Table of Contents
Insights || Colin Whyte

Look under the covers at America’s greatest book store.

Playlist || Malcolm Johnson

Golden Dust, Dirt, Rust & Trust: A Pick Up Worth of Sound for the Soul.

Insights || Lisa Richardson

Growing up & growing pains: Can a garden town all get along?

Conversation || Zaria Forman

From Brooklyn to the ends of the earth, a compelling artist with a chill perspective dives deep into details.

Reflections || Trevor Komori

Forge on! Meet the man with a fire for recycling.

Legacy || Full Press Staff

Father, Son & the Whole Case of Scotch.

Insights || Andrew Findlay

Sometimes a cure is closer than you think.

Never judge a book by its cover, but maybe judge a reader by their bookstore. Here’s a page, torn from the best!

A Reader’s Cathedral

Insights || Colin Whyte
Colin Whyte
Writer || Misanthrope

Website

When he’s not writing press releases about obscure craft brews or penning B2B sub-sites, Colin Whyte likes to leverage his synergies in vertical, scalable ecosystems and totally move the needle from his home in Lower Cascadia. He’s currently working on a novel, As A Stranger Give It Welcome. He doesn’t want to talk about it.

Photos: Neil DaCosta

What makes a reader?

This feels like the question that’s being worked out when you enter Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. And it’s being worked out in real time, in analog, no algorithms required. It is the largest new and used bookstore in the world, after all. Agnostic as Portland might seem, Powell’s is a cathedral for book lovers.

*lit·mos·phere (litʹ məs fērʹ) n: 1. the vast domain of the world’s readers and writers 2. a lively literary mood permeating the air

Powell’s actually operates five stores in the Portland area, and the flagship location, City of Books, is the company’s chewy nougat centre. Located in the bougie Pearl district, and still maintaining the irascible character of its Burnside Street entrance, City of Books is a beast. And, if you fancy yourself any kind of bibliophile, it takes some taming. It occupies an entire city block, boasting well over a million titles, with 3,500 different sections broken up into nine colour-coded rooms that can eat you alive. It has its own map, its own turn-by-turn book-finding app, its own café, and it’s open 365 days a year. The essence of the Powell’s experience might be to become so overwhelmed on the first visit that the reader will leave with sweet f@*# all in their hands except cold sweat. Even upon return the next day, fortified by a quad-shot Americano, they will mostly likely lose four hours in the stacks and leave crippled under the weight of tomes and tchotchkes hunted and gathered here.

prin·tro·vert (prinʹ trə vûrtʹ) n: a person who favours the company of books to people

The oldest book in Powell’s Rare Book Room is a De Bello Judaica. [And] De Antiquitate Judaeorum Contra Apionem, published in Verona in 1480. - Photo by Neil DaCosta

Go deep, reader. Go very, very deep. - Photo by Neil DaCosta

When “picking up the newest Grisham” turns into a full day lost to the stacks…

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” – Karl Marx . - Photo by Neil DaCosta

Biggest often differs from best, but Powell’s juggles both credibly. It makes all the lists. There’s usually a lineup to the cash registers that suggests free iPhones, yet the vibe here is never mercenary. This place is about books, not money— paperbacks > greenbacks —and this, ironically, is why Powell’s has thrived in a brutal book market that has crushed national chains and mom ‘n pop shops with equal impunity. Take a whiff. Smell the difference.

smell·bound (smelʹ boundʹ) adj: held as if under a spell by the scent of books

“I went in there with my mom a few months ago, and we had to call each other on the phone to reconnect after a half hour of separated browsing.” recalls zinester/regional-planning consultant Rachel Cotton, 34. “Plus, there are all those wonderful, handwritten recommendations that Powell’s staff have tucked under their favourite books all over the store. While being a well-oiled machine, Powell’s simultaneously manages to pull off the role of lovingly curated, one-of-a-kind collection of literary wonders, obscurities and impulse buys. I have never regretted that I never leave empty-handed.”

shelf-right·eous (shelfʹ riʹ chəs) adj: a feeling of superiority about one’s bookshelf

When it comes to a great book store, some people can never leave. Elevate your literary prowess in more ways than one. Oh, the irony of that chalkboard sign…Because you can never have just one.

