“A Non-Fat Latte with a Drizzle of Social Consciousness, Please”: Purchasing More than Books at Powell’s

A collaboration between MaryKate, Rebekah, Cory, and Shawn.

Your in-flight entertainment was staring over the pages of your unread novel as parents tried to wrangle their children. You’re pretty sure your knees are bruised from the overzealous reclining of the passenger in front of you. Still, as you make your way through Portland International Airport (PDX, as the locals say), you are brimming with excitement. Maybe you’ve watched too many episodes of Portlandia, but you can’t help but feel as though you’ve arrived in a place that embraces everything different and “weird,” not to be awarded the titles of “World’s Best Street Food,” but—

Wait. Is that a used bookstore? In an airport? And is that customer selling their book? Well, that’s certainly something new. You haven’t even entered the city, but Powell’s Books has already snared you, and you have only seen the smallest of their locations. Buckle up. You’re in for quite the ride.


A thirty-minute car ride across the Willamette River (or a slightly longer train ride if you want to dive into Portland’s culture of sustainability right away) will land you in the Pearl District. The district takes up a relatively small portion of northwest Portland, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in a multitude of globally conscious businesses that allow consumers to participate in and learn about cultures outside of their own. Admittedly, the Pearl District is not particularly diverse with regard to demographics; Portland as a whole is consistently ranked one of the country’s whitest cities. In 2010, for example, the Pearl District had a population of approximately 5,997 people, but an overwhelming 84.9% identified as only White, while only 7.6% identified as Asian, 3.9% as Latino/a/x, and 2.4% as Black or African-American. However, though the vanilla flavor of the district continues to dominate, there is hardly a stereotypical W.A.S.P. to be found. True, the Pearl District is home to mostly professional men and women in their mid-thirties, but while a cultural competency test is not required to move into one of America’s “hippest hipster neighborhoods,” the district certainly encourages a passion for difference outside the walls of their office jobs.

Everywhere you look, there are clusters of international restaurants, boutiques selling global fashions, galleries, and theaters reminding you that as much as we all love Starbucks, there are other options. Even if you decide Lebanese food isn’t your style, or you prefer the work of local artists displayed in cafés to an international artist featured in one of the museums, you at least become aware of their existence. Tim Cresswell’s “Defining Place” characterizes a place as a space that inspires “the human capacity to produce and consume meaning” (7), and the Pearl District as a whole interestingly bridges the gap between the immediate place (Portland) and far-off places that offer bits of the unknown. Certainly, it can be argued from a more cynical point of view that the citizens of the Pearl District are performing elements of different cultures or passively noting them, rather than engaging with them; instead of producing any real meaning, the consumers are merely enjoying the aesthetics of difference. However, even if this is sometimes the case, an interest in learning about the unfamiliar is particularly relevant when considering the area’s sole bookstore: Powell’s City of Books. While you can easily move on when your Polynesian meal is over, if you buy a book about Polynesian culture, the engagement with ideas and knowledge continues long after you’ve finished your lau lau.

However, the area was not always a center for meaningful cultural experimentation. Before earning the pearly moniker, the district was known as the “Northwest Triangle” and largely centered on the rail lines until an economic shift introduced warehouses, breweries, and shipping facilities. As each industry moved into the suburbs over time, the abandoned buildings became cheap lodgings for the starving artist population, though there was still little inkling that there was a creative hub waiting to burst from miles of deserted factories, construction equipment, and tiny businesses struggling as they butted up against what many considered an industrial wasteland. Despite the reputation, this is where Powell’s Books chose to put down its Portland roots long before you would have seen another smaller Powell’s comforting weary travelers in Portland’s airport.

Michael Powell was a University of Chicago graduate student with a knack for consignment when he opened the Chicago bookstore that started it all in 1970. His father, Walter, came in the summer of 1971 to help with the rapidly growing used bookstore, and by the time he returned to Oregon, he too had been bitten by the bookselling bug. Walter was drawn to the section of Portland that had long been a spot for artists and small business owners to find inexpensive spaces to work and live. In 1979, Michael accepted Walter’s invitation to return home and work with him, and after a forced relocation, their flagship store moved into a former car dealership. Walter bought every used book that passed through, but it was his decision to include new, out-of-print, and rare books that paved the way for Powell’s to become a recognizable brand and a cultural icon.

Just as the Pearl District struggled to define itself after its identity shifted, Walter and Michael Powell sought to carve out a unique image. Michael was dubious of shelving the new and used books next to each other at first, but the mixture proved a successful business strategy. Not only did rake in profits, but it offered a way to connect to the developing community, and thus to settle into the district and reach out to their customers in ways other than across the counter. Providing readers with the largest selection of material possible attracted customers who wanted to avoid making multiple stops for used and new, but more importantly, it offered those readers the opportunity to explore topics and authors unavailable in stores focused on bestsellers. All books were accepted at Powell’s, and all readers were welcome. The state spent extravagantly to rebuild and revitalize the Pearl District, but Powell’s was hardly touched. This illustrated that not only could independent bookstores survive, but a passion for sharing knowledge is an integral force in the development of a community. Ownership has most recently transferred to Michael’s daughter, Emily, and the chain has spread across Portland and the nearby suburb of Beaverton, as well as to the Internet, but the business’ devotion to inclusiveness has not changed. It was not until 1999 that the Pillar of Books was introduced, but the dedication to the phrase, “Coeme Librum (Buy the Book), Lege Librum (Read the Book), Carpe Librum (Enjoy the Book), Vende Librum (Sell the Book)” has been clear since day one.

