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In Portland, Ore., a Best Seller?

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Sunday, November 16, 2003

You can't judge a book by its cover, or a bookstore by the vehemence of its cult following. So it was with some skepticism that I approached Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore. A professor of literature friend had swooned at the mention of Powell's, but he had also spoken rapturously of bookstores that turned out to be cramped, musty, disorganized accumulations of yellowing tomes.

I expected Powell's to be more of the same. Much more. With three rambling floors covering an entire city block, the flagship store (there are now seven locations) is a bibliophile's mother lode. Since the store boasted more than a million volumes on hand, I planned a sort of "stump the band" test. For 12 years I've been clipping book reviews from newspapers and tossing them in a file. I brought my dossier to Powell's planning to grab books pretty much at random -- I couldn't afford to buy them all -- to see how Powell's stacks stack up.

I made it to the flagship store at Southwest 10th Avenue and Burnside on a cool Sunday morning, braced my sinuses and walked in. The entry was spacious, well lit, organized -- and the air wasn't musty. At the information desk, I pulled out my battered folder and read off titles to the clerk, among them, "The Prone Gunman," "Truly Tiny Gardens," "Shout," "Kamikaze" and "True History of the Kelly Gang."

"Wow, that's a pretty eclectic list," said the clerk, who pointed me to the various areas of the store and advised, "Better take a map."

My list took me to the four corners of the building, which were all dust-free and bright. The building is organized by color-coded rooms in which books are arranged by subject and topic. For instance, my search for "Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Gods" led me to the Purple Room, to the Military section, to the WWII rack, to the Pacific shelves. Used books are mixed with the new ones, so I not only found "Kamikaze" but also a diminutive 1943 hardback edition of "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," printed, according to a publisher's note, "to comply with the government's request to conserve essential materials." At $8.50, a fair price. So I grabbed it. Powell's sense of humor was evident even in the Weapons section, where small signs read, "Achtung! Books are to be shelved ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR! This means you!"

Employees in each section easily and gladly guided me to the books I sought. I thought I had Powell's stumped twice in the Mystery section, though. First, Richard Stark, author of the Parker hard-boiled crime series, appeared to be missing. But when I asked, the clerk walked me around to the Donald Westlake shelf -- Stark's actual name -- where the Parker series was shelved. A request for "The Prone Gunman," a fairly obscure mystery translated from the French, sent the employee scurrying into the back. He returned minutes later, slim volume in hand.

In the end, there was just one book the store couldn't find, "Thirty Seconds" by Michael J. Arlen, but I wasn't certain of the title at the time, so I'll call it a draw. I walked away with 12 books and two T-shirts for $186.58, including shipping back to Baltimore.

This time I'm giving my professor friend an A-plus.

-- Roy Furchgott

The main Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside, Portland, Ore.) is open daily, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. For other locations, including one in nearby Beaverton: 866-201-7601, www.powells.com.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company


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