Portland, Oregon is home to the greatest bookstore in the world. Now I have not been to all the bookstores in the world but Powell’s, in downtown Portland, is everything a bibliophile could want in a bookstore. As the Romans said, “It isn’t the size of the bookstore, it is what you do with it.” Powell’s is a full city block in girth and six floors in length. Well, Powell’s has size and they know what to do with it.
Each year I take a pilgrimage to Powell’s with a friend. Tradition dictates that the journey takes place in May and we spend at least four hours wandering through the store. Does that sound like too much time in a bookstore? Well, you probably haven’t been to Powell’s, four hours is barely enough time to scratch the surface. Rows and rows of poetry, thousands of books on Shakespeare, enough history to make the librarians at Alexandria jealous, kids books, books on farming, knitting, even boring crap like math has a full section. Pick up a map of the bookstore when you enter the building and you should be able to find your way around. You can park in the Powell’s garage and they will validate an hour of parking if you buy something. If you make it out of Powell’s without a purchase you are a bad person and if you are there less than an hour you are an idiot.
The rare book room on the sixth floor can cause heart palpitations. I saw a first edition Catcher in the Rye there, I wasn’t allowed to touch it, but I saw it. ($3,500.00 if you want to get me something for Christmas.) Oh, there are some Hemingway 1st editions, some Ken Kesey 1st editions, and lots and lots of old books that make me wish I was rich.
There is a café in the store on the second or third floor…it is almost in between the second and third floor…just walk toward the coffee smell and you will find it. The café serves your typical northwest coffee with a hint of Portland style. Portlanders (Portlandians?) are unique people. Don’t judge a Portlander by their cover; even the most tattooed and pierced member of the Portland tribe is friendly. The staff at Powell’s may look like they just escaped from a fire-eating-circus and freak show, but they did not. The strange haircuts, the odd glasses, the lack of deodorant, the eyebrow piercings and the earlobes stretched to extremes by gauges are all part of the charm of Portland. These people love books and are happy to help you. They are not snotty, know-it-all-elitists, they are like your weird aunt or uncle who always knows what book you should read next.
People from outside of the northwest need to know one thing when traveling to Portland: it is not Seattle. The two cities are vastly different and so are the people. Portland is relaxed and nearly European in feel. Seattle is a little colder, a little more uptight and a little more business focused. If you took Portland and Seattle and mixed them together you would get San Francisco. If you like the relaxed quality of SF, then Portland is your city. If you like the business suit and Starbucks, then Seattle is your spot.
If you ever visit Portland you must visit Powell’s, it is one of my favorite places. I will be there this year on May 18th,look for me in the rare book room.