If you are a book lover, imagine your dream bookstore. It would probably be in a large building with many different rooms for different kinds of books, a place where you could wander and browse for hours.
If you visit Portland, Ore., I suggest you stop in Powell’s Bookstore, and you may feel your dream has come true. That’s what I felt when I spent two hours there, and I wish I could have been there longer.
Powell’s may be the largest bookstore in the world. Its many different rooms are painted different colors, each with a different theme.
On the first and second floors, there are seven rooms of different colors and different kinds of books: orange (cooking and gardening), rose (children’s), gold (mystery and science fiction), blue (literature and classics), green (new arrivals), red (from animals to travel) and purple (from business to yoga). On the third floor are the Pearl (science) and the Rare Book Rooms.
I made it a point to visit each room and came across many surprises, including a whole wall of jigsaw puzzles and, in the Rare Book Room, perhaps my favorite place in Powell’s, a number of items for sale. I found there a copy of the October 1930 “American Mercury,” a magazine edited by H.L Mencken, which I bought for $10.
It’s not every bookstore that has three floors. Once upon a time, this bookstore building was an auto dealership, with showrooms and offices, a place with a lot of space.
Powell’s began in Chicago in 1970 with a small bookstore started by Michael Powell, then a University of Chicago grad student. That brought back some pleasant memories, because I was a grad student at the U of C in the 1970s, and I went into that bookstore often, primarily to buy and sell used books.
I was on a tight budget, and to buy a new used book, I had to sell some of my old used books. Powell’s had fair prices for what I sold them and what I bought from them.
The Powell family was from Oregon. One summer Walter Powell, Michael’s father, having retired as a painter, came to Chicago to help his son with the bookstore. He was so impressed he went back to Portland to start his own bookstore, dealing primarily in used books.
In 1979 Michael left Chicago to join his father in Portland and continued to grow the bookstore there. They collected so many used books they needed a larger building, and that’s when they moved into the former car dealership.
They added new hardcovers and paperbacks and kept growing into what Powell’s Books is today, which now has the nickname “City of Books.”
Throughout those years they have remained an independent bookseller, not affiliating with, or selling out to, any chain. I like and respect that approach, in the same way Phoenix Books in Los Banos is an independent bookseller and the Westside Express is an independent newspaper.
I also appreciate that Powell’s sells PRINTED books and that it’s a thriving business. I’m glad there are many people like me who still like printed books and patronize a printed-bookstore.
While in the store, whenever I got lost or needed help, there was someone nearby to help, real people helping other people. I felt as though I was part of the Powell family.
It should have come as no surprise, since Powell’s prides itself on customer service. Among its values on its website (which is also worth browsing) is this statement: “We’re nothing without our customers. Powell’s would not be the destination it is now without its loyal customers.”
I also like its mission, “to be the world’s best destination for readers, a place that fosters a culture of reading and connects people with the books they’ll love.”
While in Powell’s I put into my hand-held basket many items, including two puzzles for my wife Sandy, a children’s book about trees, a coffee mug, some postcards, my rare magazine and several other books.
I had to restrain myself because I needed to fit everything I would buy into the one small suitcase I brought with me for my weekend in Portland. Still, I needed to buy a Powell’s bookbag to carry all the purchases back to my hotel room.
After checking out, I joined my son Mike and my granddaughter Kaila, both of whom had joined me in Powell’s and had gone down the block to a mom-and-pop café for coffee and late breakfast.
That was my last touring stop in Portland, after which I went to my granddaughter Hanna’s graduation from National University of Natural Medicine and the flew home the next day.
I can see myself living in Portland. It has so many things I like–a wide river running through it, gardens of roses, farmers’ markets and the world largest bookstore.
I’m told it rains a lot in Portland and it’s often cloudy there. I think I could handle that, especially after living in a place where we hardly get any rain and the sun can be merciless in the summer. Besides, there’s nothing better when it’s raining than to spend the day in a bookstore of your dreams.
However, I don’t think I’ll be moving to Portland. I’ve grown comfortable living in Los Banos for a half-century and now relaxing with my wife Sandy in a comfortable one-story home built in the 1950s. Perhaps if I were younger. . . .