On Bookstores


On Friday we took a day trip to Portland, Oregon. None of us had ever been to Oregon and it’s only about two hours away. We went to the zoo, a Catholic garden and chapel, and two downtown landmarks — Voodoo Doughnuts and Powell’s Books.

Regular readers know I spend a good deal of time thinking about books and even bookstores. Powell’s had been recommended by one of our daughters who had stopped there on her way through this past summer and we were not disappointed. It is an expansive store with multiple levels and thousands of books.

My first interest in Powell’s was not literary. After our visit to Voodoo Doughnuts and a walk to the river to enjoy our sugary prizes, I needed a bathroom. That being addressed, I moved on to the “purple room” which promised the religion section. It was a robust section with a mixture of new and used books. I spent a while browsing the 3 or 4 aisles of interest. I will honor Powell’s by saying that they are probably the best bookstore I’ve been to in the United States. (Blackwell’s in Oxford receives my vote for best in the world.)

I found 4 books I had been wanting and my wife found a Falcon Guide to the waterfalls of Washington. We also spent some time contemplating various board and card games as possible candidates for our annual family tradition of having a new game to play together on Christmas Eve. Surprisingly (and I admit, somewhat disappointedly) neither of the kids even attempted to get me to buy them a book.

We left toting a heavy bag, returned to our car, and made our way back to Washington. It was a nice day (no rain!) and an enjoyable time spent together. My collection of commentaries is a little more complete and we now have a list of waterfalls to hike to.

As I reflect on the hour or so in Powell’s, I cannot help but compare it to that juggernaut of online retail, Amazon.com. When I first started shopping Amazon in the mid-1990’s, all they sold was books. They have obviously branched out a bit since then and I appreciate Amazon’s nearly complete inventory. As one who has literary interest outside the mass market, it can often be tough to find what interest me. (It’s not even worth my time to go into a Barnes & Noble.)

But there is something about the hunt. I didn’t find everything I wanted in Powell’s, and for the sake of my arms that had to carry what I did find several blocks and for the sake of my bank account, it is just as well. I found a few and there is something to be said for incremental victories.

I have a wishlist on Amazon that I use both as a “keep an eye open for this at the library” and a “would like to have” list. From a financial standpoint, I could buy everything on the list right now, but what fun would that be? It would all be over in a few mouse clicks. No wandering around used bookstores and being glad to find a used commentary or other book I’ve been wanting.

Here’s to the humble (or not so humble) bookstore. May they continue on in this age of ebooks and internet shopping. May I remember to patronize them enough so they can continue.

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