Travel

In Portland, Ore., a city of books

Clockwise from top left: the busy checkout area at Powell’s, the “Pillar of Signatude” that many well-known authors have autographed, some of the volumes in the Rare Book Room.
Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe
The busy checkout area at Powell’s City of Books.

PORTLAND, Ore.

The serpentine line of customers stretches as far as the eye can see, past a bank of cash registers, around colorful displays of merchandise. Is it the latest theme-park thrill ride? The grand opening of a hot new restaurant? The premiere of the next “Harry Potter” movie?

Nope. These people just want to buy books.

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With an inventory of 2 million new and used books, Powell’s City of Books claims to be the world’s largest independent bookstore. The store occupies a full city block, and you need a map to find your way around its three floors and 68,000 square feet (that’s 1.5 acres). High ceilings and a slightly industrial feel attest to the building’s former life as a used car lot and automotive showroom.

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On a guided tour (offered on Sundays), we made our way through the store’s nine color-coded rooms. Books in the Red Room teach you how to be a citizen of the world, with current events, social sciences, and local Portland titles. Looking for sciences, robotics, and DIY? That would be the Pearl Room. New and used books are shelved side by side, said Desiree Ducharme, the manager of the used book department and our guide. “We take in about 20,000 used books a week,” she said.

Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe
Powell's City of Books occupies a full city block in downtown Portland.

Father and son Walter and Michael Powell established the bookstore in 1971. Today there are five Powell’s locations in Portland, including one at Portland International Airport. Open seven days a week, 365 days a year, the flagship hosts some 500 book and author events a year. Many visiting authors have signed the “Pillar of Signatude,” Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, and Douglas Adams among them.

The Rare Book Room features an impressive collection of autographed first editions and other collectible volumes. Along with an 1814 copy of the first printing of Lewis and Clark’s expedition journals, we got a kick out of a gorgeously colored “The Thousand and One Nights” and several first-edition Nancy Drew mysteries.

Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, 800-878-7323,
powells.com.