In the latest in our series on bookshops around the world that academics should visit, Birkbeck student Tim Chamberlain shows us around Portland, Oregon. If there’s a bookshop that you think other students and academics should visit when they’re undertaking research or visiting a city for a conference, find more information about contributing below.
As Portland, Oregon is a university town it’s probably no great surprise that there is at least one good bookshop in town – but the real surprise perhaps is that the one essential ‘must-visit’ bookshop is exceptionally good. I liked it so much I really did buy the T-shirt … and a souvenir mug too!
Powell’s Books is a genuine institution of which Portlanders are justly proud. It’s not simply a bookshop – it is in fact a self-styled ‘City of Books.’ Its tag-line is far from being simple, over-eager sales hype as its main store at 1005 W. Burnside Street occupies an entire city block. On a first visit the place seems bewilderingly huge. There are three floors which are divided into eight colour-coded rooms within which you will find over 4,700 separate subject sections. A map of the store will help you begin to get yourself orientated, but really the best way to get to know the store is simply to surrender yourself to it and just wander through the aisles in dazed wonder. There’s plenty of helpful signage dotted about the bookshop to guide you around, and some of this signage will very likely suggest a few esoteric and unknown subject areas in which you probably never knew you might have had an interest. Here you will find a book title on pretty much anything you can care to imagine – from an Amish cookbook to titles on contemporary politics and economics, via graphic novels, to books on needlework, Sufism, or oceanography – Powell’s really does have something for everyone. Readers might like to take a video tour here.
A proudly independent bookstore, Powell’s originally began trading in Chicago in 1970, but moved to Portland the following year, where it has since gradually evolved over time into the wonderfully eclectic and much-loved phenomenon which it is today. Along with the main Burnside store there are six other Powell’s bookshops in town – some of which are devoted to specific specialisms, such as ‘Computer & Technical Books’ and ‘Books for Cooks & Gardeners.’ Powell’s also has a healthy on-line presence too, which is well worth bearing in mind if you are a visitor from out of town or overseas, as it means you might well be able to track down that particularly obscure or out-of-print title which you’ve long been searching for at Powell’s even after you’ve returned home.
One of the unique characteristics which help to make ‘The City of Books’ so engrossingly special is the novel fact that its shelves deliberately mix up both new and used titles – hence browsing here is all the more rewarding because you never know what you might find, and when you do find it, you may well find yourself happily surprised by the low cost of the book in your hand (and not least because there is no sales tax in Portland either).
In the interests of even-handedness (though it was very hard to tear myself away from Powell’s), I did decide to check out the competition in town too – largely because I was intrigued to see how any other company might possibly hope to compete with such a wonderful bookshop. And so, with a local map in hand, I headed down to a street on which I’d seen a Borders store marked. Yet when I arrived I found myself peering into a vacant storefront filled with empty shelves adorned with dusty, forlorn looking Borders logos. Clearly there is no competition! At least, not on the same scale at any rate.
However, I did manage to find a small second-hand bookshop on 336 SW 3rd Avenue which is well worth a visit too. Cameron’s Books was founded in 1937. It’s a great place to pop into and browse through hundreds of vintage magazines, all piled high and neatly arranged chronologically, when you are on your way to Voodoo Doughnut, which, as any of the locals will tell you, along with the famous food carts and micro-breweries, is another ‘must-visit’ Portland institution; but be prepared to queue, this place is popular – best to bring a book with you.
Tim Chamberlain is a student at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is about to complete a Masters in World History and is planning to go on to a PhD examining the themes of science and empire in China and Tibet during the early 20th century. He is also a project coordinator for international touring exhibitions at the British Museum. He tweets at @eccentricparab.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If there’s a bookshop that you think other students and academics should visit when they’re undertaking research or visiting a city for a conference, then now’s your chance to tell us all about it.
As part of a new weekly feature on LSE Review of Books, we’re asking academics and students to recommend their favourite two or three bookshops in a particular city, with the aim of building an exciting online series for our book-loving community of readers the world over.
Bookshops could be academic, alternative, foreign language, hobby-based, secret or underground institutions, second hand outlets, or connected to a university. We’d like to cover all world regions too.
If something comes to mind, we’re looking for around 100 words per bookshop, detailing why this place is a must-see. Our editorial team can then find suitable photos and links to accompany the piece, though you’re welcome to supply these too. We only ask that you focus on just one city or region, and two or three bookshops within it.
Email us now if you’d like to contribute: email@example.com