American Birding Podcast



A Visit to the Book Shop

powellsThe other day, I went to look at bird books in Portland, Oregon, at Powell’s City of Books, which is said to be the world’s largest independent bookstore. Powell’s is a High Island-style fallout of printed pages. The store covers a downtown city block with several floors and 1.6 acres of retail space, holds a million titles, and sells 3,000 used books a day. As I stepped inside, I was handed a color-coded map, which reminded me of a wildlife refuge brochure, to help navigate the many rooms.

It turns out that bird books are no longer housed in the main Powell’s building, which has run out of space. They are now filed with other science, math, and technical titles in an annex across the street. I followed my map outside, dodged some cars, and walked through another set of doors to reach the south-facing indoor wall of Powell’s Building 2, which is blanketed by heavy shelves of bird literature. The books are categorized by subject, and I happily began browsing.

After a few minutes, another guy arrived in the bird section. He was already clutching several books in one hand. We each stared at the shelves in silence for a while before he turned to me and said, by way of friendliness, “Kinda makes you want to buy them all, doesn’t it?”

This is probably the moment to admit that my visit to Powell’s had an ulterior motive: I wanted to see if they were stocking my new book, which came out this spring, and I was pleased to see six copies displayed on the “bird behavior” shelf. When I first spotted it, I glanced around to see if anyone was watching, pulled a fine Sharpie out of my pocket, grabbed the top copy, opened it to the title page, signed it, and then put the book back on the shelf. Guerrilla-signing my own book, right there in the store, gave me a little rush. I figured someone would be pleasantly surprised, if anyone ever bought it.

I’d completed the move before this other guy showed up. Now I wondered what to say to his conversational opening. I’m not usually very chatty in bookstores. “Well, if you’re looking for a good read, I’ve heard that one is pretty entertaining,” I said, pointing out my book. Why not? After a pause, I added, “I, uh, wrote it.”

powellssignThe guy seemed surprised, but he picked it up. “What’s it about?” he asked, and I gave my elevator pitch about parallels between bird and human behavior—how, when we study birds, in the end we are also kind of studying ourselves. He opened the cover. “Hey, it’s a signed copy!” he exclaimed. I just smiled. “Guess I should get this one, since I met the author,” he said. We talked birds for a while, and he checked out and left.

I spent a quiet half hour alone in the bird section, and discovered a couple of interesting additions to my own summer reading list. It took a long time merely to scan through all the titles. Just when I was about to leave Powell’s, I spied the spine of my first book, a slim paperback, peeking from the “seabirds” shelf. There was just one copy. When I pulled it out and opened the cover, I saw that I’d already signed and inscribed it at some point to someone named Sandra. Later in the afternoon, when I related this to a friend, they laughed. “You should go find that lady,” they said, “and give the book back to her, ‘cause she obviously lost it!”

There are so many bird books these days. A large poster for the new Sibley guide is displayed in the front window of Powell’s, a literal sign of birding’s increasingly mainstream influence. But it’s still a niche pursuit. During my visit to the bird section, nobody else came to peruse the shelves. That’s OK with me—in one sense, all bird books, no matter how thorough or elegant, are secondary sources. Birds give us plenty of inspiration all on their own.