The Ultimate Bookstore: Powell’s in Portland

When we were in the middle of wedding planning madness, one of the things that I was most looking forward to when we were finally married was going to Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.

I have been hearing about Powell’s for years. Portland has become a popular destination in the last few years and every time someone came back they would ask me “Have you ever been to Powell’s?” And I never had been which seemed like some cruel cosmic joke. Several lovely people have brought something back for me from Powell’s, it being a place that, when they visited, made them think of me. But these bookish delights only made me want to go more: getting a souvenir from a place is but a temporary respite from the knowledge that you’ve never actually been to said place.

Finally, the wedding was over, the out-of-towners had gone home (that part was actually sad, I wish that they could just be here for always) and my new husband and I were headed to Portland.

It’s about a six hour drive to get from here to Portland if traffic is on your side and it was. We left before six and were in Portland just after noon. After a quick pit stop at the food trucks, we went to Powell’s.

powell's

My first impression was that it was too much bookstore for me to handle. It was really busy (holiday Monday) and I just didn’t even know where to start. Powell’s is held together by some kind of magic, kind of like the Weasley’s house. Each room has rooms leading off of it which lead to other rooms and staircases that take you to other levels with more rooms. And they are all filled with so many books. And things that people who love books will love: bags and bookmarks and prints and mugs and reading lamps and pint glasses and reading glasses and literary t-shirts etc.

Aside from its warren-like qualities, its immense size (it’s the size of a city block and goes up several floors) and the plethora of goodies on offer, here’s the most magical thing about Powell’s: its selection.

Powell’s is home to new and used books and they are all mixed in together. Which means that you can basically find every single book you’ve ever wanted and you can probably choose which version you like best and if you would prefer it new or used. This meant that I was finally able to find a copy (several in fact) of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. Normal bookstores usually have The House of Mirth and/or The Age of Innocence but they never have The Custom of the Country which traditionally rounds out Wharton’s Novels of New York. Bonus: they also had several copies of The Buccaneers which a) I always see as a mini-series on Netflix and b) I had no idea was also a novel by Edith Wharton.

Powell’s is also always busy. The first day, on a holiday Monday, you kind of expect it to be busy. But we went back late in the evening on the second trip and it was still so busy. Book lovers were all over the place, quietly perusing the shelves, reverently reading book jackets, carefully selecting their purchases. Book love is alive and thriving in Portland.

After years of never having been to Powell’s I went to Powell’s twice in three days, both times I spent hours in there. And considering how much time I spent wandering through their colour coded literary colossus, I would say that I showed remarkable restraint, coming away with only six books (the husband picked up three of his own but they totally don’t count against my total), two totes (one is a gift), and a bookmark.

My only regret is that Powell’s is a six hour drive away so it will likely be some time until I can return.

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23 thoughts on “The Ultimate Bookstore: Powell’s in Portland

  1. I’m so jealous! Even though I don’t live in Oregon, and have never been to the actual store, I love Powells. I order from them online all the time. It’d probably be very bad for my wallet if I lived close enough to drive there often. 🙂

  2. My friend went to Portland and when she got back immediately told me that I need to go to Portland just to go there! Since I’m from New Jersey, it hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve always wanted to go!

  3. Powell’s is like a dream to be and because of it, among other things, Portland has been one of my “must-visit” places for a long time! I wish I had taken I roadtrip there while I was in the west coast. I’m glad to hear Powell’s lived up to your expectations, despite being somewhat overwhelming and busy!

    • It’s just too far away to squeeze it in on a trip home isn’t it? It was also on my must-see list. I was so excited to get to go finally. And then it was even better. Until I can get back to the actual store, I know I’m going to be visiting Powell’s online.

  4. It does sound like heaven. And, I love hearing that it is always busy. People keep trying to tell me that the book industry is going down, and I refuse to believe it. So, what books did you buy?

    • It is heaven. That’s what heaven looks like to a book lover. I love that everyone commenting on this just understands why this place is so great. Book people are the best people.

      What did I buy! A book about how the Victorians invented murder (the sensationalism of it), Wolf Hall, The Buccaneers, The Custom of the Country, We Are Water, and Hitler’s Furies about German women participating in the Holocaust.

    • ahahahahaha this was our mini honeymoon. We’re taking a bigger trip in the spring (Amsterdam, Barcelona, Italy) but obviously a book store had to be a part of it. The best part was that I wasn’t just dropped there by my husband. We went together and then we each went our separate ways to peruse on our own. He was just as delighted.

  5. Powell’s is the best place on earth. I actually wept when I went in this summer. I went there every day I was Portland. It’s very far away for me, but there’s a bellydance workshop there, so I know I’ll be back again. The selection, the bookishness, the getting lost in the stacks, the seeing all the people there (lined up even before it opens) – the independent may not be thriving everywhere, but Powell’s is! -Tania

    • It’s definitely the kind of place that is worth the trek. That’s really what’s still astonishing to me about Portland as a whole. I had heard so many things about how great the city is that a part of me didn’t believe it could totally live up to it’s hype. But it did. Voodoo Doughnuts was even better than I thought it would be. Happy Hour was a delight. Powell’s was a life highlight. It was clean, the people were lovely, the shopping was great, the FOOD. Portland has it all.

      • So glad you got to go! I also didn’t know whether it could live up to the hype. I’m glad you had such a good time. I’d also recommend that you try out the Oregon coast while you’re there. I went there for a bit before the dance workshop and it’s just so stupendously beautiful! Manzanita and Canon Beach were everything they were cracked up to be! Plus, I got to go to Astoria and visit The Goonies museum and the house where it was filmed and everything 🙂 -Tania

  6. It sounds amazing! Like Foyles London as it used to be before it became professionalised (I’m lucky enough that my mum, despite almost never taking us out anywhere as children, thought Foyles was Ok as a trip out cos it was book based) but more organised and with an actual proper selection of books in it.

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