There are currently five physical Powell’s Books locations, though Powell’s City of Books remains the crown jewel. As you approach W. Burnside Street and 10th Avenue, you realize that it takes up an entire city block. In a way, it is really the novelty of the store is what draws you in for the first time. After all, how often is it that you come across a bookstore that occupies 68,000 square feet of space, contains over 1,000,000 books, and still retains the cool, almost hipster feel of an independent bookstore despite its own magnitude? You’ve been waiting for this moment since you caught a glimpse of the sign in the airport. Are you ready?


The store has two entrances, occupying opposite corners of the block. The more prominent is the W. Burnside Street entrance to the Green Room, featuring the store’s iconic red and white sign advertising everything from children’s story hours to book signings, while the other leads into the Orange Room from 11th Avenue. Of the nine rooms, the Green and Orange rooms contain the only registers, meaning you have to continue walking in order to see and purchase more options. A reader familiar with the myth of the labyrinth may be wary of embarking on their journey, but fear not; there is no Minotaur lurking amongst the twelve-foot high shelves. You will be the one devouring knowledge today (and perhaps a snack in the Coffee Room), and while the adventure may feel perilous at times as you cross paths with hoards of other readers and shelves of authors you hadn’t heard of until today, Powell’s ensures this experience is fun, rather than stressful. There is no rush. The store maps posted are not there to force you into the next room once you’ve hit your time allowance, but to help guide you to the topics you know and remind you of all those genres you may not know. The notes left on the shelves from previous readers encourage you to keep exploring and investigating new texts, even if you are outside of your literary comfort zone.

Whether you are interested in bestsellers (Green), poetry (Blue), westerns (Gold), graphic novels (Coffee), children’s books (Rose), philosophy (Purple), travel (Red), interior design (Pearl), gardening (Orange), Powell’s has something to offer you. Take a look at the floor plan below to get a clearer idea of what Powell’s City of Books stocks:

With its rows of plain pine shelves towering over a cement floor, the store retains the industrial feel of the Pearl District, while the seemingly endless diverse volumes on the shelves serve as yet another example of the area’s devotion to cultivating globally and socially conscious citizens. Even the recent renovations have only enhanced the distinctive Powell’s experience. The Green and Blue rooms, for example, received facelifts that addressed leaking roofs and poor lighting, but the construction exposed elements of the previous car dealership that have since been incorporated as reminders of where the district began and what it has become. New rainbow carpeting has also been installed in the Rose Room, but the only room to completely break the “warehouse plus knowledge” pattern is the Rare Book Room on the third floor with its dark wood, comfy seating, and dizzying price tags. Despite its private library feel, even here customers are invited to relax and peruse the books for as long as they please. Michael Powell feels that, “Barnes & Noble’s message is ‘Buy the book and get the hell out of here’ in some subliminal way.” When it comes to Powell’s City of Books, though, the novelty and the “coolness” factor that land the bookstore on so many Top 10 lists draws you in, but the dedication to making you feel welcome is what keeps you there. There are only a few chairs scattered in the more or less shabby rooms, but the community of readers and knowledgeable staff that fill the massive place encourage you to keep exploring, even if you have to take a break for a day and come back.

What matters most, though, is not the ambiance, but the books themselves. For Bruno Latour in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” a thing is both “an object out there” and “an issue very much in there” (2288), and Powell’s treats their books not only as products to stock and sell, but as entertainers, teachers, movers and shakers. For Powell’s, “literature” is not limited to Sophocles and Chaucer. Certainly, the Blue Room is the most traditionally “literary,” and it is an early stop. Perhaps this is by design. Maybe they renovated the Green and Blue rooms because they only care about sending the award-winners and classics out the doors. Maybe they want to make sure you have the opportunity to look over their proper selection before you sully your brain with the erotica. Maybe the hipster, socially conscious vibe is all a ruse to draw in traffic masking the lack of genuine interest in the customers’ experiences. However, while these perspectives may reflect the business angle or the traditionally elitist conception of the bookstore, they do no match up with the Powell’s vision.

