Portland's Beloved Powell’s Bookstore

The iconic Oregon bookstore turns 50 this year.

A person browses the shelves at Powell's Bookstore in Portland, Oregon.
Tourists and locals alike flock to the winding shelves at Powell's.
Darius Kuzmickas

November/December 2021 Issue

Turns out, Powell’s story begins in an unexpected setting. The beloved shop—so iconically Oregonian, it’s been likened to Portland’s Eiffel Tower—got its start in Chicago. There, a young graduate student, Michael Powell, dreamed of opening a bookstore. Encouraged by his friends, and armed with a $3,000 loan from novelist Saul Bellow and two professors, Michael launched his bookstore in Hyde Park in 1970.

That summer, Michael’s father, Walter, a retired painting contractor from Portland, came to visit and worked in the store. Inspired, Walter returned home and, the following year, founded his own version of Powell’s. Walter designed the shop around a unique premise: He would shelve new and used books together, keep the doors open 365 days a year, and hire staff of impassioned word nerds.

Perhaps no employee loved books more than Walter himself, who quickly snagged any salable title he encountered. In 1980, to accommodate the ever-expanding inventory, the shop moved into a massive space at 10th Avenue and Burnside, where American Motors once sold sleek sedans. Once there, Powell’s morphed from a two-room shop to a three-story monolith. Today, the City of Books is the largest new and used independent bookstore in the world: a block-long, 68,000-square-foot temple to the written word, with nine rooms, 122 subject areas, and more than 1 million books, spanning everything from Antarctic exploration to nautical knots.

As Powell’s has grown, so has its reputation. Its spirited midnight release parties have become legendary (blocks-long lines! legions of costumed fans!), as have its lavish displays. To fete the release of the novel Mockingjay, staffers created a 17-foot-long cornucopia so impressive, they won a visit from Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games author isn’t the only famous face to grace Powell’s; over the past 50 years, thousands of luminaries have appeared here, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Congressman John Lewis, Bruce Springsteen to Patti Smith, Ursula K. Le Guin to Stephen King.

The shop is so adored that some bookworms have shot their engagement photos among the aisles; others have married in the Rare Book Room. One longtime customer loved Powell’s so much, his ashes were laid to rest inside the shop’s Pillar of Books, at his widow’s request. You’ll feel that same love wandering the labyrinthine shelves, browsing displays curated around such themes as “Garden Alchemy” and “Love Against the Odds.” The passion is evident, too, in the staff picks, accompanied by commentary alternately spirited (“Housewives battling vampires? Yes, please”) and soaring (“A collection of poems that is all at once beautiful, bitter, and brutally honest”). But glance up occasionally, and you might spot the ceiling beams from the old car dealership—one reads "Used Car Dept"—or the “Pillar of Signatude,” a column tattooed with famous authors’ signatures, some accompanied by dates, others by doodles.

The one thing you won’t find here? A soundtrack. Instead of music, says Jeremy, Powell’s events coordinator, the soundtrack here is “rolling book carts, awe-inspired visitors, friendly laughter, and the telltale surprise of a customer finding a book they’ve long been looking for.”