When you walk through the doors, you’re hit with an assortment of smells. Along with the crisp bouquet of new paper is the musty scent of old tomes. Some of these books evoke basements or dry attics, hinting at previous lives. You sniff ink, long-dried and fresh, black and full-color. If you stop and focus hard enough, you can pull all these smells apart.
The scale of Powell’s is staggering. Self-proclaimed the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world, it spans an entire city block of downtown Portland and extends four stories skyward. Passing through the main entrance can feel disorienting. The foyer alone is as large and full of books as most commercial bookstores you’ve visited, but the area contains only new releases, seasonal items, and sale books. This is just the tease, the candy. From the main lobby, the bookstore branches out into a labyrinth of color coded rooms organized by subject. Literature is blue, children’s books: rose, business: orange, travel:red,, rare books: pearl, etc. There are plenty of computer kiosks, and the info desk has maps.
Powell’s describes its aesthetic as no-nonsense and industrial. The interior is high-ceilinged with exposed wood beams and ductwork. Forming the aisles are modest, perhaps hand built, wooden bookcases with shelves that are deep at floor level and grow gradually shallower to overstock at the top. Staring up, you may find yourself rapt and overwhelmed, as if you were at the bottom of a canyon.
The sheer quantity of books--on each shelf, in each row, in every room--will confound you. The selection feels limitless, and includes every volume you could imagine. What’s especially interesting about Powell’s organization is its mingling of new and used books. When you find the title you’re looking for, you can pick out something brand new or the cheapest, most dog-eared edition, or just choose your favorite cover. Whatever it is, they’re all mixed together,
At browsing level, it’s old-library narrow, producing many mumbled excuse-mes as patrons brush by each other. Readers tend to plop down anywhere on the store’s worn concrete floor, feeling at home leaning against the sloping shelves. If you prefer, though, you can bring your pile of books into the attached coffee shop and try to narrow down your selection with a hot drink at its long, wide, library style tables. The cafe’s West Burnside facing windows also offer some good people watching.
The store opened in 1971, and on any given day, a huge cross-section of Portlanders and out-of-towners comes inside. In addition to books, Powell’s sells a selection of gift items and hosts regular author events, children's storytimes, writing workshops, game demonstrations, and book clubs. There are four additional Powell’s locations in the Portland metropolitan area, but the flagship store is really something magical.
Powells City of Books
1005 W. Burnside
Portland, OR 97209
Open 9-11 every day of the week
Easy to get to via bus, or the streetcar.
They even have a parking garage attached to the store.