Five Hours at Powell’s City of Books
It’s a tradition among my tribe members to spend Christmas Day going to the movies and eating Chinese food because nothing else is open.
Since moving from New York and becoming a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, though, I’ve already seen every single movie by Christmas Day – and even the Chinese restaurants are closed.
So, this year, since both kids were able to come home, we decided to take a short family trip. Portland was on the top of all our lists and once I found out that Powell’s – the legendary bookstore I’ve been dreaming about visiting for years – was open on Christmas Day, that clinched it.
For three days, we ate our way through the Foodie City and every day, I checked the Powell’s website to make sure they hadn’t changed their hours. We walked by the store so many times and I was so tempted to go in but I waited (im)patiently until our last day in Portland.
On Christmas Day, as children all over the world were scrambling to open their presents, I was dragging my family in the rain to mine. When I finally pushed open the door, I could almost hear the angels singing, “Hallelujah!”
In case you don’t know Powell’s, it’s the largest new and used bookstore in the world. It’s called the City of Books for a reason. The main store literally takes up an entire city block (there are other branches in Portland, including one at the airport), and four levels offer more than a million books. I think I looked at most of them.
The store is divided into nine color-coded rooms, and the detailed map is a treasure in itself. After settling my husband and son in the big, comfy café, where Michael read his own books and Alex watched episodes of Lost, Sara and I headed out to the blue room to start with literature.
Within minutes, I myself was lost – in the endless rows of books beckoning me from the shelves. My daughter – who is also a reader – rolled her eyes at my constant “ooh”-ing and “ah”-ing, and asked if I was going to take this long in each section. “Duh,” I replied, and went back to collecting the free bookmarks which feature lists like Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century and the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners since 1918.
She went off to look at poetry and I started pulling books off the shelves. Now, as you probably know, the last thing I should be buying is books. I must have thousands in my house already, and I keep getting more to review on StyleSubstanceSoul. Buuuuut … they had used copies of older books I’d never read, and they were so cheap. And once I decided to buy one, the floodgates were open.
Two hours later, I met the rest of my family back in the café for a delicious lunch of grilled cheese, chips and iced tea along with the best chocolate croissant any of us have ever tasted. Fortified, Michael and Alex went out for a walk and Sara settled in to finish Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games series.
For the next couple of hours, I went around the world via the travel section, admired paintings and photographs in the gorgeous art books and got some decorating ideas in the home design section. Just being there brought back memories of all the hours I used to spend in the Strand bookstore in New York, and the great used books I’d come home with.
I left with seven books for a total of less than $50. My stash (which I then had to carry on the plane) consisted of paperback copies of Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton, So Big by Edna Ferber, The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty, Time Was Soft There [about the Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co.] by Jeremy Mercer, Wayward: Fetching Tales from a Year on the Road by Tom Gates, Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck and Loud and Clear by Anna Quindlen (which I scored for $2.50). I even got a free souvenir soda in honor of Powell’s 41st anniversary (which I had to drink before taking the keepsake bottle on the plane).
I don’t know about the rest of my family but I would love to make this an annual holiday tradition. Now, if they would just start serving shrimp with cashew nuts in the cafe …