A Book Metropolis

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Photo © Powell’s City of Books

By Garen Glazier

On the edge of Portland’s Pearl District, a bright marquee announces the West Burnside entrance of Powell’s City of Books, the renowned independent bookseller’s flagship store. The otherwise unassuming building with its black stucco façade is the humble exterior of a civic landmark with an international reputation as a literary mecca.

Inside, it’s easy to see why Powell’s is a bibliophile’s paradise. Filling the nearly 70,000 square foot building are more than a million books of every imaginable stripe. They’re meticulously organized in a series of color-coded rooms with shelves arranged by subject area, a system illustrated on handy foldout maps visitors can use to navigate the store’s extensive stacks.

Powell’s precision affords focused shoppers the thrill of finding just the right book that will cater to their particular interests, no matter how esoteric. However, for the casual visitor, getting lost may be just as pleasurable and, as it turns out, a genuine staff suggestion.

“For the adventurous sort we recommend that you wander aimlessly without an agenda, letting yourself get lost to all manner of subject matters.” says Michal Drannen, Powell’s Marketing and Merchandising Manager.

Indeed, those taking the time to meander will be rewarded with an experience that is increasingly rare in today’s marketplace: the pleasure of strolling through the great breadth and depth of the written word in a physical space where it’s possible to pause, thumb through actual pages, and smell the unmistakable aroma of paper and ink.

As Drannen puts it, “Powell’s doesn’t stand in the way of the books. Our approach to our space and the customer experience is to let the books take center stage.”

The simple concept of keeping the book central appears to be working. Powell’s gets some 8,000 visitors a day. Many peruse the green room, at the store’s main entrance, where carefully curated tables display new and interesting selections from around the store. Others find what they’re looking for in the popular blue and gold rooms that house fiction, literary and genre respectively. The children’s and young adult areas in the rose room are a bookish kid’s dream come true and a popular place for families to gather for story time.

Less traveled, but none-the-less interesting, are the non-fiction rooms on Level 2. Here the crowds thin, and the pace is more leisurely. Pick a subject, from geology to economics to yoga, even railroads, and Powell’s delivers enough books to impress the most dedicated aficionado. Intrepid bookworms undaunted by the vastness of Levels 1 and 2 will delight in the beautiful first editions and centuries old tomes in Powell’s rare book room on Level 3.

Beyond the staggering inventory, Powell’s retains the heart and soul of an independent bookstore, a place, as Drannen says, “for culture, connection and fun.” It’s a city within a city, where the streets are paved with stories and book lovers feel very much at home. powells.com