I’ve several favourite cities to visit, but the City of Books is particularly dear to me. Powell’s bookstore occupies an entire block of downtown Portland, Oregon, and the gridded streets within house more than a million different books. Beyond an opening anteroom given over to new books and bargain stock, Powell’s is divided into colour-coded zones (“This is a customer announcement: Thelma, please make your way to the Orange Zone to meet Alberto”) which mix new and used books in much the same way the old Foyles in London once did, albeit rather more easily navigable. Some of these are so pre-loved as to shed pages when you so much as look at them, while there are odd little pockets of pristine remaindered stock, like the surprising number of copies of Leonard Michaels’s essays I found stashed beneath a plaintive laminated note: “Underappreciated Author”. Impromptu reading groups seemed to have sprung up around certain sections when I visited, while the clientele of the World Cup coffee bar – itself larger than some bookstores I’ve seen – seems roughly divided between solitary readers or iBook-tappers, and dating couples bonding (or not) over their response to One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“Pick me! Pick me! I’m the tale of a dysfunctional family, narrated by a sassy teenager! I’ve a snappy title, a colourful cover, a zippy jacket quote from Franzen/Lethem/Safran Foer!”
Treasures abound: on my first visit, four years ago, I found not just an early Dennis Cooper book I had had no idea existed – Safe, a trio of novellas, which seems to have been quietly disowned by the author – but discovered it was an autographed copy. This time I went armed with a list of names to hunt down: a tacit challenge to Powell’s, one it easily met by proving to stock something by every single author I looked for – not always the title I was after, but, in several cases, books I had no idea even existed. I was looking for debuts which haven’t made it to the UK (Suzanne Rivecca’s vicious, funny stories Death is Not an Option), books whose UK editions are unspeakably horrible (Diane Johnson – no joy here as the covers to the US editions are as mimsy as their British counterparts) and titles that have quietly, sadly, sidled out of print: Joyce Cary’s Horse’s Mouth trilogy, for instance, at the time hugely lauded but now almost forgotten; and something by Harold Brodkey, who for a while was The Next Big Thing, until he spent years working on an immense, impenetrable novel whose failure – recorded in Edmund White’s memoir City Boy – was so great that it sucked his much-praised earlier publications into its own collapse.
Portland is the home of coffee as well as of books, and I’d had too much of the former (and not quite enough breakfast) when I ventured in. As I stood in front of four bays of debut fiction there was a strange watercourse effect going on in my field of vision, amid which the debut novels pulsed and pullulated: “Pick me! Pick me! I’m the tale of a dysfunctional family, narrated by a sassy teenager! I’ve a snappy title, a colourful cover, a zippy jacket quote from Franzen/Lethem/Safran Foer!” The effect (I didn’t pick any of them) was to foster a great despair in this aspiring writer: how long does any of these titles, each handsomely produced, each the results of years of work, unasked-for, by its author – remain in this prime position, before being consigned to the Blue Zone of fiction beyond?
Because it’s there, because I was staying nearby, because I can’t resist a bookshop no matter how recently I’ve last visited, I went back to Powell’s the next day, in search of more bargains. Overnight, a dozen new titles had appeared in the debut fiction bays, meaning a dozen or so titles relegated to the oblivion of the Blue Room – to be pounced upon perhaps, years down the line, by some other browser clutching to him a lost treasure he’d never find anywhere but here.
Powell’s Books, 1005 West Burnside Avenue, Portland, USA
503 228 4651; powells.com