Much has been written about Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. A mainstay on “best bookstore” lists not only throughout the U.S. but the entire world, the multi-location behemoth of a store has been serving Portland since 1971 and has become deservedly described as legendary.
The shop’s family-owned history began in Chicago, where Michael Powell opened a bookshop in 1970. His father, Walter, spent a summer working in the shop and was so enamored with bookshop operations that, upon returning to his Portland home, decided to open his own used store. Soon bursting with inventory, Walter moved the shop to a former car dealership, where it remains to this day as the flagship Powell’s location. In the late 1970s, Michael joined is father and expanded the store to include used and new inventory and has been growing ever since. Today, Powell’s is still family owned and operated by Michael’s daughter, Emily.
Throughout its nearly five-decade existence, the shop has grown to employ well over 500 people across five stores and an active online shop, with an inventory exceeding two million books – not to mention a wealth of branded merchandise from apparel to tote bags to coffee mugs and beyond.
The self-described “intimate relationship” with the city of Portland is evident as soon as you hop into a taxi at the airport. Cab drivers are quick to recommend the shop to visitors inquiring about must-see locations. And with a wealth of in-store activities, from writing workshops to story hours to book signings and book clubs, there is always something interesting happening at Powell’s.
But activities and sideline merchandise aside, Powell’s City of Books is indeed a bibliophile’s paradise. The flagship shop is four stories tall and covers an entire city block. Printed maps and well-placed, staffed information desks are peppered throughout the building to guide lost shoppers to their desired genre. And while I’ve used the descriptors like “every genre imaginable” rather liberally around this blog, I’ve never meant it more than when describing the inventory at Powell’s. The store map notes well over 100 genres, laid out in a series of color-coded rooms, from new arrivals and literature on the main floor to art, architecture, and a limited-visitor rare books room on level 3. There’s also a coffee shop tucked into the space. Each level is neatly organized with directional signage; large, tall shelves tidily packed with books; interesting end caps and kiosk displays; and handwritten suggestions from staff and customers alike.
While Portland, Oregon, has a rich and diverse bookstore community, Powell’s City of Books is its foundation – a prime example of the power of an independent bookstore to serve as a literary landmark, a community hub, and indeed a wildly popular tourist attraction.
Powell’s maintains multiple locations throughout Portland, while the flagship store, Powell’s City of Books, is located at 1005 West Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon, 97209. Open daily.