Seven Years at Powell's Books
by Karen Wright
About 1991, I went to work at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. It was a dream come true. "The City of Books", it was billed then, as it is today. But today it is much more of a city than it was 13 years ago. They have expanded and expanded and expanded the main store, and still have their other six stores scattered about Portland and surrounds. It is a giant in its own mind and in the mind of others, as well. It is arguably the largest independent bookstore in the U.S., but certainly it is that in the western U.S. When I mention that I worked at Powell's to almost any book person, they sort of drool and get all goggle-eyed and use adjectives such as "heaven", "paradise", "utopia." Anyway, you get the idea. But just as with any other job, it had its good and bad points.
At the time I was originally hired, they plunked me down in shipping and receiving, where most newbies are plunked when they have no book experience at all. The best part of that was that I got to see all the new books as they came in the door. The bad part was that I only made about $6.00 an hour, not enough to buy any books at all, much less used books. It was what they called a holiday hire, so the chances, the personnel gal told me, of staying more than a couple of months, were slim. I had been itching to work at Powell's for years, so when a number of folks happened to quit shortly before New Year's, my little heart did a few palpitations. And the old ticker was right on. I was put on full-time, and by the end of three or four months, I was transferred from shipping to section work in Americana, probably not because I was a history major, but because I was the only one who really wanted that section at the time.
Section work consisted of going to a designated place in the massive storage room and taking all the books in the bins that were related to your section, new or used, out to the section on a rolling cart. Then each book was placed in its appropriate place on the shelf. Sections were divided by subject, then the books were placed in their subject area alphabetically, by author. There was nothing really different from any other bookstore about doing it this way, except that Powell's puts new and used books of the same title together on the same shelves. This was a chance to see everything new and used that came into the section and to pine over the ones you couldn't afford. It was great fun for a long time, but even finding cool books every day can become monotonous.