- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2002

PORTLAND, Ore. — Powell's City of Books, the country's largest independent bookstore, lays claim to all manner of visitors. "There is a quote," says spokesman Stephen Fidel, "that if God came back to Earth and signed the Bible, He'd come to Powell's."

Illuminated by a garish red and black sign at Northwest 10th Avenue and Burnside, Powell's takes up a whole city block in this former wino district. Eight satellite stores featuring specialties such as travel and technical books including two airport outlets are spread about town. More tomes are stored in three warehouses.

In 30 years, the store has become an institution. Its stacks are a meeting place cited in the classifieds of one of the local weeklies, and "People do ditch their blind dates here on occasion," manager Meredith Schreiber says.

Powell's is not glamorous. Its drab white and concrete exterior has peeling paint, and the cement floors, neon lights and oak bookshelves inside are a far cry from the poshness of a Barnes & Noble. Books are the central visual feature.

In an era when independent bookstores are losing ground to chain outlets, Powell's keeps adding to its stash of 2 million stocked books. It also illustrates the adage that people living in dank climates read a lot. Libraries in Multnomah County, in which rainy Portland is located, enjoy some of the highest usage rates in the nation. (Iceland, which is dark half the year, has the world's highest literacy rate per capita.)

Despite the Internet and TV, people are reading more than ever, and meanwhile, Powell's keeps expanding. Buying 4,000 books a day from 300 people, a small army of buyers (25 for used books and 30 for new) ensures the shelves stay full.

At 50,000 books, the foreign-language collection alone carries more than some bookstores have in their entire stock. The biggest challenge, staff say, is shelving books in Arabic and Japanese, languages none of them reads.

The 68,000-square-foot main store, said to be Oregon's No.2 tourist attraction after the Tillamook cheese factory on the coast, arranges reading material in nine vast rooms on four floors. The store is open 14 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Founded in 1971 by Walter Powell, a retired painting contractor, the store was once known as a dusty repository of used books. Not until 1977 with the addition of new book sales did it begin to go upscale.

Mr. Powell's son, Michael, was already operating a bookstore in Chicago. The two men ran parallel bookstores until 1979, when the younger Powell moved west to join his father in the rapidly expanding business. The father died in 1985.

"If you give people a big choice, they will respond," says Michael Powell, now 62. "People are proud of this. They bring their relatives here."

Unlike many cultures around the world, the typical American reads, he says.

"Even Reagan said he hated being without a book," he said. "In bad weather, people either drink or read. Sometimes they do both."

Powell's has become a resource both nationally Amazon.com shops there and internationally, as Vatican scholars have come in search of theology tomes. Located in one of the least-churched states in the country, the theology section takes up several aisles. A few feet away is a display case of Hindu items: candles, incense and idols. Of the 1,500 Internet requests received per day on www.powells.com, 150 are for books on religion.

The best-seller shelves reflect a more agnostic Northwest readership. "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser sells well, but the megaseller "Left Behind" series on the End Times by conservative Christian authors the Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins does not.

The rapidly growing Middle East section has five books on Kurds, seven on Jordan, three shelves on Palestine, two shelves on Iraq, one on T.E. Lawrence and 17 shelves on Israel.

The "relationships" section morphes into divorce and separation, then into recovery books. Abbie Hoffman's "Steal this Book" is kept locked up. So are some erotic books.

Also under lock and key is the rare book room, whose biggest treasure is the 1824 edition of Lewis and Clark's journals, priced at $60,000. A first edition of William Faulkner's "The Mansion" is $225. A first edition of Alex Haley's "Roots" is $100.

Rooms are color-coded into categories that are split into zillions of subsections: A book on catapults falls under "military ancient weapons." Books on water buffalo are listed under agriculture. Three carousels of reading glasses sit near the southeast entrance for those who cannot read small type.

Powell's has had its ups and downs, the latter once resulting in the formation of a union for its 490 employees. Starting wages, which include benefits and vacation, begin at $8.15 an hour. One former employee, John Henley, now manages the Great Northwest Bookstore a few blocks away and generally speaks well of the store in which he worked for 13 years.

He was a "well-read hippie" when he arrived in 1977, a time when Powell's had six employees. The city has a natural book culture, he says, not just because of the rain but because 19th century settlers brought their libraries with them while traveling across the country by wagon.

But Americans, he adds, are not reading as much now.

"It's the level of books they bring back for sale," he says. "It's not the variety; they just read horror or Civil War or children's books. All the novels are things that have been suggested by Oprah."

Americans have gotten more and more impatient in the past 20 years, and they don't spend the hours browsing through used-book stacks, he adds.

"Now we have these compacted lives where we go here and there to get this and that," he says. "We run around like ants. The proper use of any bookstore is to go in not to find something but to discover something."

Even Powell's is a different creature than 30 years ago, he says, because of the differences among the owners.

"Walter Powell was old world capitalism; Michael Powell is new world capitalism," he says "Old world is where the owner is omnipresent; he meets the customers at the door. New world is where no one knows who runs the place nor what the hell he looks like.

"Old world is where the owner takes the employees out for a party. New world is where employees get a gift certificate to Hickory Farms. Old world is where you know your employer. New world is tons of policy decisions so you can't move this way or that because everyone's afraid of a lawsuit."

Still, Powell's has devoted fans.

"Powell's is the greatest bookstore in the free world," says Elisabeth Meyer, a Clackamas Community College student who is showing around a friend from New Zealand. "I tell people to come here all the time."

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