Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon and Strand Book Store in New York City are both huge, wonderfully expansive places you can spend an afternoon. I recently had a chance to visit Powell’s and finally compare it to what I’d–until last week–considered the best used bookstore in the world.
The first exceptional thing I noticed about Powell’s is that they like signs. Strategically placed paper cards that read like this: “If you like [this author], you’ll love [other author].” These notes are fairly common. They describe how [these authors] are similar, and yet they take up almost no room at all. I feel certain that the well-read employees of Powell’s Books do the work of maintaining and updating this network of hand-written cross-references. On their own time, perhaps, and out of love.
Ahem. Sorry about that.
In the real world, are these signs bought and paid for, in the same way that endcaps are in supermarkets? I don’t know, but I do know that they give me the image of a store where selfless, overworked employees want to guide me towards new writers I might not have heard of.
Or maybe they want to sell more books. That’d make sense, too.
There are obvious differences in space. Powell’s has more room to walk, to look, to consider. On the other hand, their right-coast counterpart devotes space to endcap displays and, on the main floor, endless shelves of books. (In a bookstore, yet!) Both stores obviously cater to people who love books, but I couldn’t help but feel that Powell’s is a little bit more oriented to towards reading than Strand is–Strand seems to be ever-so-slightly more about the volume of their volumes.
The Manhattan Strand store comes across as more of a pile of books, a dusty pile of haphazardly-stacked volumes. Perhaps this store, as much as I love to roam it, is a source of books with which you can flip through, read, evaluate, and maybe decorate your city loft. (Strand will sell you books by the foot.)
Powell’s is cleaner, more sunny and welcoming. The stacks are meticulously organized: You can locate an author referenced in one of those signs by section and aisle number, much as you would in a library. In the same way that mega-chains have done for years, Powell’s has a cafe where you can sit and read. (This is Portland. Exquisitely ground and prepared java is the norm in the city of five quadrants.) Portland is also a friendlier and more open city than New York is. The people are nicer to strangers and happier to have long, involved conversations with them.
I love going to bookstores that are so disorganized and dusty that I need to bring a box of tissues along–and maybe pop a Zyrtec when I leave. The thrill of discovery can’t be beat. I love going to Strand–particularly the first floor and the basement, the least-endcapped of the floors. But the feel of a store that was clean and organized yet wanted me to find cheap used books I’d love: that was amazing. And we went back to the store, and found excuses to go to their other stores in Portland. (They have five.)
Borders is going, going. Barnes & Noble is far from gone but they’re listening to buyout offers. With Kindles and Nooks as popular as they are, will Powell’s still be in business in a few years? I don’t know, but I certainly hope we get a chance to return to Portland soon and roam the aisles again.
Neil Fein is a freelance editor. On the side, he’s the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, rides a mean bicycle, and paints in oils when the mood strikes him. He has a beard and likes Portland, Oregon very much.