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Lessons Learned at Powell’s in Portland

June 2, 2008

This afternoon, after my speaking gig to a group of soon-to-be graduates of the University of Oregon’s journalism program, I decided to take advantage of being in Portland and I headed to one of my favorite places in the city: Powell’s Books.

Now, despite the fact that this bookstore is on my top 10 list of Places You Must Go When In Portland, it has not always been this way. Powell’s Books takes up one city square block and is three stories high. The bookstore is divided up into rooms based on genres and each room is named by a color. Among them are the Gold room is the science fiction/mystery/thriller room, the Orange room is the business/planning room, the Purple room is the religion/language/travel room, and the Blue room it the literature/poetry room. The cases are ten shelves high and are jam-packed with books, sometimes two rows of books on one shelf. Powell’s Books is one of the largest bookstores in the world, having rightly earned the nickname the City of Books.

Unfortunately, because of the sheer enormity of the building, the bookstore had a tendency to scare me as a small child. I didn’t like to go because I was afraid of getting lost – which is not hard to imagine because even grown-ups sometimes lose their way around the building.

But now I have come to appreciate Powell’s selection and as an West Coaster-turned-East Coaster, I also appreciate Powell’s ridiculous good prices. I browsed the bookstore for about an hour with my Peet’s coffee, another love of mine, though it doesn’t rank nearly as high as Powell’s. Though Peet’s does serve as a reason for at least a couple Boston pilgrimages a year, as Boston is the only city on the entire East Coast that has Peet’s Coffee and Tea locations.

I ended up with a selection of about ten books but I knew I couldn’t afford all of them… the total price was over $60 and while that’s a steal, that didn’t necessarily mean my bank account would approve. I wheedled it down to six books for just under $50. My purchases include The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd, because I read The Secret Life of Bees and loved it so I thought I would enjoy her memoir; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, because I saw the play last summer and loved it, plus it came highly recommended from a couple OCers; The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, which I have been nagged to death to read by several people, plus his other book Friends, Lovers and Chocolate, which is the second in the series after The Sunday Philosophy Club which I finished earlier this year; The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, which is a monster of a book but I’ve heard rave reviews about it so I’m hoping it’ll be worth my while; and finally, The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College, which I’m giving to my younger brother who is graduating from high school on Friday.

This is definitely quite a bit of reading material and I’m not even starting on any of them until I finish Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, which I bought a couple months ago but just started reading on the flight out here on Saturday. I’m over sixty pages in so far and I’m really enjoying it.

In the past, I go on the book binges with the intention of devoting a significant amount of time to reading and absorbing the messages and lessons in these books. I have visions of myself curling up in a coffeeshop and reading for several hours, while refilling on cappuccinos and munching on scones. Of course, this never, ever happens. Usually I go through two – maybe three, if I’m lucky – books before craving yet another book binge which leads me with six more books that will sit on my shelf, patiently waiting to be read in a never ending queue of literature.

But I have decided that it is absolutely imperative that I break this trend. For the past few months I have become acutely aware of how much of my life has been devoted to the Internet and the mindless social networks that eat up so much of my time. I’m not even talking about the amount of time I spend on the Internet at work. I’m talking about all the hours and hours I spend glued to a computer screen, which I’m sure is going to cause brain cancer someday. As I zig-zagged through the halls of books, I realized that unless I made some serious changes to my time-management I was going to spend most of my life twittering it away and not actually do or experience anything. I mean, how much life reflection can you do on Facebook anyway?

One of my items on my 101 Things To Do in 1,001 Days is to give up the Internet on the weekends for one month (#92). But I have decided to expand it for the entire summer. It doesn’t hurt that my weekends are already swamped with plans, but adding a few extra weekends to the goal will really help me make the most of the summer before the weather turns so cold your air starts to freeze and your breathe turns into slabs of ice (okay, so that hasn’t actually happened to me, but I’m sure it could!)

Starting today and ending Labor Day weekend, I will not be using the Internet at all during the Saturday and Sunday hours. The only reason I will allow myself to log online is to get directions or look up a phone number in case I am absentminded and forget to do it at work, which, knowing me, is bound to happen. I did this last summer for a little over two months because I was without the Internet or television for six weeks when I moved into my apartment (that was the earliest the cable guy could come and install the equipment in my apartment). This meant I was forced to explore my new surroundings and I really appreciated how it helped me acclimated much faster to where I was. I felt comfortable with New Jersey much faster than I would have had there been an excuse for me to stay inside my apartment.

Hopefully by the end of the summer I will have regained a bit more of a sense of self instead of relying so much on other people’s lives to provide entertainment. I shouldn’t have a constant feeling of watching the Real World. I need to be out there. I hope you’ll join me.

  1. June 3, 2008 9:51 AM

    I certainly think Powell’s ranks among the world’s best bookstores, and even their online store is one of the world’s finest, but with regard to prices, you really need to consider a library … virtually all libraries are linked (usually state or county wide) so you can find most any book you want if you’re willing to wait for the book to become available. For me, the biggest issue is finding free time to read them all when I’m not ready to fall asleep — I read sooo much more when I commuted by train, and I have to admit, that’s the main thing I miss when I used to commute from Connecticut to NYC each day, I read a few books each week and learned to love the library for that very reason. Cars are so overrated!

  2. June 3, 2008 10:30 AM

    I’m cutting back on weekends, too, since both my husband and I spend WAY too much time online during the week. Even a walk in the woods is a great Real World experience. Good luck! 🙂

  3. June 3, 2008 7:40 PM

    ah; powells.

    You forgot to mention the technical bookstore a few blocks a way. It is a geeks fantasy; stacked with all sorts of rare calculus books and what not. lovely.

    oh, and the rare book section is definitely worth a visit the next time you are at powells; it smells wonderful!

  4. June 5, 2008 8:25 AM

    Water for Elephants was fabulous. It was Chrissie’s first recommendation to me and I loved it

  5. June 5, 2008 9:49 AM

    I’m with Scott. Libraries are excellent value. I try not to buy as many books these days, borrowing them instead.

    Here’s another idea. If you have to borrow a book, donate it to your local library when you’re done with it. That may save them some money and it will share the book with others.

    Allison, good idea about getting away from the ‘net on weekends. As soon as I’m done with this family photo project, I may try to do the same.

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