Powell’s City of Books & Other Cozy Locales for Cool People

While Portland, Oregon has over 20 times more people than the Portland where I grew up, on the other side of the country, it seems inviting enough to me, seeing as it houses one of the largest used bookstores in the world. And by houses, I mean that the surrounding establishments, in downtown Portland, provide a sense both of how comfortable the city might be as a place to live and of the local community’s recreational interests–one can imagine Powell’s City of Books as the physical center and base of a book lover’s lifestyle.

It’s worth asking, of course, what sorts of book lovers one expects to see within one’s area; the preeminence of Powell’s as a used bookstore and as a major draw within its district means that it will have a sizable effect on the surrounding area, thus creating a specific sense of place, “the subjective and emotional attachment people have,” as Tim Cresswell via John Agnew would put it, to these city blocks (Cresswell 7). As one would also expect from a big, well-known city, there’s a lower percentage of people under 18 and over 65 than the average in Oregon, the percentage of people “living in the same house 1 year & over” was 79.4% in 2013 vs. the 82.0% average in Oregon total, there was almost 50% more people over 25 with Bachelor’s degrees than the Oregon percentage (and as a result the average income was almost $50,000 higher than the state average), and so on.

Now, to give a feeling of the size of the store:

It’s listed as a West Burnside street address on account of its entrance, but, really, it takes up the whole block; it’s so big that “you’ll need a map to find your way around ([but don’t worry,] the store provides one).” Or at least, that’s what Time.com insists; on Powell’s’s own City Tour feature of its website, they’re quick to point out that “[they] won’t judge you, either way” if you “prefer instead to wander aimlessly from room to room.”


Now let’s get a wider view of the space and places around Powell’s:

Not surprisingly, the yellow diamonds are all restaurants (not including the cafe inside Powell’s), and even though I mostly focused on restaurants that showed up on an only slightly greater zoom around Powell’s, when mapping–restaurants and other places within a leisurely walking distance–the general trend would no doubt persist if one looked further, in frequency if not density. 9th through 12th Northwest Avenues all have at least one restaurant; and south of West Burnside street there’s also a solid spacing-out of “locales,” or “material setting[s] for social relations . . . within which people conduct their lives as individuals” (Cresswell 7). The most frequent kinds of food places in this clutch of blocks–that is to say that there’s two of each, again not including Powell’s–are bars, cafes, and pastry shops. But besides those places there’s also Little Big Burger and Jake’s Famous Crawfish. Even if one just visits this area to go book shopping, one has plenty of options for places to sit down and eat, maybe talk with one’s friends about fresh purchases, maybe even visit a new restaurant after each visit, if one is fortunate enough to live that close. In this way, this section of the city becomes host to locales; these restaurant names are all eminently pleasant and inviting, and possibly more exciting for those who are making the once-in-a-while visit to Powell’s.

Even if you’re only visiting the general area to go shopping, or primarily book shopping, anyway, there’s a Whole Foods (the blue square) two blocks away from Powell’s so as to pick up some relatively high-quality groceries. North and South of Powell’s are two different art institutes (green stars), the Art Institute of Portland and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (though they embody separate definitions of “institute”: AIP is a college and PICA is more of the gallery-type building with an event calendar and, through February, a chorale workshop series with the Portland musician Holcombe Waller “as part of [PICA’s] commissioning of LGBT Requiem Mass“); between these artistic hotspots and the two theaters marked with dots, it seems that this area has everything that artistically-minded people could want, intellectually. But even within this immediate area the need for physical activity is not lost on city planners; the dot furthest from Powell’s, to the left, is McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, which has the fancy-dress events one would expect from a ballroom as well as more modern concert styles, bands and DJ’s.

Despite the apparent fanciness of the overall area, Powell’s itself, as evidenced by the City Tour feature of its website, with its explicit statements of non-judgment and rainbow-colored rooms and amusement park metaphors, is not at all about fostering the elitism that Laura J. Miller so often returns to as a talking point in Reluctant Capitalists and that has historically characterized artsy places. With a store and a selection so wide, how could anyone not feel welcome?



Google Maps Streetview: 1005 West Burnside Street, Portland, OR 97209 (2)

Powell’s City Map


Google Maps: Powell’s City of Books


Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. 1-14.

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.