Portland Oregon is known for beer, coffee, donuts, a lot of rain, views of Mt Hood when it’s NOT raining, a funky vibe, a significant homeless problem, trams and streetcars, interesting neighborhoods, and as the home of one of the largest of the still independent bookstores in America, Powell’s Books. In fact Powell’s website boasts that it is the largest in the world, containing up to one million books and occupying a full city block. I am the son of a librarian, have worked in major University libraries and I know roughly what a million books looks like. I am a huge believer in supporting local independent bookstores. When well run, they carefully curate a selection of books chosen because they are worth reading. You can hardly go wrong wandering amongst their shelves on almost any topic. So when I passed by Powell’s on a streetcar in Portland one afternoon I made mental note of the streetcar stop so I could return. But then I didn’t.
The day I planned for my unofficial Portland booksellers tour started out with a bit of uncharacteristic snow. It was half an inch I think. People joked that the schools would be closed. However, even though I was raised in the midwest and actually like winter weather, I have fallen a lot lately and I didn’t want to fall today on icy sidewalks at exactly 32 degrees. I was in no hurry, a luxury I had planned for. So I spent a leisurely morning in nearby coffee shops until temperatures eventually climbed enough that streets would be dry.
Then I set out. But not first to Powell’s. About 4 blocks away from my cluster of hostel and coffee shops was another small bookstore. I decided walk first over to Daedalus Books. In a residential area I found a nondescript building but with the right sign and went in.
First, let me say that I am often disappointed by used booksellers. To some extent they have to put on their shelves what serendipity brings them. That isn’t always great. And even when it is you have to sometimes work hard to make a discovery. But at Daedalus I got a peek as I walked in of what they called their warehouse. This was not for books currently for sale but a vast inventory of books that they still were sorting through to decide what would be. That was a good sign that when I walked down their aisles, I would be looking at books they had actually selected for me to see.
So I walked down the aisles of books actually for sale hopeful. I stopped in ancient history and philosophy, figuring a 30 year old book here still could be highly relevant. My focus however was on small, lightweight books I could not find anywhere else. I still had to carry them home on a couple of trains.
First discovery was a small book by Herodotus, the Greek writer asserted by Cicero to be the Father of History. (As if Cicero would know) Instead of being a collection of his whole works in his Histories, this small volume was his writings only on traveling through Egypt where he had heard what may or may not have been some pretty fanciful tale tales by local priests. Looking through the book it occurred to me that he was essentially the father of travel blogs and this was the little volume that started it all.
For awhile after the movie The English Patient had been released it was probably cool for people to pretend they read Herodotus. He was apparently someone to read between having hot sex. But to be honest it was the title and tag line that grabbed me.
“Everybody here paints himself red and eats monkeys...” Any publisher that selects that quote to put on the cover is worth my reading dollars, even if I am buying used about two or three decades after publication. It cost only a little less than $2.
I shortly had added a couple more volumes from that section and decided I had enough to get me through an upcoming train trip over three days and two nights from Seattle to Chicago.
But at what cost? By which I meant how heavy would this be? My backpack and side bag on this trip combine at 25 lbs. I didn’t want to break through that limit too badly. At the counter they had some postal scales and I asked the nice young man named Mako who was manning the front desk to weigh them. Just under 2 lbs. I could deal with that, though it almost amounted to 10% of my bag weight.
At the end of my time at Daedalus I began to think that Powell’s might well have been a bucket list thing. I was going there just because it was on the itinerary. I reasoned that I had done better with a small store that wasn’t bragging about a million books for sale but simply had selected those worth reading. So I walked around the corner to a local bakery for lunch (recommended by Mako) checked out where the number 77 bus would stop for going to Union Station for my train the next day, and walked around the neighborhood before heading back to the hostel to read.
That would have made a nice ending for this post. Message delivered. Big, well known store is bad and small, obscure store is good. But this story doesn't end there.
In my hostel room that evening I had a new dorm-mate. It was just the two of us in this four bunk dorm room. His name was Robert Porte and we got to talking about Portland. He asked about whether I had been to Powell’s and I told him of my visit to Daedalus, which he knew.
Robert spent some time working at Powell’s and knew both stores very well. He described Powell’s, the institution as he put it, as something to be very proud of. There is a look someone has when they have spent a lot of time either in bookstores or libraries I think. I grew up with librarians. Books are a living essence for them. Robert had that look and Powell’s was partly responsible.
In fact he was back here in Portland that week because Powell’s would be showing his photographic collection compiled a few years back when he lived out of an old Volvo and went up and down the Oregon coast taking film, not digital photographs. He was going to be be in the top floor gallery at Powell’s the next morning hanging his photos for his exhibition. So, of course I went there too.
I looked at his photographs as he arranged the collection. I also walked about and picked up a lot of books to look through. What struck me was how much more they could offer by having a healthy collection of excellently curated used books along side the new. This was a place where a book was on the shelves due to its merit, because it was worth reading, not because it was just newly published. There were books there that simply would never have been available in a new bookseller’s shop. And if a book was a classic you didn’t have to pay new book prices, it was probably sitting there on the shelves used for only a few dollars. But right next to it would be new books that you wanted to see too. Win, win, win.
On the ground floor of Powell’s, where I had checked my backpack behind a counter, there were a line of stations or booths filled with book buyers. Here anyone with books to sell could come. Robert had said that these staff were knowledgeable about what to buy and for how much. It was like a literary Antiques Roadshow. They reminded me of the reference librarians alongside whom I used to work many years ago (back in the 1970s, gasp). Really really smart people that knew their stuff.
It was not hard to figure that on the very top of Powell’s many city block-sized floors, indicated to the public only as an elevator button accessible just by staff, was their own warehouse like the one at Daedalus, though much bigger. A used book would have to pass through the gauntlet of the book buyers and then spend some time in book purgatory”s warehouse before it ever got a chance to be on the shelves to be bought. Serendipity might bring a used book there, but that’s not why it is on the shelves.
There were a number of trains I could take to Seattle later in the day. For now I was wandering in book heaven.
I realize that I can come down pretty hard on bucket list traveling. But, as I have also said, there is nothing wrong with a place or thing just because it is on a bucket list. We limit ourselves and our travels only when we travel as if the trip is a list to be serially checked off.
So, another important lesson I learned here, don’t be a snob. Popular things or places might be good, great even, despite being popular. Bucket list or no, I enjoyed Powell’s after all and was very glad I did go. Even if I couldn’t afford the weight in my backpack to buy anything more.
©️ 2019 D Abbott