Why I love and don’t like Powell’s

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.

3 thoughts on “Why I love and don’t like Powell’s

  1. Hal O'Brien

    As I’m mulling this over, I’m reminded of one word:


    When I was a kid in Boston, if you drove up to Maine lobster was relatively cheap. The reason was, lobster couldn’t really ship easily, so it was a local supply going to a local market.

    Then along came air freight.

    Suddenly Maine could ship off lobster in their tanks across the country, which ratcheted up their market by a huge amount — while their supply was still the same local lobster beds.

    I think Powell’s is in a similar situation. Their internet sales allow them to sell and ship around the world. But their buying catchbasin is still overwhelmingly Portland, would be my bet. They also have a distortion effect compared to other internet used book retailers because of their reputation, which prompts many people to seek them out first. Add in that Portland is enough of a “book”-y town to have supported plain ol’ bricks-and-mortar Powell’s (in other words, a larger than typical local demand), and… yeah. Few used books, priced high. Doesn’t surprise me at all.

    That may be a bit too much, Post hoc ergo propter hoc-ish, but hey. 🙂

  2. Gomez

    The markup is because of the store’s general demand, given Powell’s is a nationally popular bookstore with few locations (one in Portland, one in Denver). I had friends in Vegas who would rave about it.

    Also, apologies for a) not sticking around and b) potentially embarrassing you at the reading. I didn’t realize until the very end that the whole thing was being picked up by KUOW. Also, I hadn’t gotten my ticket yet so I wanted to hurry down there and get it.

  3. Jim

    I’d always heard of how great Powell’s is, but had never experienced it firsthand. I noticed last year that some of the used books I was purchasing through Amazon Stores were offered from Powell’s books so I went ahead and purchased a couple from them to show support for an ‘ol time brick ‘n mortar.
    Your experience with Powell’s prices escalating makes me wonder about an annoying experience I’ve had recently, though. The last two orders I’ve placed through Powell’s Amazon shop were “no longer available” when they had the lowest prices of the various vendors. The excuse was they must’ve sold it in the store at the exact moment my order came through or something outrageous. The first time it happened, I didn’t think much about it except how it was a hassle for me (start a new order with someone else). The second time it happened, I decided that’s it for Powells. Liars. Bait and Switchers!

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