Powell’s City of Books: Portland’s Favorite Hotspot and What We Can Learn From It

Powells Books in Portland, OR.

Photo courtesy of Book Riot.

Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.

Catherine Cossaboom, Editor

This summer, my family and I decided to take a flight out to Portland, Oregon. From the moment we touched down, it was clear just how different the city was from Atlanta: vibrant, quirky and a refuge for the country’s most expressive outsiders; receiving incoming planes filled with tourists rather than conference-bound businessmen; founded by Western pioneers on the Oregon Trail instead of as part of a railroad network to transport goods to the South. 

But I’m not here to compare the cultures of Atlanta and Portland. Atlanta, after all, is transforming by the day, with its up-and-coming west side and the convenience and unity fostered through the Beltline. Rather, my focus is on one of Portland’s most famous tourist attractions—the world’s largest bookstore—and its far-reaching impact on the city’s overall lifestyle. 

If you know me, you know that I love to read. As a kid, I was an especially ravenous reader, devouring anything I could get my hands on: from novels to magazines to nonfiction. So naturally, when I found Portland boasted the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world, I made a pilgrimage to see what exactly drew the public to this small metropolis of books.

Powell’s City of Books was founded by Walter Powell in 1971 as a smaller (though still large) bookstore on one side of the city, moving to its current location in Portland’s Pearl District in 1999. It continues to be independently run and it remains in the Powell Family, as Walter’s son Michael handed it over to his daughter Emily in 2010.

Along with a donut shop called Voodoo Donuts and the world’s smallest park which fits in a lamppost stand, Powell’s is one of the few tourist attractions that many associate immediately with Portland. Given the hype, it would be easy for a place to become overcrowded, overinflated and frankly overly tacky. But this was quite the opposite. 

Powell’s City of Books is able to reconcile seemingly glaring contrasts in an appealing way. It’s built in a warehouse, yet feels homey and inviting. It sprawls—both up and out—yet you can almost immediately find and browse a section to your liking, and it’s crowded, yet the sheer amount of space for everyone to spread out gives you the same amount of comfort and affinity that comes with your typical independent store. 

The variety is insane. From new releases to classics, from Nepali cookbooks to editorial photography volumes to quantum mechanics textbooks, any subject can be found within its shelves and everything is well-curated. I spent nearly five hours in the math books section (yes, I know I’m a freak), and I will say that their collection was incredibly thoughtfully chosen, in both quantity and quality. 

I think the appeal of Powell’s is how much it is embraced by its own locals. It’s clear that the aisles are filled by as many (or more) locals as tourists, and I wouldn’t hesitate to claim that some probably moved to Portland just because of the ease of access to such an incredible bookstore. The fact that it was founded independently takes its appeal to the next level, letting locals relate to the entrepreneur that started it all. 

More than just being a space to buy and read books, an independent bookstore gives a town the ability to rally around itself. This quirky, something-for-everyone idea extends to Portland’s multicultural food trucks and the events in Pioneer Square, which is transformed about 300 days of the year into Swedish movie nights, zombie dance-offs, and breakfast in bed to name a few. Portland also frequently hosts art festivals on the last Thursday of each month with the same pioneering diversity, featuring live performances and all types of art, including traditional pottery and modern abstract paintings.

Beyond Powell’s, there are dozens more bookstores throughout Portland, such as Annie Bloom’s Books or Monograph Bookwerks. Unlike so many other industries, a successful bookstore doesn’t create a monopoly but instead just enhances demand for books, giving smaller independent bookstores a means to make a living. Where I stayed in the Alberta Arts District, there were at least two bookstores within walking distance and this was by no means an anomaly for the city. 

An independent bookstore is a chance for book lovers to meet others with their same interests (hint: those you always find in the same sections as you!), to cultivate a love of learning, and to expand their tolerance for our fellow world citizens by embracing their stories. 

In a chicken-and-egg fashion, Portland’s culture of “anything goes” stems from the bookstore, and the bookstore stems from it. Each cultivates the other, resulting in the culture that tourists behold today. 

To be fair, this kind of mindset does create some problems for Portland that go hand-in-hand with Oregon’s legalization of weed, but that is no means on which to discredit its culture or to advocate against a trip there. All travelers have to be conscientious, and I don’t think there’s one city in the United States that doesn’t have a sketchier side. The natural beauty and unique culture of Portland should override any doubts tourists may have when coming to the city, and there is no direct correlation between this and its bookstores, art festivals, and everything else the city has to offer. 

So what can we learn from this? An independent bookstore is an asset for a community, building a sense of unity, encouraging people to embrace tolerance and diversity, and stimulating tourism. It enriches the vibrancy of a city noticeably within a decade. We’ve seen it in Athens’ Avid Books, Asheville’s Malaprop’s, San Francisco’s City Lights, and of course Portland’s Powell’s City of Books. Could Atlanta be next?