Powell’s City of Books: A Rare Pearl

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Powell’s Books in all its modest majesty, on the corner of West Burnside Street and 10th Avenue in downtown Portland, Oregon (USA). Photo by Cacophany / CC BY 3.0
Powell’s Books in all its modest majesty, on the corner of West Burnside Street and 10th Avenue in downtown Portland, Oregon (USA). Photo by Cacophany / CC BY 3.0

Like the rest of Western Oregon, Portland is known for its wet winters, when the months slip by with little or no trace of the sun. These dreary days are enough to send some residents spiraling into depression, and others scrambling for their light boxes. But there is another way to hold on till summer’s soul-warming sunshine, and that is to head over to Powell’s City of Books.

Founded in 1971, Powell’s is located in the Pearl District, just a wind-blown page away from the heart of downtown. This mecca for the literary-minded covers an entire city block, rising three stories into the overcast Oregon sky. And with its four million titles in stock, Powell’s is none other than the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world.

Impressed? You should be. That’s one book for every resident of the state of Oregon. However, as any bookseller or librarian can tell you, simply possessing such a massive inventory is one thing. Cataloging these titles in a way readers can find them is another.

Powell’s approach, perhaps unique in the bookselling world, is to offer its customers a full rainbow of options, designating each of the store’s nine sections by color. Visitors can either wander through at random, or use Powell’s color-coded map (or their nifty smart phone app) to find exactly what they’re looking for.

In addition to the Blue Room (general literature) and the Coffee Room (a café level featuring a delightful mix of graphic novels to go with your cappuccino), bibliophiles would be wise to check out the Pearl Room on the top floor. The Pearl offers various artistic and instructional titles, as well as the remarkable Rare Book Room. Half-museum, half-vault, it is glassed off from the general bookstore and protected by a walk-through security sensor. When you step inside, you find yourself suddenly in a different world. Gone is the warehouse feel of the City of Books, and in its place an ambiance of Victorian elegance, with its deep browns and ornate Old World furniture.

Anyone can enter the Rare Book Room, but it is clearly a space for collectors. The dark chocolate wooden shelves sit half-filled, all the better to showcase the works on display from a surprising array of genres: U.S. History, Americana, Travel Writing, Children’s. And then there is the literature section. These books represent the meat of the collection, and they astound.

The literature shelves include classic and first-edition works of writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, and Petrarch (yes, that Petrarch). The cheapest books here sell for around $150, whereas the first-edition duodecimos (pamphlets, basically) of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems each go for $3,500. And then there is John Keats’ Complete Poems and Selected Letters (a copy once owned by Jack Kerouac), which has a price tag of $11,000.

Less expensive, yet perhaps more impressive, is Il Petrarcha con l’Espositione. This leather-bound, annotated copy of the sonnets of Francesco Petrarca was printed in Venice in 1528 — right around the time of the Luther Bible — and costs a mere $1,700, sitting behind its protective pane of glass.

As a visitor, you may wonder if you have the right to lay your hands on such a volume. Almost unbelievably, the answer is yes, and the same goes for what may be the coolest book in the Rare Book Room: a faded-green first edition of The Hobbit. The hardcover binding is smooth from decades of handling, and a thin dragon drawn across the bottom beckons the reader inside. The cover opens to a crisp title page and an illustration of the Shire, as well as the book’s $9,000 price tag.

Many other treasures line the walls of this special space, some spectacular, some bizarre, and all rare in their own way. Whether or not you have the means to take one home with you, just seeing and holding them is an exceptional experience. Powell’s deserves a great deal of credit for granting the general public access to such landmark works.

The only drawback to the Rare Book Room, really, is that sooner or later you have to leave. Once you’ve absorbed all you can from this literary sanctuary, you must return to the banal City of Books, with its trade hardcovers and mass-market paperbacks. It’s a tough transition, but don’t despair: perhaps some day one of the books surrounding you will be worthy of those dark-chocolate shelves, encased in glass. Perhaps you even have such a book at home. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, keep reading !

Written by Christopher Bradley

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