Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In Defense of Powell's Books: A Love Letter

A friend of mine recently told me that, as a child, he used to fantasize about being trapped in Powell's Books.  It's a fantasy that I can imagine myself sharing - to roam the isles in that vast, immaculately organized font of writing.  It is the type of place that can make you forget hunger pains and simply give in to the singular pleasure of the printed word.  For those non-Portlanders that haven't been, it is the sweep and majesty of the place that is what is truly wonderful about it.  Powell's is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, and unlike The Strand in New York - the only place that comes close to it, is well-organized and easy to navigate.

As an unrepentant and compulsive bibliophile, the Powell's Burnside store represents, not just an institution, but a four-story tall city block of unprecedented pleasure.  I am a veritable junky for the printed word, and Powell's represents the preeminent place to slink for my drug of choice.  My love affair with Powell's began the moment I set foot in the place at the tender age of 14 as a new arrival to Portland and has only grown with time.  Certainly, it has been love/hate at times, especially on those rainy days when I found myself loaded down with new purchases - distraught that I could not find a used copy of a longed for volume and my pocket book stinging as a result. Despite this, it is a love that has always bloomed anew.  The $100 or so there I can drop in a single visit always feel like something of a bargain for the splendor of literature - a tribute to some benign and kind literary god rather than a business transaction.  Being able to browse the store's brimming shelves and extracting that perhaps not-so-rare or previously unknown treasure is part of what makes Portland the livable a place it is.

This said, today's news then that the grand institution was being forced to shed some 31 employees - a veritable 7% of it's total staff came as a shock and a blow.  Powell's has noted, in an internal e-mail memo that:

Sales for this fiscal year are down and we expect this trend will continue. The largest decreases have been in new book sales. We see this as a clear indication that we are losing sales to electronic books and reading devices.

Thus, we are hearing the potential death knell of an institution that I love as sounded by some cynical piece of gadgetry.  Regardless of advancements in liquid paper technology and the rest, there is something I find deeply vulgar about the printed word being replaced by e-book readers.  The technology represents, certainly something new and compelling, but it compromises the whole tactile sensation of reading that partially makes up the experience.  The weight of a book in my hands, the aesthetic and stylistic decisions made by the printers and importantly - the element of discovery - the ability to stumble upon some previously unknown gem on the shelf at a used book store are things that, to me, are worth fighting for.

Indeed, while there is a compelling argument to be made, with continually changing digital formats and the like for the retention of printed documents to insure the permanence of preserving human thought as put to paper - the preservation of Powell's as institution that puts Portland on the map may be of equal importance. While certain scholastic and bookish dinosaurs like myself have nothing but the utmost of resentment for the new digital formats - and Powell's is likely to survive in some form - the idea of it being reduced to a shell of itself, and indeed one that tourists will continue to come to see for years and begin to wonder what the big deal was all along - is harrowing.

This trend speaks to our declining literary and attention spans, our increased tendency to demand instant gratification, and our longstanding cultural decline.  As marvelous as technology can be, it's affects on the language as a whole and on discourse can makes one feel as though the barbarians are pounding at the gate.  Powell's is one of those rare institutions that serves as a bright shining beacon of culture.  The existence of Powell's promotes literacy and a love of words: what cause could be higher?

So, though I am loathe to advocate mindless consumerism, drop by Powell's, browse the still ample shelves and maybe buy a book.  In doing so, you are, in some small way, defending civilization.


Siobhan said...

I love this post, Alex.

Kyla Light said...

Good stuff Alex.

Alex Deley said...

P.S. I fully comprehend the irony of lamenting the decline of traditional print media from a blog.

Dr. Bob said...

Kool Alex