The P in P-town

I know, I know, you probably thought it stood for Portland. But, hey, there’s no shame in being a newb. Happens to us all at one time or another. In Oregon and Washington, just so you know, the P in P-town actually stands for Powell’s.

collage: one exterior and three interior shots of Powell's Books

(CCL Rosa Say)

As in Powell’s Books, the Portland bookstore that covers an entire city block–from 10th to 11th, from Couch (rhymes with smooch) to Burnside–and rises four stories.

How big is Powell’s?

It’s so big they print maps to help you navigate. And mark (and name) each huge room a different color, to help you stay oriented.

So big it has an inventory of over four million new, used, rare and out-of-print books, with well over a million separate titles.

So big it holds over an acre and a half of retail floor space divided into 122 major subject areas and over 3,500 sub-sections.

So big 3,000 people walk in and buy something every day, while another 3,000 come to browse and drink coffee.

But still small enough to have employees giving impromptu readings of favorite books in the narrow aisles. And to have been graced for many years (1988-2007) with Fup, an unprepossessing gray tabby with a white diamond on her chest and a blue collar, who could work the crowds like a pro. Which she was. Witness the business cards.

Fup's business card

(CCL James Allenspach)

One of the world’s largest bookstores, Powell’s may well be the largest used and new bookstore in the world.  Way more importantly, though, The Washington Post calls Powell’s “perhaps the best bookstore in the world.”

So it’s worrisome to those of us who love Powell’s to hear that they reduced their workforce by 40 people last year through attrition. That they’ve cut the hours of the 400-plus employees who remain. That they laid off another 31 people earlier this month. That they stopped making 401(k) contributions last week. That they’re planning a pay freeze beginning in July.

Between the Great Recession and the rise of e-books, clearly there’s blood in the water and the sharks are circling. Now is the time for all of us bibliophiles to be thinking hard about where we want to be buying our books in ten years.

The store was packed last night for Friends and Family Night. From 5 till 11 p.m., everything in the store was 30% off. When I arrived at 6:30 the checkout line snaked back and forth through the Green Room (Magazines, Audio Books and New Arrivals) before disappearing through the doorway and back into the bowels of the Pink Room (Education, Children’s, Young Adult, Nature Studies, Sports).

I worked my way through the crowd and upstairs to the Red Room (Health, Psychology, Self-Help, Mythology, Metaphysics, Religions, Languages and Travel) and eventually back down to the Blue Room (Literature and Reference). Then, with my armload of books (Limit: five, which you’re on the honor system to be considering buying) I made my way to the Coffee Room (Sci Fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Horror, Manga, Graphic Novels, Romance and, most important for my purposes, the coffee shop–it is the Coffee Room, after all) where I sat at a long, scarred deal table painted forest green (and crowded with other people and their books) and sorted through my prospective purchases over a caramel latte, extra hot.

I weeded out a couple. Then it was upstairs again, this time to the Purple Room (History, Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Law, Military, Ethnic Studies and Pacific Northwest). And then, three hours and another weeding session after I arrived, back to the Green Room and the cash registers.

Armed with a Christmas gift card from my brother-in-law (thank you, Robin!) and the night’s 30% discount, I walked away with:

  • Stephen King’s On Writing;
  • John Paul Stevens’s Supreme Court memoir, Five Chiefs (a reference to the five chief justices Stevens worked with in his long career, first as lawyer and circuit judge and eventually as associate justice on the High Court; it’s looking a little kinder and gentler than Max Lerner’s classic book on the Court, Nine Scorpions In A Bottle);
  • Mother Theresa’s posthumously published private writings, Come Be My Light; and
  • my pièce de résistance, a four-volume hardcover set of Churchill’s classic History of the English Speaking Peoples.

Dickens would have felt at home in Powell’s narrow, high-shelved aisles. And I hope, in another few years, to introduce my grandkids to them: to share the privilege, and the pleasure, that has been mine.

One thought on “The P in P-town

  1. Seeing the photos of Powell’s makes me all “warm and fuzzy”.
    I have been there only a few times and now am content to sit on the floor at B&N (when I can get there) to peruse my treasures.

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