Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 9, 2015

The City of Books

Sometimes, going somewhere once is enough, or, if not enough, must suffice: The Principal’s office, the transmission repair shop and Florida all come to mind. After all, whether time is linearly infinite or circular or has some weird quantum quality we cannot understand, our limited run wears out after a while, and we must quit the scene. However much we relish the fresh loaves at that bakery in Provence or the sunset salute at Key West or the view of the Grand Canyon, we can’t always return, because our limited lifespan hems us in with ironclad (although undefined) boundaries. We can’t go home again: Our rooms are inhabited by strangers or Mom’s doll collection. People we once knew have moved or passed beyond our knowing. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, never will we see that face in god’s sweet world again. And, even if we have the opportunity, will we return somewhere or will we decide to see something new in this world of almost limitless wonder?

Still, when we can, most of us return to some favorite haunt. How many more times will I see Chaco Canyon, the vast skies of New Mexico or any other scenes under these western skies? How many more times will I see the people who mean more than any of the places on the planet?

Last year The Counselor and I flew north, returning to Oregon after a five year absence. On our trip we saw new swaths of stunning scenery along the coast and in the mountains and we visited people I’ve known, literally, my entire lifetime. And in downtown Portland, at the corner of Burnside and 10th, we returned to Powell’s City of Books, reputedly the world’s largest bookstore.

What an excellent name. Not the World or Galaxy or Universe of Books — too grandiose — but a city with its own labyrinthine streets and corridors and alleys: Powell’s occupies an entire city block, containing room upon room stacked four floors high, maybe a mile or more of shelves, and PACKED with people: reading, browsing, searching. How many books on those shelves? More than a million. Yes, you can probably go online to Amazon and find nearly every book that Powell’s has on its shelves and buy it. But you can’t visit Amazon. You can’t stroll down endless corridors lined with hundreds of thousands of books and page through them. Amazon isn’t a place. Powell’s City of Books is real, and you can become a citizen of the City of Books (although you can also shop online from them).

Like Amazon’s virtual world, but unlike many other real places, Powell’s shelves are stocked with new AND used copies of books, side by side. Do you want a used paperback of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or do you want to buy a new edition? Go to the Blue Room (literature, classics, drama, poetry, etc.) and check the shelves. You can flip through the used copies and decide if you want the paperback with the inane notes in ballpoint from some college freshman, the well-worn but unmarked copy, or a pristine new hardcover edition. This, friends, is as close as one comes to the bibliophilic heaven. It’s not infinite (as we assume heaven’s own bookstore must be), but it’s as good as it gets. Powell’s falls short of infinitude. I was unable to find the copy of A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary they listed on their website when I checked the shelves.

While quantity doesn’t equal quality, Powell’s has a large staff of professionals who know their way around the complex passages of this vast city. They will take you to the book you’re seeking. Do you want the illustrated version of Watership Down? No, it’s not in children’s books (Rose Room); it’s in fantasy (Gold Room). The staff know this sort of arcana off the top of their heads. Good libraries have librarians with this degree of familiarity with the collection, but it’s rare to find it in a retail establishment on this scale.

Where do all these books come from? The new books, of course, come from publishers, and Powell’s stocks hundreds of thousands (hundreds of thousands!) of new books, and not just best sellers. There are new editions of books on art, history, philosophy, science and fiction on a scale that’s hard to compare with any store you’ve ever visited. Next to them, on the same shelf, are used copies that Powell’s has acquired. On an average day, Powell’s buys about 3,000 used books. They buy, inventory, price  and shelve them, as described above in my Virginia Woolf example. It’s a massive enterprise.