Rather, Powell’s seems to understands the wants and needs of their customers, and they are able to make business decisions that both keep the store afloat and guarantee that the consumers who choose to engage with them have meaningful experiences. While the citizens on the Pearl District may be more culturally aware than others, they may still walk into Powell’s with preconceived ideas about what qualifies as “literature” or what a “bookstore” is supposed to look like. In The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee notes, “the bookstore has continually found itself a stronghold of the rights of free expression,” offering wide selections, even at the expense of others’ disdain (148). By offering traditional section titles but including a diverse range that may be ignored by other stores, Powell’s pushes customers outside of their preconceptions. The “traditional” literature section is easy to find for those so inclined, but the first listing on Powells.com is not for Mansfield Park, but for My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park. Popular fiction is treated with the same value and lack of judgment as self-help manuals, cat picture books, and poetry collections. Even the volumes kept in the Rare Book Room are not locked away for those with enough disposable income to purchase them; all are welcome to pore over them. All that Powell’s asks is that they be examined with care, hence their placement away from the sticky-handed children.


Walking through the maze can easily become an all-day affair, but if you begin to feel overwhelmed by your haphazard navigation, remember that there is a method to the (seeming) madness. Powell’s Books as a brand is one concerned with social responsibility. In Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, Laura J. Miller observes, “consumption is inextricably political in that it can be related to the common good and has implications for the gains and losses faced by particular groups” (228), and Michael and Emily Powell have openly emphasized their devotion to youth literacy, literary awareness, and curtailing censorship. Even if their customers do not directly participate in those causes, supporting such a powerful and vocal business ties them to social progress. The Powell family never seems to tire of emphasizing that a well-informed community is necessary, and no one is an exception to this rule, including children. Some of the books chosen for this month’s “Kids’ Storytime” events include Karl Edwards’ Fly! which encourages toddlers to be true to themselves and persevere, and Tracey Corderoy’s Why? which encourages young children to ask questions. Even if they are not tall enough yet to access every book available in the color-coded rooms, the power that Powell’s customers have to learn and engage with the wider community is never forgotten.

The citizen-consumer is responsible and educated, and being aware of the plethora of stories at their fingertips assists in the efforts of trading ignorance for awareness. Powell’s appeal to the citizen-consumer is evident in the layout of their flagship store. Customers must walk through areas of the store that may not have their genre of choice in order to get to the rooms that may appeal to them more. Though there is no one correct path to take, Powell’s City of Books has integrated a sort of “ebb and flow” to their store that is exacerbated by the swelling waves of customers moving from room to room. Customers are encouraged to take advantage of their time in the maze by looking into topics that they may not have known existed; just as they may discover that Mediterranean cuisine is not to their liking outside of Powell’s walls, they at least have the opportunity to become culturally aware by perusing new subjects.

By offering a wide range of options in their City of Books and on their website, Powell’s not only expands the definition of literature, but also emphasizes that no population is excluded. Their stock, events, and social programming reach out to communities in Portland and the world at large (international shipping is only $7.00!) and invite them to become part of one, big Powell’s community. Is it cheesy? Perhaps, but the amount of people carrying Powell’s Books water bottles, subscribing to Indiespensible, or grabbing their morning coffee while surrounded by literature is quite the indicator of this independent bookstore’s power over the community. You can “Keep Portland Weird” with your mismatched Powell’s Books socks while also supporting interest in the perspectives of others. Powell’s offers the whole appealing package that comes when so many of us envision a welcoming place to engage with literature. They have the books, the coffee, the warm socks, and the excitable community to discuss ideas with after finishing the last page. Powell’s stages the store in a way to draw in customers who may be wary of the “warehouse bookstore” experience if they have not been to Powell’s City of Books, but once inside, you are never given the chance to forget that the main product is still a book – an object full of meaning and power not restricted to the pages.


In Archibald MacLeish’s A Free Man’s Books: An Address, MacLeish questions whether booksellers “ascribe as great an influence to the books we write and publish and sell and catalogue and teach” as we hope to (7). In the case of Powell’s Books, it seems that everyone involved in the process has come to realize the value of books. From Walter, who chose to ignore the traditional divisions between new and used; to Michael and Emily, who moved Powell’s into the future and into the community; to the store clerks who are eager to share their favorite works and genres without ever passing judgment; to the tourists who travel miles to experience “the City”; to the regulars who view Powell’s as a mixture of icon and second home, everyone participates in creating the Powell’s experience. Though Powell’s Books as a business makes calculated decisions that help the brand remain relevant, the Powell’s experience is one of collaboration. Every leader has a follower, and Powell’s Books has proven adept at molding followers who then become socially aware community leaders themselves.


Baby Perusing Books. <http://iconosquare.com/p/972709022740379151_6119220>
Blue Room Aisles. <http://iconosquare.com/p/960241511317205328_15672395>
Girl Reading in an Alley. <http://iconosquare.com/p/965614145046389290_416786351>
Green Room Bestsellers. Original photography by Erin Pratt.
Is Coffee Part of Your Daily Grind? <http://iconosquare.com/p/963512580060696435_219142258>
Powell’s Books Mug. <http://iconosquare.com/p/961984139965225156_301663061>
Powell’s Storefront. <http://iconosquare.com/p/963512580060696435_219142258>
Smellbound interior photo. Original photography by Erin Pratt.

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