A good book can save a life.”§”A book can make you cry, make you laugh, make you smile when you need to smile.”§”A book can make you angry, can make you stand up and fight for what is right.”§”A book can make you forget your worries for a few hours in a day.”§”It can make you wonder at the world in a whole new way.Each year, we try to make a family pilgrimage to the City of Books.
If that sounds like a magical adventure to a place just beyond Oz, well, for a book lover, it is not far off.
Yet, it is an odd destination in its own way.
It doesn’t look like a cathedral by any means. Inside the decor is nondescript and mostly unadorned. You can still see the auto dealership and warehouse roots of the building under the glossy layers of industrial paint.
Yet it is one of the biggest attractions for those visiting Portland.
I have stood in the Long Room at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. That place is a monument to ancient knowledge where neat rows of leather bound tomes reach skyward toward perfect carved wooden arches and marble busts of philosophers looking down from each row of books — some so old they are hand illustrated on the skin of lambs.
Powell’s City of Books is different, yet a worthy destination nonetheless.
It sits squat on a corner of Burnside, looking very much like the Portland of 40 years ago. From the street it does not look like much, but oh, if you love books, you must go. Inside is room after room of functional unassuming shelves packed with new and used books. It is the largest independent bookstore in the world.
We started our annual trips years ago when the girls were little.
It began as a part of our Shamrock Run routine each March — something to look forward to, to get us through the darkest days of winter. Books are a necessity in the Pacific Northwest. In the rain months — and there are many — books are essential for mental survival, the perfect companions as misting gray swirls outside.
Books keep the mind warm and active when it is dark outside.
We are blessed in this area to have the wonderful and modern Timberland Library system where you can order books online and have them delivered to your local library. Our daughters have grown up in the cozy little Naselle branch and it was there they learned the magic of pulling a book off the shelf and holding it in your hands.
I would have loved to have had access to a library like that when I was growing up.
I love the magic of small bookstores, too. In high school, I found many of my favorite books with the help of kind book people at Klindts in The Dalles — a bookstore founded in 1870 and the oldest in Oregon.
Print still rules
In this age of Amazon and instant books, I have found it heartening that the younger generation — including my daughters — would much rather read physical books over any e-book format.
Studies have found that those who have grown up with the ever-present internet at their fingertips prefer printed materials — books that you can hold in your hand and turn a paper page. Millennials are a generation of book readers and there is no ebb in demand for printed books despite the lower prices and convenience of electronic published materials.
We love our little library and local bookstores, but every year we venture to Powell’s — a city block of Portland dedicated to the written word.
My first visit was with my dad when I was in middle school — imagine a kid from a town so small that it didn’t have a library — a kid so curious that he read the entire 22-volume World Book Encyclopedia start to finish. Imagine that kid discovering a bookstore as big as a city block.
While it is an icon that seems stuck in the Bud Clark era for Portland, the original Powell’s books started in Chicago with a $3,000 loan from the likes of three University of Chicago professors — including author Saul Bellow. That Powell’s dealt in used and rare books and was a going concern when Michael Powell’s father, Walter, started another Powell’s Books in Portland in 1971.
When Michael’s dad lost the lease on his used bookstore in the late 1970s, Michael joined his dad in Portland and they took over an old American Motors dealership on Burnside creating a store that would eventually expand to fill the city block — and add two floors on top of that. It contains 98,000 square feet of shelf space and hosts more than 2 million books for sale. It has also expanded to a few other locations around the city — but this — this is what people mean when they said Powell’s.
City of Books is an apt title. It is no cathedral, but rather a living, bustling, churning fortress of immortal ideas crying out for life in the hand and eyes of a reader. Books are a form of immortality, crystallizing an author’s moment’s inspiration or lifetime of learning in a durable compact, portable form.
There is nothing quite like finding yourself in a bookstore so vast that a map is essential, as is a plan to meet up with your companions at an agreed upon location and time — so easy it is to get lost among the stacks and shelves, color coded rooms and multiple floors of immortal words.
Trading old for new
Powell’s still buys and sells used books, and so you can clear your shelves at home and subsidize your purchases. It is hard to let go of a book you love, but there are plenty of books that daunt and disappoint. You have to kiss a lot of frogs, or so the saying goes. We gather up the books we can stand to part with and bring them down to sell.
Unsurprisingly we somehow always return home with more than we left.
Powell’s has so many new books now, but it is the used books I seek. This year I found a first edition “North to the Orient” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The Northwest history section contains not only the latest scholarship and storytelling but forgotten stories and authors from a century ago. I never really go in knowing what I am looking for — although if you do, helpful employees can quickly point you in the right direction. Rather, I go in open to discovering some book that I didn’t know I needed.
That is the joy of it, whether it be the library or the local bookstore or the warren of the City of Books — the finding of a book that you didn’t know you wanted, the discovery of an author that speaks to your imagination.
Each year we make a trip to Powell’s.
On a rainy afternoon, among the stacks of books, there is no better place.