Prowling Powell’s Bookstore

Let’s start at the beginning.  I love books.  Fellow book nerds know the dizzying delirious ecstasy that overwhelms when one steps foot inside a really good book store.  What makes a book store really good?  I prefer mazes of shelves, rolling ladders, economical prices, cats, and a great vibe.  Your heart starts racing, eyes darting from one section heading to another.  “Do I want to head straight for the classics, or scan the stack of art books to my right?  Look, a brightly colored coffee table book beckons from across the room, but over here is that one I’ve been dying to read forever.”  Minutes later you realize sweat is forming on the back of your neck and your arms are sore from the heap of gems you’ve acquired.  Rent is due…you’ll have to charge this.

I liken the opportunity to try a new bookstore to a new date.  I am optimistic but wary.  It sounds enticing enough, but will it live up to expectations?  Powell’s does.  I’ve been past Powell’s Bookstore on Lincoln countless times but had never stopped in.  I knew they had scholarly works but was unsure of the rest of their trove.

Powell’s houses over a quarter million books, in an unobtrusive and organized space.  While their focus does lie in academic books this is hardly your university’s bookstore.  Rooms of books surround you, but there is no clutter or cramming of patrons.  My embellished flats click on the floor as I stroll the aisles, dancing slightly to a lilting Jose Gonzales song that drifts by.  Academic enticement is all around.  I enter One Year in the Life of Shakespeare and then am thrust into the exotic and erotic history of the spice trade.  I transcend the space and time to enter Taschen’s world of mid-century storefront design and then catapult to an ill-fated conquering of Everest.

Comfortably worn furniture dots the store.  The front reading area houses a window seat, chess tables, and couches.  A patron sneaks a nap slumped over his reading, magnifying glass strewn aside on the floor.  The staff is quiet, friendly, and inconspicuous.  A framed poem, constructed of cut out magazine letters on canvas reads:

I like everything that has no style
Dictionaries, Pictographs, Nature
My self, my paintings
Because style is violent
And I am not violent

A fan of secretive spaces, I especially enjoyed the rare book room in the back.  You enter and breathe in a woody, papery musk and immediately feel the increase in temperature.  This is no dusty back room; however, rare books line the walls in neat wood and glass cabinets.  I peruse a 1959 title detailing The Shame of Oscar Wilde as well as a worn pamphlet detailing the phenomenon of junior high social life centering on the school print shop.

I don’t need any more books, as the stacks on my bedroom floor keep growing but there are such unique finds I cannot pass up the following:
– A collection of Truman Capote’s short stories
A Year in Provence
– The Dinner Party
[a gift for my favorite feminist]
– A travel writing manual from 1980
Lesbian Empire: Crosswriting in the 1920’s

In addition to the Lincoln Ave. location Powell’s has a Hyde Park outpost as well as an online sales site.  Chicago’s Powell’s was founded in 1970, a year before its Portland sister-store, by U of Chicago grad Michael Powell.  I’ve been known to sing the praises of Myopic’s funky, close-quartered labyrinth, but while its attitude fits there I appreciate that Powell’s has no agenda.  It doesn’t strain to be anything other than a place of fantastic finds, whether hunting for a specific title or wandering in search of new ways to spend your rent money.

Powell’s Bookstore
2850 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657

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  1. i love this: “I prefer mazes of shelves, rolling ladders, economical prices, cats, and a great vibe. Your heart starts racing, eyes darting from one section heading to another.” YES!

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