Thinking about those 3,000 used books streaming into the place every day made me think about something. Knowing, as we do, some longtime Powell’s employees, I asked if some of those books aren’t likely from some string of regulars who haunt thrift stores, yard sales, antique malls and so forth, looking for hard-to-find books they know they can turn a profit on by reselling to Powell’s. Absolutely, I learned. There is, indeed, a pool of regulars who show up again and again. In Powell’s lingo they’re referred to as “scouts.” I can imagine the allure: Could one scan through the endless shelves of books at Goodwill or the Our Lady of Perpetual Redemption thrift store fast enough, knowledgeably enough, to pluck out the few books priced at fifty cents or a dollar that would fetch some worthwhile multiple of that price from the Powell’s buyer? It could be a hobby, a way to occupy one’s retirement, or it could become an obsession. Could one seek out previously untouched caches, say in Spokane or Boise or Eureka, load them into the van (you’d need a van, at least) and drive them to Portland, realizing enough money to cover the cost of gas? As I said: obsession. Someone probably does it, but they have to be extremely good at it. I don’t know what percentage of the original retail price Powell’s pays, but there would be some harsh economic realities to reckon with.

No, I’m happy to have been to Powell’s twice, and my luggage was certainly heavier coming home thanks to the treasure I found there on both my visits. Will I return? There’s a lot to see elsewhere under western skies, but there’s still that elusive copy of the Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary out there, somewhere.

© copyright Brad Nixon 2015, 2017



  1. Welcome back Brad! Hope all is well!

    All the best, Sharon Sharon Dorros | Account Executive | ADM Productions, Inc. | Phone 516.484.6900| Mobile 516.318.1455| Fax 516.621.2531| 40 Seaview Blvd. , Port Washington , NY 11050| | |


    • Thanks, Sharon. All well, and the same wish to you.


  2. Powell’s is a wonderful city to get lost in. It’s one of those places I hope to return to again and again. I love walking up to one of their pros and asking (for example) if they have “Remedios Varo: The Mexican Years” and being walked right to the shelf where that not readily available treasure awaits. Long live Powell’s — and Under Western Skies!


  3. I missed out without the Wonderful World of Brad to serve as my weekend happy hour. Here Bob and I sit at Orchids toasting your survival in the war of life.


    • James, it’s good to hear from you. I wondered where Bob had gone to. Keep an eye on him … and on your car keys.


  4. I’ve only been to Portland once in my life – during a two week US West Coast road-trip from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco, CA with my wife and adult daughter, about 5 years ago after a Global Jam “event” (in Orlando I think). There were several reasons for including Portland on our itinerary but Powell’s reputation was already well known to me before the visit, and it was one of the top 3 draws of the city.

    Since we are all constant readers, it was easy to organise an afternoon at Powell’s into our list of Portland activities. I knew the store was very big, but the sheer physical immensity of it, occupying a whole City block was nonetheless still a surprise. We each went our separate ways in the store to pursue our own reading subject delights…. I visited several subject departments and walked through many others along the way, but I knew that I was only scratching the surface of what was there.

    Each of us came away with a few literary “treasures” from our personal explorations of the store – US published editions which we would never had bought unless we had physically handled them – plus a list of titles for future acquisition when we were not constrained by the practical limits of both lugging them back to our hotel on the streetcar, and of international checked baggage!

    I’ve subsequently used Powell’s web site and book shipping service when looking for arcane or long out of print titlles (with good success rates), and can highly recommend them as an online seller too!

    Viva Powell’s!


    • Bill,
      I’m delighted that you and your family got there. Yours is an excellent testimonial about their online service, which I’ve used, too, although the shipping distance is a bit farther to you in Australia.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.


  5. He’s baaaack! Brad, I’m happy to see you return to the blogosphere. As usual, thoughtful, sensitive, provocative. Nice work.


    • And welcome back to you, La Boheme. Since you’re still on the beat, I’ll be careful before I make any unguarded comments about art or literature. Merci.


  6. I share your love of books and bookstores. When Kathy and I were in Dublin last year I enjoyed searching out bookstores near the universities, and I could spend hours enjoying each store. Next trip perhaps will be England. Good to see you back at it!


    • Donna, it’s good to hear from you. Book lovers seek their treasures everywhere, from the bouquinistes along the Seine in Paris to small independent shops trying to thrive in a mega-mall world. Keep reading!


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