Books Are Dead? Not While Powell’s Lives.


The amazing Powell’s City of Books. Every city needs one.

Today I saw an empty store where a Borders used to be, and I sniffled when I realized the building is now a Ross Dress-For-Less. I have nothing against Ross Dress-For-Less—I found some cute luggage there once—but as I drove past I found myself thinking that, while the world is a sadder place with fewer bookstores, we would survive all right without another half-off department store. I know there are hobbiest bargain shoppers out there who want, no, need more discount stores, but I’d still rather see a bookstore.

During my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I went, as all book lovers must, to pay homage at Powell’s City of Books, an independent bookstore in Downtown Portland. I’ve known about Powell’s for years. Friends who visited Portland told me about Powell’s. I had read about the store on the Internet. I started following @Powells on Twitter. I hadn’t even been there when I started following them, but for someone who loves history as much as I do, I couldn’t resist following such a relic—an independent bookstore. When I knew I was going to Portland, Powell’s was the first stop on my to-do list.

I don’t know what I expected to see when I walked into Powell’s. Having read all about the death of books, I thought maybe I would find a dilapidated cellar with a few books hanging by their threadbare bindings from a cobweb-covered shelf, the scent of mold and mortality heavy in the air. Or maybe I would find a zombie apocalypse, where hundreds of undead, grunting and groaning as they dragged their corpses across the rotting wooden floor, would wave disintegrating hardcovers and paperbacks in the air and yell, “See! Look what you have done!”

Proof positive: that’s me in front of Powell’s!

Instead, inside Powell’s I saw people—living, breathing people, and a lot of them. They were ordinary-looking folks. They didn’t have two heads or ten eyes. They were boys and girls, men and women, tall and short, doing regular bookstore stuff, pulling books from the shelves, flipping through them, reading the back covers and the insides, putting back the ones that didn’t strike them and holding onto the ones they liked. Some people asked questions of the knowledgeable staff. Even children were reading in the well-stocked, fun-looking young person’s section. I saw a line of people waiting to spend their money, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw they were buying books with that money. And as for the people behind the register…they had the audacity to smile at me while I made my purchase. In other words, the place was thriving. So, I wondered, how has Powell’s held on while other bookstores have faded away?

First, to call it a city of books is an understatement. The place is huge. I read it takes up an entire city block, and having been there I believe it. It has several floors, and each floor is divided into color-coded nooks with every possible category you might want. I was thrilled when I found the ceiling-high shelves of vegetarian cookbooks. I’m so tired of cookbooks with titles like 101 Ways to Cook Rutabagas. I have all the respect in the world for rutabagas, and I’m certain without ever having eaten one that rutabagas are tasty and nutritious. I only mean that even we vegetarians like variety in our diets, and at Powell’s I can find a cookbook to help me. In less-stocked bookstores all I’ll find, if I’m lucky, is something like Vegetables 365 Days a Year and that rutabaga book.

(Insert angels singing here.) The Dickens shelf at Powell’s.

At Powell’s,  you feel comfortable enough to browse around and get lost in the stacks. The staff is there if you need them, but otherwise you can look around for hours, which is really all any book lover wants—to find something you didn’t know you were looking for. I found my treasure in the Classics section in the Ds—an entire ceiling-high shelf of Dickens. Every kind of Dickens. Big Dickens and small Dickens. Long Dickens and short Dickens. Popular editions of Dickens and lesser-known versions. Plain text Dickens and illustrated Dickens. Biographies of Dickens. Critical studies of Dickens. The only thing missing, I thought, was Dickens. Not that he’d look all that propped onto a shelf at 201. But still.

Another thing Powell’s does right is buy and sell used books, which gives their customers more variety, more choices. They sell new books at Powell’s too, and I’m all for recently published books, but often there’s something wonderful to be discovered when browsing used books. I didn’t even realize the copy of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel I bought at Powell’s was used until I got home and noticed the label. And Powell’s has a thriving website. While the store itself is a fun place to spend time, the Powell’s people haven’t ignored the online world and they understand that sometimes you just want to browse and buy books over the computer while relaxing at home in your jammies. Or maybe that’s me.

I’m glad I took the time to visit Powell’s. I’m glad I got to see actual people reading actual books. I had been believing what I was reading—about how people don’t read any more, how people only skim nowadays, how reading seems boring compared to everything else we could be doing, how there are more people writing books than there are people who read them, which is a worrying thought for someone like me who lives to read and write. But never fear. They’re still out there, readers. I saw them myself, pouring over books, scanning the shelves, and looking for their next great read. I feel better already.

5 thoughts on “Books Are Dead? Not While Powell’s Lives.

  1. Aloha Meredith:

    I came across your blog and had to comment. I live in Honolulu, Hawaii and just last month our local Barnes & Noble bookstore closed, replaced by…(you guessed it) a Ross-Dress-For-Less. There’s a corporate murder mystery here somewhere. 🙂 Maybe Ross has quietly arranged a first option on sites whenever Barnes and his partner Noble stumble?

    Congratulations on your Loving Husband Trilogy. Looking forward to reading them. I’m an investigative journalist who primarily writes non-fiction, covering the field of scientific anomalies and the “paranormal.” So I’m always interested in reading anything associated with the famous Salem Witch Trials.

    I was only recently lured out of my comfort zone and into historical fiction. While researching my first (non-fiction) book, I came across a fascinating woman whose life story read like a novel – Italian Spiritualist medium Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), a fiery-tempered, erotic, middle-aged Neapolitan peasant woman who levitated tables and conjured up spirits of the dead in dimly-lit séance rooms all across Europe at the end of the 19th century. Her psychic powers baffled Nobel Prize-winning scientists, captivated aristocracy from Paris to Vienna and enraged the powerful Catholic Church which suspected her paranormal feats were the work of Satan. Her scandalous flirtations, her meteoric rise to fame, her humiliating fall and miraculous redemption made world headlines at the time (when she died, she earned an obituary in the New York Times). I ended up with a 70,000-word, historical fiction work inspired by her real-life story. It’s currently making the rounds of lit agents in NYC.

    Now that I’m done, I have a newfound admiration for fiction writers. I’m humbled by the complexity of it all — the Rubik’s cube of characters, plot, subplots, pacing, dialogue, style, emotional arc – pieces which must be moved into place in sequence and the precise moment to propel the tale forward, hold the fickle reader’s attention, and arrive at a successful denouement. Historical fiction raises the complexity another level. How much factual history should be inserted? When? Where? To paraphrase Willie Nelson, “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be historical fiction writers.”

    As we say here in Hawaii, “okole maluna” — a “bottoms up” raise the glass toast to you and every other fiction writer out there.


    Michael Schmicker

  2. I’m with you, Mark. The only reason I didn’t leave Powell’s with hundreds of dollars worth of books is because I had only brought carry-on luggage with me to Portland and I didn’t have any more room. Good thing they have a website.

  3. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Kindle. But as much as I read on it, I can’t EVER stop into Powell’s and not emerge with at least one “old-fashioned” book, and sometimes more. Sometimes many more.

  4. Thank you so much, David. I agree–the world still has sense. I think it’s so easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom forecasts about reading, but knowing there will always be people who love books is very encouraging.

  5. Your post brings comfort. We will still have generations of people with real imaginations and who recognise the printed word and not just texts and compuspeak. We still have an audience to write for and a place to buy physical books we can carry around and read at every opportunity without needing a recharge, The world still has sense.xx

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