Everybody comes to Powell’s. Photographer K.B. Dixon’s new exhibition and book find volumes in the mix of people and place.
By Bob Hicks
Photos by K.B. Dixon

Powell’s City of Books is Portland’s Grand Central Station, the teeming crossroads of the city’s cultural life: not just one of the nation’s great commercial repositories of literature and language, but a busy transit center of people and ideas. Kids, teens, singles, doubles, parents, grandparents. Locals who drop in for an hour and spend the day. Serious scholars doing research. Tourists who treat it like a shrine. Foreign visitors looking for something in their native language or something to help them brush up on their English skills. People on their way to someplace else. People on their way back from someplace else. Browsers, buyers, passersby. Like Rick’s, it seems, eventually everybody comes to Powell’s.

IT IS ALSO, LIKE THE MULTNOMAH County Central Library just a few blocks away, one of Portland’s best people-watching places, an almost endless fascination of faces, connections, and enthusiasms. Something about a great bookstore encourages people to be very public and very private at once—lost, publicly, in the obsessions and curiosities of their own minds. Portland photographer and writer K.B. Dixon believed Powell’s was an ideal spot to pursue his own obsession for creating interesting and culturally telling black and white images. He gained permission to spend hours and hours in the aisles, following his eye where it led. The results of his project are now on view in a sort of meta-exhibition: images of Powell’s at Powell’s, in the bookstore’s Basil Hallward Gallery, upstairs in the Pearl Room, through October. Images here are from the exhibition or the larger selection of photographs in Dixon’s accompanying book, titled simply The Bookstore.

WHAT DIXON DISCOVERED was a small city of intersecting interests. People seeking, people finding, people headed straight to what they’re looking for or wandering into unexpected territories of the mind and spirit, places they’ve never been before. People pursuing graphic novels, history, cookbooks, art or architecture, the craft of governance, religious studies, geography or geology or astrophysics, French philosophy of the 19th century, numismatics, African influences on the emerging culture of ancient Greece, classic science fiction, or any of a thousand other topics tumbling together in a quietly raucous tussle for attention. What might be inside these covers? Is this a world I want to explore?

YOU CAN ENTER POWELL’S on a solitary mission or in a partnership. You can map out a trip you’re taking, or a trip you’d like to take, or simply figure out your way around this rambling conglomeration of literary spaces. And you can sit a spell while you’re doing it. Powell’s isn’t one of those comfy-armchair-and-a-cup-of-tea bookshops that pop up in cozy murder mysteries set in quirky villages in the countryside or little coastal getaway towns above the stormy sea. Powell’s is big and brawny and busy, and the seats you can find tend to be hard and basic, requiring a certain gluteal rigor. But they are there, and you can rest. If you can’t find a seat, there’s always the floor, where squatting is both a challenge and a tradition.

LIKE VIRGINIA, POWELL’S IS FOR LOVERS. Lovers of books, lovers of ideas, lovers of possibilities, lovers of people, lovers of romance. People make dates here: “Meet you at Powell’s, 8 o’clock?” Turning pages side by side in the poetry aisles or among the outdoors guidebook shelves, they nudge each other: “Oh, listen to this!” They meet unawares, not knowing or expecting anything to happen, except that something does: They reach for the same book; they sit across from each other in the coffee shop and fix their eyes on each other’s pile of books; they go to a reading by an author they both admire. Maybe it’s the intimacy of shared purpose, the happiness of a mutual thirst for the peculiar pleasure that comes with the exploration of new intellectual territories. Pleasure; yes. In an odd but important way, Powell’s is a pleasure palace. Marriages, no doubt, have come out of all this. Marriages of true minds.

“WHEN WE READ, WE HEAR A VOICE IN OUR HEADS,” Dixon writes in the preface to his book, “—it is a voice of our own imagining, an individual translation of the language, of the text, of the writer’s stylistic voice. It is cognitively tailored in a way no other voice can be. Reading is savoring, reflecting, free-associating. There is no substitute for it. It is a singular adventure. Its reward is not only the uniqueness of the experience it offers but the depth of understanding it allows.” When we enter a Powell’s or another bookstore or a public library, we are hunters on a lone but far from lonely quest, for we are intimate with our prey, which in the end is not prey at all but a fundamental part of ourselves: It feeds us and becomes a part of us, and we become a part of it, part of a greater consciousness, yet always holding on to our own voices and our own selves. Even if the person standing next to us is reading the same passage from another copy of the same book, she is reading in another singularity, in another voice, from another set of experiences. At a place as sprawling as Powell’s, such singularities multiply.

 “The largest independent bookstore in the country,” Dixon writes, “it is a vital part of this city’s cultural and intellectual life. It is not ‘a’ bookstore—it is ‘the’ bookstore. It has been my bookstore for more than 30 years.”

WANDER INTO THE RARE BOOK ROOM on any given day, and who knows what you might find? An old and unusual pop-up book. An early, signed edition of an important classic. A history of the world as it was known and experienced in 1659. T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, rising from the sands of time. The attractions in this room are magnifications of what you’ll find throughout the store. First, a veneration of the physical object itself, which in some cases might take precedence over the actual contents of the pages. The patina, the age, the heft, the feel of the thing. The shape and smell of the paper: Is it that old faint perfume that lingers like a friend, beguiling and elusive in its presence? Or is it sharp and chemical like a cheap wine, in which case it is unlikely to be in this room and probably won’t tempt you on the shelves of newer books, either? Does the binding give to your touch? Are there inscriptions that suggest the presence of another soul from another time? Do you hear the crinkle of old and delicate pages, translucent like the shedding skin of insects, when you gently turn them and note the yellowing like soft shellac that can only come from age? A book can be a sculpture from a garden lost in time.

AH, BUT THE PEOPLE, THE PEOPLE. Such a splendid array! What is inside the cover of these books, of course, is written and arranged by people, in all of their variety and disputation and enthusiasm and anger and envy and wisdom and folly and humor and expectation and dryness and devotion to the pursuit of knowledge—for if one isn’t seeking some sort of truth, why make a book? If one isn’t seeking some sort of truth, why buy or read a book? Powell’s is a hall of mirrors, openly reflecting our hopes and fears about ourselves, and the promise of something new just around the corner. Someone new, in the flesh or its reflection on a page. It isn’t just the books we try to read here. It’s the other people, too. Who are you? What brings you to this place, this crossroads, this station of enduring ideas and passing fancies in rapid transit?

WHEN WE CALL A PLACE OR THING AN INSTITUTION, we mean it’s larger than this moment: It has a past; it has a present; it has a future. It’s one of those things we count on, one of those places that help us know who and what and why we are, or at the least what this particular place is where we have come to live: something of the shape and belief and habit and consequence of it. In Portland, Powell’s is a generational place. People come here as babies, and learn to look and read, and grow up here, and move on to make their own families and bring them here, and grow old here, and mingle across the generations, bound in a not-so-secret sharing of the word.

In a city that is not particularly religious compared to other parts of the nation, Powell’s is something of a church: a touchstone, a ritual, a meeting-place, a molder of belief, a monument to the mysteries, a tie that binds. It’s where we come together, where we shape the particular culture of this particular place as it, in turn, shapes us. It’s grand. It’s central. It’s the station of our lives.

K.B. Dixon’s photography exhibit The Bookstore continues through October 31 at the Basil Hallward Gallery in the Pearl Room of Powell’s City of Books, 1005 West Burnside Street, Portland. His book by the same name is available at the store.