The Wonderful World of Powell’s Books

Contributed by: Cris Paschild

Cris Paschild is the head of special collections and the university archivist at Portland State University Library.  As a local high school student, she cut class on a regular basis to roam the aisles of Powell’s.  

Powell’s Books: “the largest used and new bookstore in the world”

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A visit to Portland would not be complete for any book lover without a visit to Powell’s. In a city that has undergone great changes, Powell’s Books remains a constant.  Founded in 1971 by Walter Powell and later purchased by his son, Michael Powell, its flagship store has been at its current location since 1979.   Dubbed Powell’s City of Books, it fills an entire downtown block.  The labyrinth of its color-coded rooms and its three levels, home to 3,500 subject sections, are best navigated with a map, available in print at all entrances.  

The shelves of Powell’s hold almost as many used books as new.  Locals still sweep their home for books to bring to the buying counter, only to find themselves walking out with bags full again, unable to resist picking up another round of titles immediately after.  There are seemingly endless temptations for all, whatever the interest.  The Orange Room hosts rows and rows of cookbooks of every cuisine and for every technique.  The Yellow Room, home to the Sci Fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Horror, Thrillers and Manga sections, may be the best for book cover eye candy, rivaled only by the immediately adjacent Graphic Novel section.  For those looking for an extra special souvenir, the Pearl Room on the third floor is home to the rare book room.  

As online shopping boomed and corporate entities rose to dominance, the always independent Powell’s had to respond accordingly, establishing a retail website.  Nonetheless, as larger bookstore chains like Borders fell, the long-term fate of Powell’s appeared uncertain too.  However, as the market stabilized, so did Powell’s and today the store is busier than ever.  And while it has recently added more gifts and tourist-focused bling to its inventory, books are still its heart and soul.  The space itself has also managed to retain much of its old school Portland feel.  The main aisles may become congested with out of town visitors but quiet spaces for browsing and on-the-spot reading still abound.  

If you find yourself wanting to linger, there’s a coffee shop onsite.  Or you can take a break at one of the nearby restaurants, bars or bakeries.  McMenamins’ Zeus Café, two blocks up Burnside, is a good choice for a relaxed brunch or lunch in a building that holds its own share of Portland history.  

And as July gets closer, be sure to check out Powell’s calendar for visiting authors and other book-related events.   

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