Powell’s City of Books: Big. But not IKEA big.

I have just learned that Powell’s bookstore isn’t as huge as people describe it.  Powell’s!  It’s bigger than Tattered Cover, to be sure, but not of the immensity that people describe.  When people (i.e., book lovers) talk about it, it sounds miraculous: more than a collection of books, a Mecca.  I was expecting something that was as big as, say, the Denver Art Museum.

Why do people describe it as being more immense than it really is?

I think it has something to do with the speed at which you travel through the place.  In a museum (or a store), you stop, look at things, and move on.  Zoos are the same way.  The monkey house is way bigger than the wolf woods, for example–even though, rationally, I know this not to be the case.  It’s only when you stop gawking at everything that you can get a sense of how big a place “really” is.  So when you’re walking through Powell’s, you’re digesting a sense of space in two different ways:  in square footage, and in space shaped by your attention.

Okay.  Let me back up to the actual experience itself.  I came into Portland the night before, after a week-long writing workshop on the Oregon Coast, with thirty-five pro writers (that I can, in any context, think of myself belonging with the rest of that crowd blows my mind).  I had time to kill before my flight back to Colorado and a city with which to kill it.

For some reason, the journey from the motel to Powell’s was very long–subjectively speaking.  I’m not used to riding light rails, city buses–public transportation.  I’ve done it before, but not regularly.  So the distance seemed disproportionately long.  On the MAX I sat next to a nice couple and their kids, from south of Portland by about four hours, who were headed up to Washington to see family and who were taking a break to go to the the Portland children’s museum.  Two cute kids, both girls under the age of six.  One who faced life with a mixture of motion sickness and amusement, and the other who was going to be a candidate for Sarcastics Anonymous in a few decades.  A dad who looked like a former college football player, with tattoos and shades and some kind of tech job; a mom who had curly red hair and talked about getting smashed in San Diego in previous times without either embarrassment or regret.  Good people.  After a week of writers it was heaven.  Stop after stop, the world distorted, longer and longer, as I worried:  Why the hell wasn’t anyone checking my ticket?  Would I miss my stop?  Where were we?  Why were there so many distracting and interesting things outside?

We watched the train go around corners.  We sat next to a circular section with two sets of accordion walls and put our feet on either side of the two sections of floor, to feel it turn and try to make it turn faster.

I got out at the right stop and walked toward Powell’s:  there was a block of so full of food trucks on the way, so many that I passed three Thai places alone.  I ordered food at one that looked busy and stood around waiting.  A couple of people asked for change.  The food trucks, as far as I could tell, only took cash, so it wasn’t a bad strategy.  But I’d already dealt with several sets of people asking for change.  Portland?  Has a lot of beggars.  Not a level worthy of fable.  But more than I’m used to.

I picked up my Thai and realized there was noplace to sit.  I walked toward Powell’s, trying to find a bench.  I did eventually find one, but a homeless person had spread out over it.  So I ended up at Powell’s (another three beggars at the corner), sat behind the bikes area, and ate panang curry, which was probably one of the less interesting things I could have ordered from the food truck area, considering that I eat it about once a month, but I was giving myself a break.  I gave a couple of bucks to a guy on the corner, who had a sign that said, “DIVORCED.  WIFE HAD A BETTER LAWYER God Bless” on it, who posed once for a couple of tourists and had this great, gravelly voice–no, not gravelly, more whiskey on the rocks (more booze, less smoke)–and who, every time someone spoke to him, tried to shift the conversation to the point where he–and the people around him–were people.  Everyone else just wanted the change.  “Spare some change?” And then they’d give you whatever reason they needed the money.  Need change to park a car (?!?), need change because they lost a job (this from a hot goth girl outside Powell’s who did well for herself), need change for a bus transfer (which nobody ever looked at, when I had one).

This guy, though, he was a showman.  A storyteller.  He didn’t give too much detail; he didn’t have much time.  I listened to him and ate.  He didn’t really resent his wife–or so the story went–she took what she could get, which was what he would have done, if the circumstances had been reversed.  He was doing all right.  Times were hard but he’d see it through.  And you young guys?  You don’t know what you’re in for.

