and repeat. (Hey, that's the Annex across the street!)

"In 1917, after entering what was then known as the Great European War and in anticipation of greater labor needs for the war effort, the U.S. government lifted all barriers to Mexican immigration except an eight-dollar-a-head tax and a literacy test. For many, these were stiff requirements, but (as the U.S. government well knew) not enough to deter those seeking jobs up north." — from Hispanic Nation by Geoffrey Fox

Acknowledge foreign cultures' ways of life and, soon enough, you've practically fallen into Philosophy. But first, where exactly are those restrooms?

World Atlases know they're cool, yes they do. If your first few minutes in The Red Room have taught you anything, it's this. Just look at them: the composure, the confidence, the posture. You open the most detailed edition you can find to a map of Denmark. Have you ever really looked at a map of Denmark? Industries noted include shipbuilding, engineering, food, porcelain, and brewing (always a plus). But what images does Copenhagen bring to mind? Chewing tobacco? Eventually, you double back toward Main Street where The Rough Guide to Scandinavia lies in wait:

"Goddag!" it calls to you. "Er det dit første besøg?"

It's true what they say about the City: the books here practically sell themselves. If the urge to travel weren't enough, you've always been a sucker for accents.

But wouldn't it be nice to see a bit more of the world? Go ahead: read some Romanian. Test your cross-cultural humor skills with a few pages of Japanese comics. Chase them down with Chinese poetry whether you have any idea what those characters represent or not.

Celebrate life, embrace diversity — start by learning more about yourself. Your health, your sexuality, the wiring in your brain; relationships, mythology, religion. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

Where did those lyrics come from, anyway (and when exactly did this become an exercise in stream of consciousness shopping)? Head upstairs to The Pearl Room, Powell's brand new loft. Conveniently enough, you find the answer (to the former question; the latter will have to wait) by opening to page 212 of Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties. Browse Shakespeare. Gather advice on what movies to rent — until...

You are bloated... with text. You couldn't digest another word. And yet. Surely there's room in your head for some photographs, a painting or two. There's always room for Art. Beyond those photograph collections that's the Fremont Bridge and, down the stacks a bit, the top of the train station tower.

What's on exhibit this month in the Basil Hallward Gallery? Go ahead, sit down, you've traveled quite a ways. Settle onto one of the slick wood benches and ponder. Flip through some of the books you've accumulated. Think about the pictures on the wall.

Rest is good. Meanwhile, how many books are in your basket? (If you wanted to make it happen, you could go to Denmark, you know you could. Maybe not this year, but sometime.) Eleven, you have eleven books in your basket. And there's more than an hour, still, before the bus will shuttle you home and steal the afternoon.

Okay, focus: no more watching cars and people. It's time to sort through your pile of books. Take as much time as you need. Decompress. It's all downhill coasting from here. When you're ready, you can leave what you don't want to buy on the state of the art re-shelve cart near the counter.

Some things never change, however: to wit, The Orange Room remains disproportionately popular among orange-headed readers. Why is anybody's guess. Careers and Business inhabit settlements in neighboring blocks, but you pass along those busy streets quickly. Next time, maybe. Gardening is more suited to your current mood — crafts, home construction... one of these days you're going to want to take a break from reading. But what's this? Four whole blocks of cooking! It's grievously unfair, so close to dinner time. Just find a meal for Sunday night, something light and healthy, and call it a day. There's no waiting at the registers — in fact, one of the unoccupied cashiers is juggling what appear to be apples — so take your time and make this last decision a good one.

Ascend that last half-flight of orange stairs to the corner of Couch and Eleventh and there it is finally, The Pillar of Books, the one you read about on the map. Buy the book, read the book, enjoy the book, sell the book...

Keep books in circulation. Keep ideas alive.

Last modified: March 29, 2010

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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