On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I made a visit–or should I say a “pilgrimage”–to Powell’s City of Books on West Burnside Street. Powell’s is a shrine to many and it certainly is to me, since I’d first started going there as a sales rep for a large publisher, many years ago. I would spend long rainy days discussing books with the buyers of the various departments and taking inventory off of color coded index cards that used hashmarks to tally the number of copies a particular title sold. (This makes me think of the story of a software engineer who learned how to write computer programs by keying in punchcards to physically run the code through the machine.)
This was back before the Pearl District had become the chic home of Whole Foods, Sur la Table and Anthropolgie. In those days, the bookstore’s location was fairly low rent, sitting on the edge of a warren of auto repair shops and warehouses. I would squeeze my sales rep rental car (usually a nondescript silver mid-size number) into the precarious garage that had such a steep and narrow driveway there was a sign on the wall that warned you to honk in case another car was on its way down the same ramp. Even then, Powell’s was already big enough to need a map for its customers, a charming hand-drawn guide that readers could use to navigate their way to their favorite books. Like a nostalgic alum visiting her old college campus, I was happy to discover that the newer, bigger Powell’s still offered paper maps but that they also had a smartphone app that would lead patrons directly to the shelf of any title they had in stock.
Armed with paper and electronic navigational tools, I easily found my way to the Poetry section (Blue Room, aisles 211-212) and quickly gathered an assortment of titles: Wonderful Investigations by Dan Beachy-Quick, Transformations by Anne Sexton, Of Gods & Strangers by Tina Chang, and Andrew Schelling’s Wild Form & Savage Grammar. A shiver of delight and fear ran though me simultaneously–a mere 15 minutes into my first foray had yielded treasures already–and I had not even made it to the Mythology Section (Red Room, aisles 875-877) or the Fiction Section (the entire Blue & Gold Room) yet!
With a sigh of pleasure I hugged my books to my heart and consulted the map once more. I needed to know where the World Cup Cafe (Coffee Room, southwest corner–also the Audio Section, aisles 401-405, and Humor Section, aisles 407-412) was as I knew I would need a hit of Bookworm Blend and a bite to eat in due time. Then, with the promise of poetry coursing through my body, I was ready to trek deeper into the stacks of Powell’s, my own little slice of nirvana. Little did I know I would be spending five hours there that day alone, and heaps more time over the course of the next few days (14 hours in four days), so the maps and the coffee would come in handy many times over!