Travelling Nerd: Powell’s City of Books, Portland, OR

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Recently I went on vacation to Portland, OR to visit a friend. Or that’s what I told her, so I could have a free couch to sleep on and a built-in tour guide (Thanks, Victoria!). Really what I was going for was greenery, environmental research of true hipster oddities in their natural environment, and Powell’s City of Books.

Yes, a whole city, like the fabled city of gold known as Cíbola, but with books and you know… it’s real. JK Rowling is Mayor, John Grisham is the District Attorney, and Hunter S. Thompson was the town drunk until 2005. They’re still accepting nominations for his replacement.

Alright, so it’s not a real city, but it might as well be. Powell’s bookstore has six locations in Portland, but their headquarters is the place to go. Located in the Pearl District at 1005 W Burnside, Powell’s City of Books is a 3-story, 68,000 square foot full city block with 1.6 acres of retail space. They house over one million books in that single location and even provide a handy map so you can find your way out after you find yourself lost in the depths of creativity and knowledge.

See why I wanted to go there so badly?you can find your way out after you find yourself lost in the depths of creativity and knowledge.

If you do go, I suggest coming through the entrance on NW 11th and NW Couch St. There is a beautiful carved pillar that looks like a stack of books and it sets a lovely tone for your foray into the store. When I stepped in, I took a moment to relish in the sight before me. There are rows upon rows of books lining maple colored shelves, customers genuinely excited about reading, and staff members spending half their time directing customers to the various rooms of the store. And the smell, that beautiful, clean smell of fresh paper and ink of which e-readers are deficient.

I progressed further, immediately feeling overwhelmed since this was more of a pilgrimage than a quest, so I needed some direction and guidance. I looked to the giant sign that broke each room up by subject.

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Ah, Erotica in the Gold Room. Exactly what I was looking for.

I actually went directly where my heart always takes me: to Literature. So off to the blue room I went! After browsing around, forcing myself not to pick up any books to buy, but only to peruse, my friend said, “Enough, Sarah. It’s time for the Rare Book room.” I did a Sir Patrick Stewart patented quadruple take and replied, “Rare book room? I want to go to there.”

Up we went to the third story to the Pearl Room, and into a smaller dark mahogany room with an antique door. Instantly the volume dropped, implicating an air of respect reserved for the library and church. I turned immediately to my right and looked directly at the sci-fi shelf. How apropos. And like a divining rod, my eyes landed on a first edition copy of A Scanner Darkly, signed by Philip K. Dick, just nestled right in there, right next to four signed first edition Stephen King books. On and on down the shelves I went, finding original print children’s books, histories written while history was still happening, older books previously owned by famous authors including a collection of Keats poems that was owned and signed by Kerouac in 1949 while he was on the road gaining his inspiration for On the Road. I almost peed myself.

After prying myself away from the rare book room, I browsed about the shelves and variety of rooms, and got caught at the sale shelf in the Purple Room (politics, journalism, etc). I walked away with Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges (I’ll let you know how it is), because I’m a sucker for discount books. I then relaxed with a latte, some nice conversation, and people-watching with my dear friend in the café, and we went about our day.

And then I went back again the next day with two other friends who happened to be in the area (Hi Billea and other Victoria!). This time I picked up Bossypants by Tina Fey (couldn’t put it down! Must read!) and a hardback copy of Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces. I may actually die from being crushed by books, and I’m okay with that.

By all claims, Powell’s is the largest independent chain of bookstores in the world, making itself a symbol of the cult of Portland and the City of Books a mecca for bookworms across the globe. While national chain bookstores are crumbling with the transition away from printed media, the Powell family is ensuring that their family business is staying strong, and they have even maintained a successful internet business at And I find a lot of comfort in that. Local bookstores are hubs of imagination, creativity, and intellect in many communities, and as long as they exist, I know that wherever I travel, I can find a home.

Now if only I can figure out how to move into Powell’s…

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