Keep Ideas Alive

Not only is Powell’s City of Books like a city unto itself in size and reputation, they make each customer feel as if they belong to the Powell’s book family, and in a sense reside within that city. There is certain pride in spending time at Powell’s, like there is pride in how some people feel about their home city or town, allowing for another basis of comparison as to why “City of Books” is an appropriate moniker for the Powell’s flagship store in downtown Portland.


Powell’s Logo

Not only do they provide books, and a lot of them – over a million new and used combined, but they also have rooms dedicated to a coffee shop, an art gallery (in their loft), and a section that sells record albums. They also offer audio books, DVDs, Blue Rays, maps, knickknacks, gifts, and gift cards. Additionally, they have souvenirs like t-shirts, hats, hoodies, socks and much more. Despite all of these things, the first thing you see when you come in either of the entrances are books. They sell what interests their customers without undermining the importance of the books in their shop. A customer is certainly never confused about what type of store they are in or where to find the books for which they are looking. They also have every type of book you could ever imagine, complete with whole sections dedicated to foreign studies, maps, plus an unbelievable amount of out-of-print and hard-to-find offerings.

They claim to be the biggest new and used bookstore in the world. Their nine rooms, which are color coded, supposedly contain more than 3,500 sections. The Meridian app, a free download, was specifically created to help you navigate the City of Books. All you have to do is enter the book title, and you will receive turn-by-turn directions that will guide you through the store!

The amazing layout of Powell’s flagship store is only possible due to the sheer size of the structure. At over 68,000 square feet, one entire city block and 4 floors it is huge by any standards. If you look at the multi-level floor plan you will see that each layer (floor) is carefully laid out, and the rooms and sections are organized by subject matter. Take a look:

The largest of the four levels is the ground floor, which offers as much accessible space as a square city block. This level contains not only four huge book selling rooms, but a buying area, a coffee shop, a souvenir store and the entrance to the parking garage. As you walk through the main entrance (at the corner of 10th and Burnside) you can go to the Information Desk at the center of the Green room. If you go to the left, you can pass through the Blue and Gold rooms to start out in the café.

The second floor offers two enormous rooms, the Red and Purple, both of which offer nothing but books for sale.


The Pearl Room

The third level, also known as the Pearl Room, has a very large book selling room. Another special feature is the room within a room that is the rare book space. The upstairs area of the Pearl Room contains the Basil Hallward Gallery, which is very active between art exhibits and author events.

The various floors give an air of hominess that customers seem to be looking for when they come to Powell’s. All the rooms have lots of natural light coming in from the huge windows around the outside perimeters. They have sofas, benches, and tables and chairs for the customers to sit at. The children’s section is set up so that youngsters can play. Everything is open and inviting. No special knowledge or status is needed in order to be comfortable in any of the rooms.

The fourth floor is the customer service desk. Far removed from the rest of the store, and only one tiny space, the service desk being located at the very top could suggest a few things. The importance of having the ‘customer service’ accessible seems not to be an issue for those at Powell’s. It is possible that the helpful tidbits along the way, such as signs, applications, and even floating employees that would make the service desk almost obsolete. They promise that you never have to wait in line at Powell’s so maybe there is no need for the desk down where most of the people are. It seems to exist only to handle books on hold and other service duties.

The famous “pillar” entrance.

The store has two entrances: one that comes into the Green room and one that lets you into the Orange room. They are both accessible from the street, but the website suggests beginning in the Green room. Both of these entrances speak volumes about what Powell’s mission is for its customers. When you first walk into the City of Books, you are faced with one of the two most versatile rooms in the entire store. These rooms are set up in a way that, were you in a hurry, you could spend your time browsing what they have there and still have a (somewhat) satisfying experience. (For a complete list of what is in these rooms please see the map, below.) The Green room is a random mashup of samples from all over the store mixed in with some of the fun tidbits you could find throughout.

The Orange room is a bit more practical, with its books centered around activities, but it is also the place that you can go to sell any used books you have. “Keep books in circulation. Keep ideas alive,” says the website. Their philosophy on used books is clear – they value them as much as new books and want their customers to share in that feeling. It’s not what the book is, but the ideas that are inside of it.

Books themselves are not objects to the people of Powell’s City of Books, but they are things to be talked about, admired, and dissected. As Bruno Latour said in his piece “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”, these things invite conversation. They open up ideas. It is up to the reader to give the books ideas meaning and purpose and to create a dialogue about the information contained within its text. Powell’s has opened an area in which they invite people inside to read and gain access to books. If money is their first priority, they do a good job of hiding it. Bill Brown seems to think that this way of thinking is incorrect, that problem of having ‘things’ is just the fact that they are open to such interpretation. “For even the most coarse and commonsensical things,” he says “pose a problem because of the specific unspeceficity that “things” denotes.” It is possible then that Powell’s mission is not to begin conversation from the ideas, but to take the ideas from the books and attempt to define them.





Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 28, No. 1. p 1-22

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”