The two most overused tropes in corporate messaging these days are “story” and “community”, yet at Powell’s these two gauzy ghosts really are pillars of the indie’s success. You skulk in looking for a fresh copy of that favourite novel you keep giving away out of narrative zeal (viz. “shelf sacrifice”). You find the colour room it should be in (probably Blue) and the shelf it should be on (High). And then— sweet-Jesus-in-the-morning! —you eye not one but eight iterations of the book on the same shelf: new and used, hard and soft, crappy film tie-in and minimalist first printing. You could spend five bucks or fifty on what is essentially “the same book” but, unlike a search on Amazon, it’s a tactile, analog, informed choice at Powell’s. It’s also strangely satisfying, akin to hearing your favourite song on the radio: I belong!

plot·head (plotʹ hed) n: a person who gets high on books daily

A Powell’s mission is a killer way to kill an afternoon. The stock is deeper than that Siberian lake. The seasoned staff is a reading, recommending machine; their jobs highly-prized. The used books are never ratty or soup-stained, even if some of Portland’s finest sharing the experience with you are a bit of both. With the exception of its much-touted Rare Books Room, Powell’s is very browser friendly and often feels like a large municipal library, complete with crazy people, cat ladies, pigeon-proofed Portlandia extras and, more than likely, your next boy- and/or girlfriend if you lurk long enough. 

Stacks on stacks on stacks, this book store works on many levels.

Bold claim, Powell’s. Bold claim.

Colours and coffee.

New books at used prices. It’s like Walmart without the nausea.

Sign of the (wasted) times.

rea·dar (rē’ där) n: the ability to spot a fellow reader from a great distance

Another aspect of the Powell’s “community” vibe that really doesn’t need those tone quotes is the author events they put on regularly. The store has seen Another Bullshit Night in Suck City author Nick Flynn read to 25 people and then invite the entire audience out for tacos. In the same two-week period last year, Powell’s hosted events from celebs like Drew Barrymore, Ethan Hawke and Rainn Wilson, as well as literary rock star Rick Moody. And they were all free. From climate scientists to picture-book authors to the edgiest graphic novelists, Powell’s makes readings approachable, entertaining and refreshingly unrestricted of literati pretense.

per·fic·tion·ist (pərʹ fik shə nist) n: a fiction reader with exacting standards

“Twenty years ago, when I got the writing bug, I would go to Powell’s for every writer that came to town,” recalls Steve Arndt, 67, one of Portland’s more underrated writers. “I’d be there five nights a week. The only time I’d draw the line was a cookbook. [It’s] a place where local writers can go and exercise their writing muscle... Nationally known writers come to town, or we can hear our local comrades read from their new published work. That’s the thing: 20 years ago, you didn’t see it so much, but now Powell’s pays a lot of attention to local writers. For a local writer, it’s a big deal to see your name on that marquee on Burnside. People may not always admit that, but secretly we all want our name up there.”

sheet·hearts (shētʹ harts’) pl n: beloved companions who share a great affection for reading

“[Because] small presses have been given their own dedicated section, I can wander in on any given day and find local authors and friends’ zines in the same room as much of the best fiction and poetry in the world,” says Rachel Cotton. “Through the power of positive thinking, I am able to imagine a place for myself someday, maybe, on a Powell’s shelf.”

The 9,000 or so volumes in the Rare Book Room are worth approximately $1,800,000. On average that’s about $200 per book. A sacred place for readers. An end goal for writers. Light summer reading? Not in this aisle. The most expensive book in the Rare Book Room is the two volume History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the Sources of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, published in Philadelphia in 1814. The price is $350,000. Lamps not for sale.

gread·y (grē’ dē) adj: having an intense desire to read every book ever written

Was it Morrissey or Dick Van Patten who said, “There’s more to life than books, you know. But not much more”? Whatever. If you are “shelf-righteous,” a trip to Powell’s will remind you what life’s all about. Reading and writing are lonely endeavours, yet the flock will be there, deep in the cathedral.  

*All definitions from Powell’s Compendium of Readerly Terms. Used with permission by Powell’s Books.