The City of Books: The Song Remains the Same

Imagine a wasteland full of abandoned factories, warehouses and waterways, heavy construction equipment, illegal activities and tiny businesses butting up against industry. There are vacant lots and buildings, as well as deserted homes, scattered throughout the neighborhood. Alls sorts of people are starting to move in, attracted by the space and low rents. (Explore the Pearl) This is a picture ot the neighborhood where many settled before it developed into the center for arts and entertainment it was to become. This was the Portland, Oregon of the 70’s. This is where Powell’s Books put down its roots.

The bookstore that originally sparked the idea was located in Chicago, IL. It was created by a student named Michael Powell. After several years, during the 1960’s, of thrifting, consignment and flea market sales of used books, Michael opened a used bookstore in 1970. ( His father, Walter, came in 1971 to help out with the growing business.


Photograph of the original Couch’s Addition map. The Pearl District was originally part of Couch’s Addition and the area around the it had primarily small houses which were home to blue-collar European immigrants.

Walter went back to Portland in 1971 and opened up a bookstore of his own. As industry was phasing out in parts of downtown Portland, his was one of the small businesses that were attracted to an up and coming section on the edge of the city. They were all hoping to turn their dreams into reality for little money. ( Walter was drawn to a section of Portland  that  had long been leaning toward re-gentrification.  It was called “The  Pearl”,  and it was a spot that artists and small businesses found  inexpensive  spaces to work and live, but with good proximity to the  center of  downtown. In 1978, the first artists moved in. (Explore the Pearl) By 1980 the art  galleries and industrial conversion living spaces began to follow as  zoning changes allowed for more mixed usage.

It was the start of developing the famous culture that the Pearl District is so well-known for today. It was also around this time that the district began to gain attention from the Portland Development Commission and started evolving into the area it had the potential to become. (Allen) The River District Vision Plan of 1992 led to the River District Development Plan of 1998, which paved the way for tax monies to be directed back into the neighborhood.

In 1979, Michael accepted his dad’s invitation to come back to Oregon to work the business together. The fact that he and his wife had suffered through a huge snowstorm in Chicago that winter, were trying to care for their newborn daughter, and the declining neighborhood which was unsuitable for family living all played into Michael’s decision to head back to the Portland area in which he had grown up. It was unfortunate that, the night before he was to move back the landlord gave them a year’s notice to vacate, forcing them to spend their first year looking for a place to relocate. (Chamberlin) And this is the location of their flagship store to this day.

But, back to our fledgling bookstore, which was different from the typical bookstore. Walter bought every marketable used book that passed through his doors and quickly ran out of space to store all of them. He had to expand into the used car dealership next door in order to accommodate his entire stock. ( They created quite a unique shop. It was one that offered new and used books alongside one another – – and the books actually sold! (Chamberlin)  They called themselves a “book lovers’ paradise.”


Photograph of Powell’s Books’ shelves. “In the used book world, mixing paperbacks and hardbacks was not so much of a stretch, but when my dad had the idea of bringing in new books too, I had no sympathy. Used and new on the same shelf? It seemed crazy.” ~Michael Powell

By choosing to include every type of book, (new and used, out-of-print, and rare to name a few,) and to proffer everything they offered back to the community, we see a very unique type of business evolving. (Chamberlin) Powell’s was there in the beginning, and got more successful over the decades.

So, how does a “used” bookstore like this not only survive for nearly fifty years, but thrive in such a deliberately shifting neighborhood? It has not been replaced, nor changed much about its work ethic in the years it’s been open. Back in 2004, Powell’s did try an experiment of sorts. It was a sort of pop-up store, long before they existed. (Chamberlin) They set up a temporary buying store in Seattle, to help meet the demand for used books. At the time they were responsible for half of Powell’s sales, according to then-marketing manager Michael Drannen.

While everything was built up around it and the state of Oregon spent enormous amounts of money to create the fantastical Pearl District, Powell’s was barely touched. It remains to this day a reminder to everyone that not only can a small business survive, but also that the passion for books is strong enough that a bookstore, located in the right area and run properly, can become and remain an integral part of a neighborhood.

It is really saying something when a book seller’s flagship store not only occupies an entire city block in Portland, Oregon, but that it has done well enough to sustain five thriving locations. Plus, it was once rated by CNN as one of the 10 coolest bookstores in the world, and by USA Today as one of America’s 10 best bookstores. (Cha) Archibald MacLeish poses a question to readers in his address “A Free Man’s Books”. He asks if we really know the power that books have on society, a nation, and even a nation’s life. The passion for books overcomes all else. The Powell’s were able to stock new and used books on the same shelves, all genres and types, because of the overarching power of the books themselves. While some wealthier people, or artistic people, or any sort of majority or minority might want a specific type of book on their bookshelves, the overall love for books allowed all types of books, and therefore people, to mix together at Powell’s. The power of these books is enough to find a place in what is now one of the most prestigious, artistic neighborhoods near downtown Portland. No matter what the fashion, this bookstore earned its place.




World’s Coolest Bookstores

Inside Indie Bookstores: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon

Explore the Pearl

Places to Crawl Between the Covers

Pearl District Transformation

The darkest timeline: Powell’s Books

Pearl’s District’s Namesake

Powell’s History

Return of the Displaced

MacLeish, Archibald. A Free Man’s Books. Mount Vernon, New York: Peter Pauper. Print.


Photograph of the original Couch’s Addition map

Photograph of Powell’s Books’ shelves