Great Bookstores: Powell’s, Portland Oregon

We’re starting a new regular feature in which we highlight great bookstores for speculative fiction readers. We welcome your input! If you’ve been to a great bookstore recently, please send us a photo  (the SFF section would be great!) and a paragraph or two about why you love that store. I’m kicking us off today with Powell’s in Portland Oregon.

What’s better for booklovers than a good bookstore? As we watch Border’s extinguish itself, having itself already extinguished hundreds of independent bookstores (with help from Amazon and Barnes & Noble), those of us who still love physical books and brick-and-mortar bookstores fear the passing of an era. Fortunately, there are still bookstores that not only survive but thrive. If you’re a book tourist — that is, one who visits good bookstores no matter where in the world they may be — you know where to browse away a day or two.

Every Thanksgiving week, my husband and I make a pilgrimage to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. We go in armed with lists of books we haven’t been able to find elsewhere (we could probably find them online, but where’s the fun in that?) and settle in for the day.

And really, you need a day — at least. Powell’s main store (there are a number of branches) bills itself as the “City of Books,” and it is enormous: a full city block occupied by a building that rises up to three or four stories in places, 68,000 square feet containing a million or more books. The store is so big that it issues maps. I spend the bulk of my first day (and yes, we’re usually there several times during our usual four-day trip to Portland) in the Gold Room, which contains science fiction, fantasy, horror and mysteries. I also look over the mainstream fiction and literary criticism (they’re in the Blue Room), and try to get to the cookbooks and foodie books (shelved in the Green Room). Then there’s the Pearl Room, which contains the rare books section, and am often delighted to discover that something I own has become valuable.

Because Powell’s shelves used books together with new ones, I can make decisions about which book is in the best condition for the price, and often whether I want a signed copy. This seems like such a great idea to me, but it remains controversial: some think it decreases the number of new books sold, and thus authors’ royalties. I’ve found, though, that I’m as likely to buy a new book as a used one, depending on the book, and I expect that applies to most readers.

When fatigue sets in, I repair to the café for a sandwich and soda; it’s packed with books, too, mostly graphic novels in an unparalleled collection. I’ve never seen so many graphic novels in any other setting, including comics stores. More than books, though:  the café is always packed with booklovers, reading as they sip their lattes. I’ve never been to Powell’s when it wasn’t crammed with customers, including on Thanksgiving Day. Powell’s gives me hope that print culture might survive.

Readers, please let us know about your favorite bookstores! Send Kat a photo of the SFF section, the name and address of the bookstore, and a short explanation about why you love that store.


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TERRY WEYNA is spending the second half of her life as a reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, after having spent the first half practicing law in a variety of states and settings. (She still does legal research and writing for a law firm in California). Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor and writer Fred White, the imperious Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a personal library that exceeds 12,000 volumes.

View all posts by Terry Weyna

7 comments

  1. Kelly, it is absolutely worth trekking up to Portland for this bookstore alone. I wouldn’t go to New York just to go to the Strand, or Denver just to go to The Tattered Cover, though both are great bookstores; but Powell’s? Yeah, definitely worth the trip all by itself.

    I didn’t discuss the branches, because we usually don’t rent a car and therefore aren’t able to get to them. But at least one of the outlying stores has a completely different collection, and is worth visiting as well as the main store, even though it’s substantially smaller (though still large by the lights of most bookstores). And for some, the store that has just cooking and gardening books is worth the trip; and the technical bookstore that’s just across the street from the main store is also worth a stop if you have any particular technical interest (e.g., computers, engineering, math, that sort of thing).

    A big bonus: Portland’s restaurants are wonderful. Andina, a Peruvian restaurant, is within walking distance of downtown and Powell’s; Higgins served a lovely (if pricey) Thanksgiving dinner; and Mother’s is one of the best diners I’ve ever eaten at.

    I can’t wait to go back this Thanksgiving. Time to start readying the book list.

  2. I can’t really say I’ve been to Portland; I’ve just been through Portland, which is not the same thing at all…and now I’ll definitely have to go to Portland and see this book Mecca.

  3. Hi all, I need your email address. I’m trying to nominate your blog for best speculative fiction blog for BBAW. Can you forward it to me at truebookaddictATgmailDOTcom ? Thanks!

  4. I so wish there was a bookstore like this somewhere close to where I live..heck.. I gotta drive through 4 towns and cross a county line just to go to a Barnes and Noble…which is another reason I’m hooked on my e-reader.

  5. I’ve been to Portland twice, both times I’ve spent at least 2 days at that store. It may seem odd to go all the way from Georgia to Oregon just to go book shopping.. but it really is just that good.

    But the Food, Beer, and scenery are well worth the trip on their own.. the bookstore is just icing on the cake.

  6. I posted on my blog back in April about Powell’s:

    http://hippogriff.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/powells-city-of-books/

    I’m lucky to live about an hour away, and can kill an evening between the main store and the technical book store. I absolutely love the rare book room. Most people don’t think the technical bookstore is worth the time, but they have great books not only on math/science/computers, but also Photoshop books, video game guides, and those “how to use your phone” books.

    If I have complaints about Powell’s, it’s the hours of the book buyer, and the fact that they’ve had labor trouble (although that was some time ago, and during a much different economic climate). Otherwise, it’s one of the greatest places on the planet.

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