I don’t remember how old I was the first time I went into Powell’s in Portland, but I remember being entirely awed and spending hours there, winding up buying hundreds of dollars of books. The place inspired awe. Each new room was a fun discovery, and I’d wander into sections randomly and start picking up interesting books I suddenly had to buy.
I made it down to the downtown one this morning, before heading back to Seattle, and I had the same disappointment I’ve had the last few years, and it’s compounded by my memories, and the love I still feel when I show up.
Their selection’s amazing. I’ve been looking for the books of a particular science fiction author, with no success (he’s British, and it’s a tough find). Powell’s had a whole shelf. But they were almost all new, and the used ones were priced almost as high as the new ones. And so it went for all the others: books I’d wanted to check out popped up, but at a premium price. I don’t know if I’m just not remembering this wrong, but I remember part of the old joy of discovery being finding bargains, and I haven’t found that there in years.
If money was no object – and here, being out of work since July is a huge deal – that wouldn’t be an issue. But there are a couple of things I’ve noticed in my last few visits.
– no place to sit. If you see a book you want to leaf through, you pretty much have to sit down on the floor or hike
– filing’s poor. They’re not well-alphabetized, so looking through the “D”s in one section I went through DA-DE, broken by a hardback, and then it skipped back. Sections with multiple sub-sections seem to have problems with books being in the wrong sub-section.
– the pricing. I’m spoiled by used bookstores up here, I guess, but I wanted to buy an old pb originally published at 2.95, with no particular collectible qualities. At the Half Price Books up the street, that’s 1.48 (half cover price, even if it’s old). At my local paperback exchange, it might be a buck to two bucks. Powell’s had it marked up to 3.95. In all my searching, I never found a used book at a good price.
It was strange, to experience the same thrill of finding a set of books for authors I usually check for only out of habit, and none of the “I get to try a new author for only seventy-five cents!”
I don’t know how much of it is the economics of bookselling, or why the inventory’s priced as it is, or why their book mix runs so heavily new.
But after many years of finding less and less, this was the first time since I first went to Powell’s and didn’t buy one book. That makes me sad.