There are certain places that feel charged. Visiting them gives me an electrical surge, as if I have plugged in to some current. The headwaters of the Metolius River are like that. So is Short Sands Beach on the Oregon Coast. And the tunnels snaking beneath Edinburgh. And the Von Trier bar in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The horror section at the downtown Powell's makes me feel the same way. I grew up in Central Oregon, but my grandparents lived in Portland, so every few months, we'd cram into the truck and growl over the mountains for a visit. We had no local bookstore — outside of the sad little Waldenbooks in the Bend River Mall — so the Powell's visit took a lot of time and strategy. This was our literary haul for the next two months. We had to choose wisely.
For those who have never visited, the downtown Powell's takes up a whole city block. A giant concrete split-level sarcophagus of books. There is a ghost that haunts the water fountain. An urn of cremated remains that moves from room to room, depending on space. The shelves spill books, used and new, and the aisles buzz with the kind of diversity you'll only find at the DMV: dudes in suits and dudes in mud-caked cowboy boots, a woman with dreads and a woman with a tiara and a woman with bright blue hair. A carnival of wonders for a kid from the boonies.
We would push our way through the 10th and Burnside doors, and the smell of paper and ink and glue (and oftentimes patchouli) would result in a sensory overload. I would feel jittery and starved. I cut through the Blue Room (which I always thought of as English class, home to all of the serious lit-e-ra-ture) and slowly, slowly made my way through the Gold Room, where all the sci-fi and fantasy and thrillers and horror novels could be found.
The smell there — sort of mildewy earthworm meets mottled paper — is one of my favorite smells. I remember the horror aisle as shadow-soaked, far from any window. Over the next few hours, I would pull down books and read from them and build a dark tower of mass-market paperbacks, the greatest treasure of my childhood.
More from Benjamin Percy at PowellsBooks.Blog: