Trawling Through Powell’s World of Books


Wow, two whole weeks since my last blog entry. How highly negligent of me, though I do have a good excuse. I got lost in Powell’s.

I made the trek to Portland from Seattle, thinking a weekend in a different city would do me some good, then pretty much spent the whole time in Powell’s. (For those who don’t know, Powell’s Books is quite likely the biggest bookstore in the world–plus there’s no sales tax.) I started in the gold room (science fiction) then hit the rose room (middle grade and young adult) and then the purple room (history) and finally ended up in the red room (travel and mythology). Looking over the handy online map, I see that I missed trawling through the classics section in the blue room. Why don’t more bookstores have a dedicated classics section?

Powell’s website claims that they get 6,000 visitors a day. Judging by how cramped many of the aisles were, I don’t doubt it. There was also a huge line at the cash registers. Between offering the most fantastic physical bookstore in the world and a great online experience, Powell’s should survive any transition to digital just fine.

There is something about a world class bookstore that can’t be replicated online. Yes, picking up the actual book and flipping through the pages is nice, but that’s just the beginning. Online it’s all about what I already know or new titles with sufficient sales velocity, but there’s nothing to record how much pulp a particular book managed to commandeer over the decades. In the real world, I can visit a section of the bookstore where I’m only vaguely familiar with what’s been printed–like US history books–and immediately zoom into Doris Kearns Goodwin. She’s got a whole shelf. That’s what makes it easy to notice a writer. A whole shelf. Some authors get there with one book that takes the world by storm, like The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Others get there with a single title that’s been selling steadily through multiple editions, like Mythology by Edith Hamilton. And others get there with a series like the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness.

I loved looking at all the old editions of books piled up next to the new ones. It was easy to scan a section and see what the big titles are just by the sheer space that they take up. Then there’s the depth, really digging in and looking at thousands of titles in an hour. And of course, there’s peeking at what other readers have plucked off the shelf. No online bookstore comes even close to offering this type of browsing experience. And they never will.

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