Powell’s Books: Portland’s Iconic Independent Bookstore

Powell's BooksBy Alyssa Smith

Ranked higher than a visit to the International Rose Test Garden or a bite from one of Voodoo Doughnut’s creatively named pastries, a few hours wandering through Powell’s Books is always at the top of my Portland To-Do list. The flagship store, located in downtown Portland, OR, is a bibliophile’s dream come true. According to the store’s website, it is the world’s largest used and new bookstore and offers more than a million books on its shelves. The idea for Powell’s Books was first conceived in 1971 after Walter Powell spent a summer working in his son Michael’s used bookstore in Chicago. Inspired by his son’s business venture, Powell opened his own store in Portland and quickly expanded the store’s inventory, eventually moving the operation into the former car dealership that is its current ‘City of Books’ flagship location. Today, Powell’s operates five stores in Oregon and a successful online service that ships worldwide. The store is a local favorite and boasts that, “approximately 80,000 book lovers browse the City’s shelves every day in Portland and via the Internet.”

Powell’s Books is not unique simply because of its impressive size, although seeing a single bookstore take up an entire city block would make any bookworm’s heart flutter. The store’s success is also derived from an “unorthodox recipe” of mixing new, used, hardcover, and paperback books together on the bookshelves, allowing each book an equal opportunity to find a loving reader. The labyrinth-like store contains nine color-coded sections and 122 major subject areas. I have repeatedly stumbled accidentally  into unexplored genres and couldn’t stop myself from rifling through the titles. A helpful resource (and souvenir for readers overwhelmed by the barrage of possibilities) is the collection of free bookmarks listing various literary awards and their annual winners.

Powell's City of BooksAlthough seating is hard to come by when exploring the shelves, the laid-back, cozy atmosphere of the store encourages readers to grab a pile of books and settle themselves on the floor or any comfortable space they can manage to find. The café on the first floor boasts ample seating and also serves as a welcoming area to peruse books at your leisure. World Cup Coffee and Tea offers an assortment of tasty beverages to chase away any chills from the Portland drizzle. My friend and fellow Powell explorer especially liked that the café reminded her of a library. She said, “It felt like you could just sit and chill with a book for a while without being bothered.” It wasn’t uncommon to see people reading through stacks of books on their tables as they sipped on aromatic coffee. At Powell’s, readers are welcome to stay as long as they like and read wherever they like.

During my last visit, on an inevitable rainy Portland afternoon, I picked up a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, The Infinities by John Banville, and Wildwood, a children’s fantasy novel set in Portland. As I exited the store then, I was already looking forward to the next time I would walk into Powell’s, only to emerge many hours later with an armful of books and a day well spent.


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