The following is a guest post written by my sister, Katy. On a recent trip to Portland she sent me numerous texts raging about Powell’s Books. Of course, I had to request a guest post on the store. Please enjoy her reflections on Powell’s.
*The following opinions are solely that of the author.
In December of 2011, I ordered some Christmas gifts from Barnes and Noble. I cannot remember why I chose them over Amazon, but I do remember the result. In spite of paying a fee for expedited shipping, the items did not arrive before Christmas, and Barnes and Noble refused to refund my shipping costs. In my fury, I took to Facebook telling people of my anger and everyone told me I was stupid not to use Amazon. Except for a select few friends…
These friends all live in the Portland area and insisted I should have ordered from some store called Powell’s Books. I scoffed at them not knowing how I would have known of some local corner bookshop.
In 2012, I visited Portland at least 5 times (to see those crazy friends) and managed to never make it to Powell’s, much to the dismay of every Portland native I encountered. My last visit was in December of 2012 and I stayed for the New Year. I finally made it to Powell’s in the first days of 2013. I was skeptical, because if you’ve seen Borders or Barnes and Noble you’ve seen big bookstores. How great could this place be?
I’ll tell you just how great…
First, their headquarters is not called “Powell’s City of Books” for nothing. From the outside it looks like the rundown bookstore where I purchased used textbooks in college. It looks small from the street. Somehow, you miss the fact that the store is a city block. When you walk in there is no other way to describe the sight of all those books except to call it a “city of books.” You walk in and are immediately faced with overflowing floor to ceiling bookshelves. The store is simply rows upon rows of these shelves of books in every subject or genre imaginable. There are books stacked on the floors; books stuck in corners. Books everywhere. In short, it’s Heaven for a book lover.
Powell’s has every genre imaginable, and some you didn’t know existed. Looking at the directory posted above a stairwell I felt like I was reading the train schedule at Grand Central Station in NYC. They have the Blue Room, the Green room , the Rose Room, and every other color room. Each room is different; containing kids books, gardening books, technology, art, architecture, religion (every religion), DIY, fiction, non fiction, literature, mystery….I’ll stop now.
I didn’t make it to every room, and I was there for 3 hours. I made it to maybe 4 sections? I spent a good hour in the children’s section looking for teen literature for my 11 year old. I browsed through books that were short listed for awards, books that were hits with kids over several generations. They had local authors and international authors. Activity books and journals. The children’s section alone was almost the size of my local (Royal Oak, MI) Barnes and Noble.
Second, unlike most bookstores that lure you in with flashy posters and shiny surfaces and soothing music, Powell’s is not fancy. The shelves are a light wood color, clearly aged, and have taken a beating from all the action they’ve seen. The books are on the floors, shelves, tables and in corners. However, don’t be deceived. It’s not unorganized. You will find the book you need in the section where it should be, but there will be several copies of it and possibly 5 other novels published by that same author that you never knew existed. I might have noticed a little dust. But who cares? A true book lover will overlook the dust in order to sift through the thousands of book choices.
While I was browsing for one book on my lengthy “to be read” list, I was offered help by an employee (something that NEVER happens at our Barnes and Noble). She found what I was looking for, and then paused. She said to me, “you know, I bet you’d like this author too…” and she started pulling more books off the shelf. She wandered off to another aisle and I thought she was gone, but she came back. She came back with more book suggestions!
The aisles are narrow. Clearly to allow more shelves to fit in their store. And to get through the aisle you and the person you are passing will have to turn to make room for each other. So I sat myself on the floor of that narrow aisle, forgetting that I might be blocking people and sifted through all the books the employee gave me. It was then that I noticed something wonderful. It was a true “peace and calm” moment.
Powell’s doesn’t funnel music through to all parts of their store in an attempt to sell CDs. There is no local band’s recent hit to disturb your thoughts as you wander the aisles. It’s quiet. Like a library. It’s quiet in spite of the many people there. The only place where it’s actually remotely loud is at the checkout, where you can hear people sharing their finds with their friends. I’m sure I made a lot of noise myself gushing over how great the store is and wondering why I hadn’t visited during my previous trips to Portland.
Powell’s also sells used books! Oh my god! Books for $3 and $4!!!! Suddenly my basket was full. Yes, basket. You can carry around a basket for all your books. It’s really handy since there is no way you are going to leave Powell’s with less than ten books on any given visit.
I wandered around and saw more than just the usual “Best Seller” lists. Around one corner, written on a chalk board were the titles of at least 20 books that had won awards for various reasons. Awards I’d never heard of, authors that were new to me. I got overwhelmed. There was no way I was going to get out of Powell’s with everything I wanted. So I started a list of more books for my “to be read” list. I left the bookstore with a longer “to be read” list than when I entered.
The one way Powell’s is actually similar to any other book store is the checkout lane. There you will find an array of different last minute items to grab. Pens, bookmarks, magnets, socks (yes, socks and I did get some for my daughter), magazines, clearance books etc. Any good marketer knows that you are a captive audience while waiting to check out and they can get you right there while you are bored.
One last thing, important for any environment loving book reader: Powell’s doesn’t use bags. You either carry them out yourself or buy a canvas reusable tote. Of course, this is to be expected in Portland.
If you can’t get to this book lover’s wonderland never fear, they are online and you can order just about anything to be delivered right to your door.
I discovered while creating the hyperlink for readers of Powell’s online, that there are 6 locations in the Portland area. The flagship store carries over 1 million books!