By Meredith Allard
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!”
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.
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.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.