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Powell’s Books—the Greatest Browse On Earth


powells-city-of-booksPortland Revisited: Powell’s Books—the Greatest Browse On Earth

A few months ago an esteemed former writing teacher of mine wrote an op-ed piece about the Bolinas, California Library’s decision to empty their shelves of some older printed books and make a switch to e-books and new best sellers . He was aghast.  I understand the why. They must have thought they were launching into the future. But perhaps they failed to consider some human longings.

Voodo 3x2Donuts20140510_121724

I was in Portland, Oregon last week, arm-dressing my husband who was attending a conference. A city with seemingly more body piercings per capita, donut stores with cult followings (Voodoo and Blue Star), a designer-label Goodwill boutique, an art museum with foreign film series on Saturdays, food trucks (with a cult following), a fabulous Buchardesque Rhododendron Garden in SE Portland near Reed College, and tax free shopping. This scrapes the surface. Barely. The famous rose gardens are awaiting June’s warmth.

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There is something magical about walking the aisles of a large repository of books, all lined up, spines facing in unison, placed to best catch the reader’s eye. A reverence for printed word overcomes me in those places— the vastness of human imagination laid out so neatly; the tantalizing possibilities of rabbit holes through which one might drop; a pang of hopelessness in my attempt to separate my fussed-over words from the millions of others to end up a book on the shelf. Yet my heart soars at the prospect to be one of them. Ah, the glory it might be.

My heart does not soar in the same way when I peruse e-book possibilities, those flat boxy cutouts with perhaps a tantalizing graphic and some coding and a price point. All reverence is lost. The images vanish in a quick click. There is no lingering scent.

Now consider the monster of all bookstores: Powell’s City of Books in Portland.

Powell’s—located along the arterial Burnside Street, between NW 10th and NW11th–holds a full city block of over one million new and used books. Well, OK, some are dispersed among the five satellite stores but you have a visual. A sense of the possibilities. The sight and smells of the physical grandeur e-books will never replace.

Books 3x2 by color display20140508_103525 Grocho Marx 2x3 quote20140508_103654

Walking into Powell’s is overwhelming— like walking into a room full of friendly strangers, each bursting with a story to whisper to you in a corner. Racks of full-frontal enticements call from end caps, from mid-room two-sided display racks, from racks pushed against unlikely walls near the elevator.



The merchandise (books, magazines, umbrellas, e-reader covers, little gifts) are arranged by  color, by subject, by employee’s picks, by reader’s picks, by virtue of being priced to sell, and by other mysterious forces. Some have blackboards with cleverness that changes. It is a blur of writerliness. I feel more literate every time I simply walk in the door.

Powell’s separates books by subject matter (somewhat like a library) and corrals those ponies into rooms of color: the Gold, Rose, Orange, Red, Purple, Pearl and my favorite the Coffee room. Yes, the walls and signage are color-coded. Yes, it is possible to become disoriented and confused in about 100 steps. Yes, there is at least one elevator large and long enough to roll book carts in one side and out the other. Room for a crowd heading up to the room where authors come regularly to read to the masses.

The Coffee room however is cleverly located up a few brief steps from the entrance. I should mention Powell’s is mid-way through a remodel, and the only door currently accessible is on the corner of NW 11th and Couch (through the Orange Room). Target for completion is Summer of 2014.

On a certain recent Friday I spent a few hours in Powell’s. I located my next book club selection Lamb by Moore (in the Purple Room after a brief word with one of many book docents), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (a vintage Raymond Carver Collection), the Collected Novellas of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (to remember and re-discover his genius),  All The Pretty Horses by McCarthy (finally), and a recent work, Strange as this Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake ( liked the first ten pages).

On then to the café, which doubles as a reading room with a five-book limit. On this rainy Friday it’s a mix of folks; students, elders, some perhaps homeless middle-aged men and women, and some of what we used to call housewives, as if we were married to our houses. All have heads buried in books, deep in concentration, most sipping a drink. It is quiet, like a library used to be, minus the scolding.


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I settle into a seat at a long pine table with 12 chairs spanning the length. Some of my favorite individual window seats are unavailable, a casualty of the remodel. I choose a seat with empty space around to create some sense of aloneness, of privacy. Just me and my Marionberry Danish and a half-shot latte with no foam.




I am concentrating, trying hard to read Raymond Carver, but can’t keep from staring at the middle-aged African American man in a blue ball cap, one table over and across, who is folding sections of white napkins into flowers without any scissors or cutting or molding devices. He tears each piece, then folds, molds and rolls it into a calla lily, or a morning glory with stem and tendrils or a rose. It is remarkable. He anchors each finished single flower in a hole poked in the bottom of a turned upside down Dixie cup. They stand up so nicely. He catches my stare and smiles. Of course I go over on my way out. I get the story, and purchase a flower. How could I not. He tells me he is famous worldwide, and relates numerical theories of arrangements including Fibonacci, prime numbers, Ikebana.

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He is one of many iconic travelers in and out of Powell’s each day. An employee calls them part of the diversity that is Powell’s. That phrase is politely inclusive of us all. None singled out for their oddities of grandeur in any particular way. All welcomed, captivated and equalized by the printed word.

Powell’s City of Books: 1005 W. Burnside St., Portland, Oregon

9am-11 pm/everyday of the year

503 228-4651




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Category: Indie It Books, Indie It Travel

About the Author: Ann Bodle-Nash: A free-lance traveler since the age of 11 months, little moss grows on her soles. With relatives and friends scattered across the globe, she finds frequent excuses to travel. But travel in the West is best--those quiet corners of weirdness are like light to a moth, burning with intensity, encouraging curiosity and discovery. She imagines the glory of 30 days of continuous floating and fly fishing on the Yellowstone River after watching a documentary on same. Currently living in Washington State with her husband.

Comments (2)

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  1. Great job capturing the wonder that is Powell’s. It’s just one piece of what makes Portland so…Portland but it is a crucial piece. Nice article!

  2. Leisa Greene says:

    When we were in Portland over Thanksgiving I didn’t get a chance to visit Powell’s Books. This article really makes me look forward to my next Portlandia visit at the end of July!

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