Cool Bookish Places

The Happiest Place on Earth: An Afternoon at Powell’s Books

Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

Technically, Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth. I also sometimes refer to IKEA as the happiest place on Earth (when I went there last year to buy a new Billy bookshelf I so desperately needed, I was literally skipping through the front doors. My husband looked like he may have had some regrets about our relationship).

Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of discovering a new-to-me happiest place on Earth: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. An independent bookshop that takes up an entire city block, one of the more famous bookshops in the world, and a sheer delight in which to spend a day.

We arrived in Portland on a Friday afternoon. My husband and I had dinner at a restaurant that was within sight of Powell’s, but we did not go in. We’d been driving all day, we were tired, and I needed to experience Powell’s properly.

It was Sunday morning when we finally walked through the doors. The plan was for my husband and friend to stay with me in Powell’s for an hour or so, and then they would go off and see Portland’s other sights while I stayed in the bookshop for the rest of the day. In the end, we all stayed until lunchtime, had lunch, and then returned to the bookshop. We stayed until the parking for the car expired, and went back to my friend’s apartment.

Inside Powell's (Photo by Brandon Sherman)

Happiness is spending hours amongst these shelves (Photo by Brandon Sherman).

The rest of the day was spent reading the books we had bought from Powell’s (between the three of us, we bought about twenty books), with only one brief break for dinner. It was basically the best day of our holiday.

Our loot after a day in Powell’s.

Powell’s has multiple rooms with endless shelves for you to get lost, and I feel like any book you could possibly want would be in there. There were book displays, employee recommendation cards, nooks in which to hide and read, and people everywhere, happily browsing and reading. The place buzzed.

The next day, my husband and I were at Blue Star donuts, talking with the guy who worked there about our visit to Powell’s. My husband expressed surprise at how busy the bookshop was, and Donut Guy shared the sentiment. The exact words were something like, ‘I can’t believe how many people were there. And on a weekend! Barnes and Noble is never that busy. It’s always quiet and empty.’

This was a beautiful moment of reality reflecting research. In 2008, I did my Honours research and dissertation on independent bookshops in Sydney, and explored the effects of rationalisation and consolidation in book retailing on independent bookshops. Essentially, were online giants and chain bookshops leading to a decline in indies? At the time, the answer was an emphatic ‘no’.

Many of the bookshop owners and managers I interviewed spoke about how they do not compete with online retailers and chain stores on price, because they can’t. They will never be cheaper than Amazon. But they do compete on other things: the range of the stock, the knowledge and customer service of the staff, and the atmosphere created by furniture, decor, lighting, and other great retailing techniques. In short, they don’t just sell you a book, they sell you a book-buying experience.

Powell’s, along with other great independent bookshops all around the world, embody this philosophy to a tee. Yes, a book can sometimes be seen as a commodity: I can add it to the Amazon cart along with other mundane household items like light bulbs and furniture polish. I can pop the latest bestseller into my trolley at Costco, next to the eggs and the milk. I could even go into my local Barnes and Noble, which can be a fun place to browse and buy books but has a different feel to many great indies.

Powell’s is different. The great indies of the world—Powell’s in Portland, The Strand in New York, City Lights in San Francisco, Shakespeare and Company in Paris*—have all managed to become destinations. Experiences. Places in which you go not just to buy a book, but to feel like you are lost in the best place on Earth. Where you can browse for hours, discover books you never thought existed, and see that a book can be far more than a commodity like milk or light bulbs.

Independent Bookstore Day is happening again in 2017, on the last Saturday in April (29 April). I strongly encourage you to pop into your local indie and celebrate the day with them. And perhaps even buy a book or two.

*There are many, many wonderful bookshops all around the world. These ones I’ve listed here just happen to be some of the most famous ones that I have been to.