In downtown Portland, Powell's Books stretches the length of a city block. Inside, hundreds of wooden bookshelves stuffed to the brim with everything from classic literature to engineering manuals keep crowds of regulars and tourists engrossed. When you go to Portland, you have to go to Powell's.
Even readers who haven't been to Oregon have probably heard of the store. Like Seattle's Elliot Bay Book Company or San Francisco's City Lights, Powell's is a national landmark, one of a handful of bookstores that help define the characters and cultures of their hometowns. Los Angeles has Vroman's and The Last Bookstore, New York has The Strand and Book Culture. They're both cultural centers for locals and regular stops for tourists, who are as likely to walk away from these stores with T-shirts as they are copies of the latest best-seller.
"If you haven't been to Powell's, you haven't seen something," says Miriam Sontz, CEO of Powell's Books. "It's one of the top things to do in Portland, and when visitors come, they want to take something with them as a souvenir of their trip."
You won't see anyone wandering the streets of Portland wearing a T-shirt with the logo of Dallas' own iconic bookstore, because we don't have one. It's an odd missing piece in a city that has dedicated huge resources into reshaping its downtown into a nationally recognized center for the arts. We've invested millions in building what the city proudly calls the nation's biggest dedicated arts district, with homes for opera, theater, the symphony, painting and sculpture.
The literary arts, meanwhile, have been all but ignored in Dallas' top-down planning for igniting its cultural life. You want to find a book downtown? Try the public library, if it's open ... and it's probably not.
Which is a shame, because bubbling away outside the official boundaries of "art" is a small, devoted literary scene that's beginning to show new signs of life. The question is, can we cultivate the love of books without a central outpost? Or to put it in words Dallas will understand: What kind of world class city doesn't have its own damn Powell's?