Powell’s City of Books (Portland, Oregon)

Powell's Books
Photo by Chris Booth

Very few places on the planet can claim a bookstore to be one of their most visited attractions, and in no place but Portland, Oregon could something like Powell’s thrive for so many years. Powell’s Books headquarters, known as Powell’s City of Books, claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world, and with an inventory of more than 4.5 million books spread across several locations and through their online presence, they might just be right. Located in the Pearl District on the edge of downtown in Portland, Oregon, between NW 10th and 11th Avenues and between W. Burnside and NW Couch Streets, the single building takes up an entire city block.

Powell’s Books was founded in 1971 by Walter Powell but it was his son, Michael, that started the family in the book business when he opened his first bookstore in Chicago the previous year. Michael’s bookstore specialized in used, rare, and discounted books, and while it worked well for him in Chicago, by 1979 he joined his father in Portland. It was around this time that the bookstore moved into the current headquarters and Michael purchased the bookstore from his father in 1982.

In 2010, Michael Powell handed the management responsibilities of the book empire to his daughter Emily who had at that point already been involved for many years. Under Emily’s management, Powell’s¬†purchased 7,000 books from the library of author Anne Rice, and became a charter member of the Google eBooks service. While Emily Powell is the head of the empire, she is not the CEO. She decided that because her family’s company had more than 500 employees, was open 365 days a year, and prospered in a time that brick and mortar businesses closed around the country, that bringing a hired gun was well worth the price.

Powell’s established themselves as early pioneers of the internet and by 1994 were selling books from their website. This was before the likes of Amazon.com was in the game and it helped Powell’s remain a family business in the times when the internet giants were taking over.

There has been a policy at Powell’s for many years, that it doesn’t matter what you read so long as you read. They have been actively involved in making sure that books are available to people that are in the market for them. They do suggest books that they like, but you’ll be pressed to find someone working there that will tell you not to read something because of its subject matter.

Powell’s City of Books Facts

  • Powell’s City of Books is roughly 68,000 square feet (6,300 m2).
  • There is more than 1.6 acres of retail floor space at the bookstore.
  • CNN rated it one of the “coolest” bookstores in the world.
  • In 2002, Powell’s was cited by USA Today as one of America’s 10 best bookstores.
  • Powell’s buys around 3,000 used books a day.
  • The City of Books has 3,500 different sections separated into nine color-coded rooms.
  • Starting in May 2012, Powell’s began offering access to print on demand books via the Espresso Book Machine.