I finished up and thought about offering my leftovers to the guy, and decided against it.  Because he didn’t look like a panang curry kind of guy, but also because, shit–I thought it’d be insulting.  He had enough cash to buy lunch, especially considering the prices at the food trucks.  I tossed in an extra buck instead.

How long would it take him to make $500?  Did he have days that were good enough to pay for the days in winter when people rushed by shivering and didn’t absorb that little blast of cynicism and hope?  I hope so.

Powell’s.  I checked my backpack, which probably saved me from hating the place.  I wandered a little, and decided to get a feel for where everything was before I got too far into the weeds.

At first I had that rush.  The place is huge.  But slowly I realized–compared to an IKEA, it’s nothing.  Costco seemed closer.  Like, 1.75 Costcos = 1 Powells.*

Powell’s is a warehouse for books.  They’re scattered all over the place, and I’m sure there were more books elsewhere that I didn’t see–but it’s still a warehouse for books.

This is not to say that it’s not a magical place.  They’re books; I love books; Powell’s has a lot of books.  But the space wasn’t distorted for me the way the train ride to the city center was, or the way the block full of food trucks was, or the way the corner behind the bikes where I ate Thai and listened to a panhandler work his trade was.  I thought a couple of times about leaving early, and walking around the city center, but if I had done that, I’d had to have carried my backpack, and @#$% that noise.  So instead I got a cup of coffee, which helped.

Suddenly books started popping out at me, and I started texting myself titles.  I’d have to look them up later–I couldn’t buy, let alone carry, all of them.  I’d already shoved three books in my backpack through the course of the workshop, and I didn’t think I could shove in a fourth.

I decided, nevertheless, to try.

I knew the book as soon as I saw it.  Pleasure Bound:  Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism.  I have a crush on the 19th Century, and Richard Francis Burton in particular.  This book was mine.

I found it in History–Britain–Hanover/Victoria, I think.  The entire section was enchanting, but there was one shelf where I texted myself five or six titles alone, and thought about doing more.

That shelf felt enormous, larger than (say) the entire section on archaeology, plus all the foreign languages, as well as all of the rest of history, and the–well, entire rooms full of books.  That shelf distorted all the space around it, and made the entire store feel larger.

Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld books, writes about L-Space, Library Space, in which all libraries connect throughout space and time.  Powell’s is like that–but the space isn’t created by the books, but by our perceptions of them, our attention.  It would be cool to compare how big various people think the store is, what areas are bigger than others.   Someday, we’ll have virtual realities where we can do that, virtual bookstores whose shapes, whose very layouts change, as people move through them, in real time.  We will be able to build strange maps that change around the readers, subject by subject, book by book.**

I’m sure there’s someone out there who will whine that virtual bookstore maps are killing their love of reading.  There’s always someone who can’t enjoy the moment and has to get all wound up about oh my God the books are dying, dying… Well, I hate to say it, but Powell’s looks like it’s doing pretty well for itself.  They even have a Kobo kiosk, because you can buy Powell’s ebooks via Kobo now.  It’s a good place.  I liked it.

But it’s still just a warehouse for the books.

So here are the numbers:

  • Powell’s:  68,000 square feet.
  • IKEA in Centennial, CO: 415,000 square feet.
  • Costco in Colorado Springs, CO (Powers): 158,000 square feet.
  • Tattered Cover, downtown Denver, CO: 41,700 square feet.
  • Denver Art Museum (entire complex): 350,000 square feet.
  • Denver Public Library (new building downtown): 540,000 square feet.
  • Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, CO:  146 acres, or over 6.3 million square feet.
  • Amazon warehouses:  the numbers change almost as fast as the ones on a McDonald’s sign used to.  Millions and millions.

*As you can see, I wasn’t even close on that one.

**Yes, I know, online bookstores almost do this.  But not in a way that we can really feel or see in front of us.  Also, yes, I’ve read the Thursday Next series, although I didn’t realize where I might be going with this post when I started it.

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