Both the Changer and the Changed: the Dynamism of Powell’s Books

In Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, Madge Jenison reflects on the development of her modernized bookstore in the early twentieth century, noting, “The only way we get at other human beings is through ideas, and where ideas are current something unlocks the breast” (114). The ideas captured in books have a transformative power, and sharing them with others can inspire progress. Where do you envision this exchange of ideas occurring? Close your eyes, if it helps. Perhaps you thought of a warm, wood-paneled library occupied by men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Maybe you thought of a university classroom, a French salon, or a shady spot under a tree. You probably did not think of a massive warehouse on a street corner in an undeveloped, rough-and-tumble city district, though. However, it was in just that unexpected setting that one of the largest, most well stocked, and most popular independent bookstores in the world settled in.


Long before the iconic red and white sign of Powell’s City of Books took over the corner of W. Burnside St. and NW. 10th Ave., the area that would later be known as the “Pearl District” was initially part of the Couch Addition. In 1869, this massive land donation from Captain John Couch incorporated a substantial amount of space to what was the existing northwest Portland, and it became known as the “Northwest Triangle.” The economy of the area was largely centered around rail lines for the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the transition into the twentieth was marked by a surge in warehouses, breweries, and shipping facilities. As discussed in my last post, Portland’s Pearl District has historically been predominantly white demographically, and this is largely because the industrial presence drew in a large population of blue-collar European immigrants.

As cars became more popular and highways were introduced, though, the steadiness of the Northwest Triangle was shaken; warehouses and manufacturing centers began to migrate to suburbia, and the railroad’s status as the premier mode of transportation changed. However, the architecture remained, with the freight houses becoming townhouses and the cheap warehouses-turned-lofts drawing in the starving artist population. It didn’t take long for others to realize that the industrial, brick-and-mortar structures were hiding a burgeoning cultural center bursting with creativity – the pearl among the “old, crusty exteriors.” By the time the name the “Pearl District” had been embraced, the dynamic, developing nature of the place was clearly evidenced by its collection of unique art galleries, upscale shopping locations, and global cuisine choices – many taking over the abandoned buildings. Over the course of the 1980s and ‘90s, the community proved to be receptive to change, mixing the old and the new with diverse cultures. It was here that Powell’s Books laid its roots.

Prior to becoming one of Portland’s most beloved landmarks, Powell’s Books had its beginnings some 2,100 miles away in Chicago, Illinois. In 1970, University of Chicago graduate student Michael Powell opened a small used book store near Hyde Park. Michael had experience buying and selling consigned textbooks, and with the monetary assistance of distinguished professors, his bookstore flourished, slowly creeping into the space of the surrounding shops. As the summer of 1971 rolled around, Michael’s father, Walter, came to assist him. When he returned home to Portland after a month, Walter immediately set out to open his own bookstore. After filling the shelves with every book he came across, Walter realized that not only would his profits increase if he sold used and new books alongside each other, but it would be a more enjoyable experience for customers if they did not need to make multiple stops. Just as Madge Jenison was “horrified” by the empty shelves when she and her partner only “bought everything that we liked and everything we especially wanted people to read” (20), both Walter and Michael realized the importance of “afford[ing] readers the broadest possible perspective of reading” and sought to offer as many books as possible without expressing any judgment regarding customers’ choices. This was a defining decision, and when Michael returned to Portland in 1979 to join his father, the space of a former car dealership proved necessary for the ever-growing stockpiles of dog-eared novels, freshly printed memoirs, and out-of-print collections of poetry. Thus, Powell’s City of Books was born. (I don’t know about you, but I’m imagining Rafiki from The Lion King triumphantly lifting the whole store into the air. Just me? Okay.)


In 1982, Walter sold the business to Michael, and in a flash, it proliferated Portland and the nearby suburbs. Walter unfortunately died in 1985, but he was able to see some of his and Michael’s plans coming to fruition as Powell’s expanded. In 1984, a store in Beaverton became the second location (which was moved to Cedar Hills Crossing in 2006), and two stores on Hawthorne Blvd. were opened shortly afterward in 1986 and ’87. The Hawthorne locations were specialty stores, with Powell’s Technical Books (which closed in March 2010) offering science, math, and engineering books, and Powell’s Books for Home and Gardens offering books about cooking, home improvement, and gardening. In 1988, Powell’s Books PDX was unveiled at the Portland International Airport. Like the other locations, this store sold both new and used books, even allowing travelers to sell their own used books before catching their next flight. As each location opened, Michael remained committed to creating an atmosphere that was welcoming, comfortable, and maintained a sort of industrial look that differed from that of the chain stores.

pillarIn an effort to reach a larger customer base, Powell’s created its first website in 1994. Though the website has evolved over time, even its most basic version immediately proved popular for customers around the world, including the Englishman who made the special request that encouraged the company to settle comfortably into cyberspace in the first place. By 2004, required its own 60,000 square-foot warehouse to process the ever-growing number of online orders, as well as to integrate the books the business purchased from customers in the buyback program. However, though Powell’s online presence continues to strengthen, Powell’s flagship location often remains the focus. In 1999, the first round of construction ended, and the current four-story layout was revealed. At the entrance is the Pillar of Books, a carving with the titles of classic books from around the world, and on which Michael’s and Walter’s vision is clearly spelled out: “Coeme Librum (Buy the Book), Lege Librum (Read the Book), Carpe Librum (Enjoy the Book), Vende Librum (Sell the Book).” In the past year, the Green and Blue rooms have been remodeled again to prevent roof leaks, but the spirit of Powell’s books remains unchanged.

In July of 2010, Michael Powell’s daughter Emily took over the business as the president of Powell’s books, continuing the tradition of keeping the business in the family. She was handed the reins when the question of how an independent bookstore can stay afloat as a recession demands layoffs and e-Readers become more popular became increasingly pressing. Despite these challenges, Emily has remained aware of shifts in the industry and conscious of the role Powell’s plays in the community as a link between the past and present, as well as a major shaper of Portland’s future. In A Free Man’s Books: An Address, Archibald MacLeish questions whether “in our lives as well as in our words” we “ascribe as great an influence to the books we write and publish and sell and catalogue and teach” as we claim to (MacLeish 6-7), noting that books have been historically taken for granted. The Powell family seems to have never forgotten just how powerful their product is, though. With the introduction of the self-publishing Espresso Book Machine, the never-ending list of authors invited to interact with their readers, and the business’ engagement with civic issues and youth literacy, it is clear Emily and the new CEO, Miriam Sontz, are up to the challenge of improving Powell’s as both Portland and the book industry transform. After 44 years of storefront makeovers, expansion to new territories, and both causing and embracing change in the revitalized Pearl District, it remains evident that Powell’s Books remains committed to offering a little bit of everything without ever claiming to be the authority on ideas or on what makes for “proper” reading.



1869 Couch Addition Map (edited). <>
Current Powell’s City of Books. <>
Pillar of Books. <>
Powell’s City of Books, 1980s. <×1000>
Wentworth & Irwin Car Dealership. <>

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“Powell’s City of Books.” YouTube. 2009. <>

Jenison, Madge. Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1923. 16-30, 110-26.
MacLeish, Archibald. A Free Man’s Books: An Address. New York: The Peter Pauper Press, 1942. 5-17.

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Chamberlin, Jeremiah. “Inside Indie Bookstores: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.” Poets & Writers. March 2010. <>
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Zuhl, Joanne. “Michael Powell Reflects on Creating the Legendary Bookstore and Keeping It Strong for the Next Generation.” StreetRoots. 2011. <>