Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 24 Jul 2016

Powell's Bookstore  Portland , Oregon, USA

( a guest post from Kay Reid, Charlotte, North Carolina)

We recently took a family driving vacation down the West Coast of America, from Seattle to San Francisco, stopping off at Portland, Oregon, Sacramento CA and on to San Francisco.

Doing the usual "touristy" thing, we looked up points of interest for  each destination. On arriving in Portland, Powell's was mentioned as being the largest independent bookseller in the US. No problem, a definite stop off for us. 

Wow, so glad we did! 

First, I will give you the rundown on how they came into existence. It was initially started in Chicago by Michael Powell after he had finished his graduate studies. Understandably a small venture , Powell was helped and encouraged by his university Professors and with a little input from the novelist, Saul Bellow. It was pretty successful.

Michael's dad, Walter, came to visit his son the following summer and he was so impressed with what he saw, he decided to open a branch in Portland. He bought a former car dealership in the Downtown area of Northern West Broadside, a then and still now, up and coming area. When you visit or you see the photos you can still feel that odd 70's Technicolor feel that many old photographs of American cars/American buildings of that era had. An automotive, down to earth roots buzz.  Eventually, Michael moved from Chicago to Portland and helped develop an enterprise that now employs 530 people over 5 Portland area stores.  But this location remains the flag ship.


They have a mission statement :

" to be the world's best destination for readers, one that fosters a culture of reading and connects people with the books they love"

They also have stated values:

We love everything about books

We're conversation starters

We're nothing without customers

We recognize that each reader is different 

We're creative and resourceful

We support both readers and writers

We exchange ideas.

The shops are now run by Walter's grand-daughter, Emily, who says: "our job is to connect the writer's voice with the readers ear and not let our egos in between"

Ok - that's the low down on how things started and developed . I knew none of this before our visit.  I just read bookshop and I was hooked. Do they live up to the promises? They do and more so!

I have never visited a shop where the buzz hit you from the entrance. The shop felt alive with people from all ages, all in the pursuit or quest for books. When entering the store you are faced with a variety of stands with newish releases and staff recommendations, and most importantly a map! Yes, it is that big.


The shop is divided into color coded areas, according to subject, but in all honesty it is too easy to just allow yourself the luxury to just drift around and be overwhelmed by the choice and the opportunities.  Easy chairs are everywhere, as are people lying in between shelves savoring the delights the store has to offer. There are also many members of staff who relish the chance to chat about books, to help you find what you are looking for, offer alternatives or to offer strategies to conquer the overwhelming opportunities.  They have that quality that is sadly lacking in most stores now, expertise and time! 

Another quirky policy they have is that all the books are mixed on the shelf, varying quantities/qualities of the same title, from first editions to the most dog eared paper book.  A version of anything that suits all incomes, all budgets, no exclusions. 

My  starting strategy was to hunt down one particular book.  I had been looking for a good copy of one of the Backstrom novels by Leif GW Persson.  I know an odd choice, but I had recently seen an adaptation of the novels where the novels location had been changed to Portland.  When in Portland, read the book!  No problem, a number of good copies available. Got one and the book will always be my reminder of Powell's and this experience.  The color coding areas was really useful - you just follow the Rose or the Gold signs, made me feel I was almost following the Yellow Brick road! 

I checked my large and detailed map-where next? 

My next planned stopping off point was the children's section, but I have to admit I never managed to get anywhere else, there was too much going on down there. The whirlwind tour meant we had only an afternoon there and I knew I  would have to be reluctantly dragged out kicking and screaming. The children's area was loud and active!  Loud with the chat about books, authors and drawing tables, writing equipment etc.  Kids of all ages were pulling out books, showing their friends what they had chosen and running to find more.  Not for the faint hearted, but what any good book store should aim for, kids are the customers of not just today but also the future.  All along the shelves were book reviews written by children of varying ages.  They were fantastic. Authors beware, they hold nothing back and ignore their comments at your peril.


 I went to talk to one of the staff and she told me they encouraged the kids to write a review of the book and to bring it back next time they visited.  It meant the kids almost felt they had some ownership in the stock and that their opinion really mattered. They had a summer program that encouraged the children to read six books over the Summer.  If they did, they received a $5 voucher.  She told me they had a number of tables around the area that had books that cost, LESS or NO MORE than $5 on purpose.  They felt very strongly that stores that sometimes offer these promotions are hoping that the children's parent's can be persuaded to buy a much more expensive book.  They felt these exclude a lot of kids and their philosophy was to get kids reading and loving books, not causing a family great expense .

This enthusiasm for reading was born out from the early pre-readers to the young adult sections.  It was hard to find anywhere to sit.  I stood for some time just watching the interactions between children chewing books in strollers, young, younger, almost old and above. It was fascinating and reassuring that there is still a place where kids can be kids.

As I said, I was almost physically removed from the store by my family, who understandably had other places to see in our short stay.  Reluctantly pulled by the print your own book machine, the in store cafe, the list of upcoming visiting authors, "but I haven't seen the... I've missed the..".and much more. I was reminded of the perils of excess baggage on flights and that we had a budget for the holiday that might be seriously dented if I was allowed to stay any longer.


If you ever get to Oregon, this has to be on your list.  But allow longer than I had or you too will feel hard done by!

Check out their website: 

They have also welcomed the online route as another means of "spreading the word" 

And, if you are emotionally and physically drained by the experience, remember that VooDoo gourmet doughnuts are just around the corner.  

But that is another article in itself!



Kay Reid