The greatest bookstore in the world, bar none, sprawls in the blandest of buildings on Portland's Burnside Street—the Rose City's "skid road"—where mammoth fir trees were once trundled down from the hills to the Willamette River. Burnside Street is no longer the haunt of armies of loggers, but vast rivers of wood products still flow along Portland's skid road—now in the form of the millions of books a year that enter and exit Powell's Books. The store that calls itself the City of Books has been dubbed "the best bookstore in the English-speaking world" (author Susan Sontag), "the world's greatest bookstore" (The Seattle Times), "the mother monster of bookstores" (author Ursula Le Guin), and "one of the most innovative and creative enterprises in the country" (The Wall Street Journal).
The designation "City of Books" is not worn lightly. Some 4 million books a year are sold by Powell's. Maps of the warren of corridors and bevy of bookshelves abound, temporary residents can find a meal at the store's popular coffeehouse, and people have been married in its aisles—most recently in the cookbook and history sections, respectively. And living on the bookshelves of the City and its six satellite stores (including ones that specialize in technical, travel, and culinary books and one that is a storefront at the Portland airport) are more than a million books—with another half million stored in a warehouse near the alpha store.
Like any significant city, Powell's also draws eminent visitors with its idiosyncratic charms: The store long ago became the first Oregon stop for authors on book tours, and there is a writer reading from his or her work here nearly every night of the year—writers of the caliber of such recent visitors as Calvin Trillin, William Gibson, and Barry Lopez. "Put it this way," says Julie Mancini, the former director of Portland's renowned Arts and Lectures Series, "if there's a new edition of the Bible, people expect God to be at Powell's to sign books."
Once through the front door, visitors will find a line of people selling their books to Powell's, an information booth staffed by erudite and quick-witted clerks, a mammoth pile of new books at startlingly low prices, and bookshelves from floor to ceiling as far as the eye can see.
Powell's was born in the now-gleaming cranium of its owner, Michael Powell, when he was a political science student at the University of Chicago in 1970. Armed with $3,000 from faculty friends (among them Saul Bellow), he opened a tiny store and soon was employing his father, Walter, who came to Chicago from Portland to work with his boy for a summer. Walter grew so interested in biblio-business that he opened his own store when he returned to Portland. In 1979, Michael went home to help his father (leaving a flourishing Powell's that eventually expanded to three Chicago stores), and the Rose City behemoth began in earnest.
Michael credits his late father with the store's central principle: shelving used, new, paperback, and hardback books together so that readers looking for a particular book can find a range of editions and prices. He also says Walter affirmed his own belief that used books are more valuable than new ones. More than 70 percent of Powell's stock consists of used books, and the store's book buyers purchase 3,000 to 5,000 more every day.
How does Powell's, an independent in a sea of chain stores, stay afloat? Answers: a vast offering of used books, a stunning selection of out-of-print books, a crammed roomful of rare books, its knowledgeable and verbose staffers, the comfortable ambience of the mother store, and its secret weapon: www.powells.com, the Web site through which Powell's sells more than a thousand books a day.
Unlike Amazon.com, which made a small profit for the first time in 2002, Powell's has turned a Net profit for years—partly courtesy of Amazon itself, which orders thousands of out-of-print books a year from Powell's.
Most of the legendary figures associated with Powell's have been the writers who visit to read or buy books, and there are scores of authorial tales—of Doris Kearns Goodwin discovering books on Lincoln at Powell's that she couldn't locate in bookish Harvard Square, of Doris Lessing finding books that she'd sought for years, of Carlos Fuentes testing the limits of the store with a list of five utterly obscure tomes, four of which were on Powell's shelves.
But in many ways the most colorful personality at Powell's is Mike Powell himself, a forthright man who detests the chain stores for what he calls "predatory, anonymous, characterless" behavior. He also says that some independent stores are "disasters waiting to happen, run by people who are in the book business because they don't like being in other kinds of business—not a formula for success."
Powell's formula for success includes an active civic life for his store. It was the first Oregon business to oppose a controversial antigay ballot measure in 1992, and the City of Books has donated more than $500,000 to Oregon school libraries over the past five years. This has boosted the store's already-high reputation among Portlanders, who seem to regard it as the city's living room. The formula for success also includes a willingness to grow, at least on the home court; Powell's completed a four-story addition to its flagship store about three years ago, and the Web site already accounts for more than a third of its book sales.
But the heart of Powell's success remains the funky, bookish character of the Burnside Street store. In the heart of old Portland, where once flowed a seemingly endless river of logs on their way to mills, there now flows a river of visitors from all over the world, come to find an interactive laptop medium that will never obsolesce—books.
Photography by Bruce Forster/Viewfinders
This article was first published in March 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.