My wife and I spent our 4th of July weekend in Portland, Oregon. She's a landscape architect, designing parks, school playgrounds, and other public projects; she wanted to check out Portland's public art and green spaces. I'm a book junkie; all I wanted to see was Powell's.
I've been dreaming about visiting Powell's Books for years, ever since I started hearing stories about the massive downtown "Powell's City of Books" location, an entire city block in size, and the largest independent bookstore in America.
My friends weren't kidding. Powell's is amazing not just for its size, but for its quality: great categorization, a complete intermixing of new and used books on the shelves, and smart subject-specific booksellers who offered thoughtful recommendations in answer to all my queries.
Having been raised on mall bookstores, I remember how stunned I was to find a huge muckraking section when I first visited City Lights Books as a teenager. My wife had the same reaction when she discovered shelves full of new and used architecture and public planning books at Powell's—more than she'd ever seen outside of a library. After a day of exploration, we ended up hauling home a quadruple-packed grocery bag full of books.
But not everyone's quite so excited. Powell's, the gloriously pure indie that could, needs a constant supply of books to sell, and Portland's just not big enough anymore. They first hit Seattle in a big way in 2004, and I just read a recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle reporting on how Powell's has been systematically buying up the inventories of failing independent Bay Area bookstores, sometimes at substantial discounts. The booksellers quoted don't always seem resentful, but it's a delicate balance, one that director Emily Powell acknowledges: "We certainly make it harder for others...We're part of why this is an increasingly challenging business." There can be too much of a good thing.
I'm still mourning the loss of Cody's Books in Berkeley. As the San Francisco Bay Area continues to debate the causes for its closing, I'm reminded of how I, like many of my fellow Cody's fans, would also make an active effort to support smaller local subject-specific bookstores living in its shadow. Size can be a factor, at any scale.
We've spent a lot of time at BookFinder.com debating the ethics of buying, selling, and collecting books, trying to make sense of a fast-changing world. New or used, reading or collecting, content or presentation, owning or borrowing, online or offline, indie or corporate, open or proprietary, individual or professional, mediated or direct? We usually come to the conclusion that there's no one right answer for everyone, and that our interactions with print culture are too big to generalize about. We live with the gray areas, frustrating as they are; I'm still eagerly looking forward to visiting Powell's again the next time I'm in Portland.
[Now Reading: The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene]
Posted by Anirvan