Pilgrimage to Powell’s Books

I catalog all my books and when I read them. I recently came across my catalog for 1984, and found a record of what I think was my first visit to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. It was on 23 November 1984, more than thirty years ago, when I was twenty-two—and I’ve enjoyed visiting as often as possible since then. I’ve been to some pretty big bookstores in London, Tokyo, and New York, but Powell’s is still my favourite bookstore in the world. Here are the ten books I bought on my very first pilgrimage:

  • Walk Away René: The Work of Hipgnosis by Storm Thorgerson (autographed by my favourite graphic artist and album cover designer)

  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

  • Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach

  • The Best of Lewis Carroll by Lewis Carroll (I got this book so I could do a paper on Carroll for a Victorian literature class I was taking in college—see “Alice’s Chain of Thought”; on 22 February 1985, I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland aloud from this book to a carful of college friends while on a road trip to Seattle)

  • 95 Poems by E. E. Cummings (still one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read)

  • A Selection of Poems by E. E. Cummings

  • Watership Down by Richard Adams

  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (time for me to read this again)

  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (this is the only book listed here that I now seem to have lost or misplaced, which really surprises me, but it’s not with other Twain books in my fiction bookcase, so I don’t know where it might be)

  • The Far Side Gallery by Gary Larson

These books included my first Lewis Carroll and E. E. Cummings books, now part of a collection that I keep in entire six-foot-tall bookcases full of their work. Later I bought many haiku books at Powell’s, too, and well remember the spaces where they offered haiku and related poetry—an entire bookcase full, one much taller than six feet. Haiku has not been featured in such a way for more than decade (such books vastly decreased in number and are now scattered throughout other poetry books). The poetry section is huge, filling a couple of fabulous aisles, but the haiku section is no more, and the haiku selections are appallingly scant, even while a treasure might emerge now and then.

Powell’s is still a spectacular bookstore. It used to be that I never set foot in it without spending at least a hundred dollars. However, on a recent visit in August of 2016, I hardly bought anything (okay, two books—Simon Winchester’s The Alice Behind Wonderland and Michael Chabon’s novel Summerland, both in hardback). Before Amazon and the Internet, Powell’s always had treasures and discoveries, and one could spend hours searching for the veins of gold, but those days seem to be gone, because now I can find most of Powell’s treasures online—and rarely are they surprises. Plus maybe I’d be more delighted to see particular books if I didn’t already have them. Still, if you ever have the chance, get yourself to Powell’s, pick up a store map when you enter, and give yourself a few hours to wander and wonder. You’ll be there for a while: If you rocket along, merely looking at one book per minute for eight hours a day, every day of the year, it would take you almost six years to look at every book—and then, after six years, you’d have to catch up with all the new books they’d add during that time. It is, after all, not only my favourite bookstore in the entire world, but also the largest.

—21 September 2016

“When you’re buying books, you’re optimistically thinking you're buying the time to read them.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer