An Empty Icon

A longtime Powell’s employee cleans out his desk

On any other Wednesday afternoon at Powell’s, I’d be doing an Info Desk shift right now. A few hundred folks would be shopping for books throughout the store, which, if you’ve never been before is a four-level behemoth of books that covers a whole city block and is the cultural crown jewel of Portland, Oregon. People come from all over the world to visit Powell’s. Sometimes—especially on the weekends, in the summer, and during the holiday season—they pack the aisles so fully you can barely walk through them. On any given day, there are anywhere from 900,000 to a million books packed into the tall wooden shelves of the world’s largest new and used bookstore. Some customers have called it the Disneyland of bookshops. Visiting authors have said it’s the Madison Square Garden of their book tour.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

But on this particular Wednesday, actually April Fools’ Day, Powell’s is practically empty, save for a few employees looking for books to fill Internet orders. Seventeen days before this, on a Sunday morning, Powell’s closed its doors when COVID-19 began shuttering businesses all over the northwest and everywhere else. I’m here to turn in my key and clean out my desk. After 22 years doing my favorite job, it’s uncertain if I’ll be back to work any time soon.

I’m supposed to announce myself as I walk into each room of the store during this time, so that any nearby employees can make sure to give their bodies at least six feet of hopefully safe personal space. It’s somewhat eerie to see all the carefully-curated and wonderfully-designed displays in each room, facing no one, because we’ve locked out the people that were meant to see them. It evokes a feeling of interruption and silence, like when someone stops midsentence and gets quiet. Rows of unshelved books occupy the wide aisles where customers should be. The sounds of excited kids and hyped-up customers are gone. Imagine a ghost town of books.

For 49 years, Powell’s has survived recessions, the Internet retail boom, the tyranny of Amazon, the alleged death of print, and e-books. It’s a place where customers would say, “Coming here was on my bucket list.” Other customers find themselves caught off-guard, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of discoveries, from rare books and out-of-print treasures to newer books, obscure small press titles, and books you’ve heard of but never thought you’d see in real life. It’s ridiculous how many times I’ve heard a customer with a dozen books say to a cashier, “I only came in to buy one book, but look what happened.”

Photos by Kevin Sampsell.

I look at the info desk in the Blue room (Powell’s color-codes its nine rooms) and wonder if I’ll ever get to sit behind it again. I loved those social parts of my job, like helping customers decide what they want to read next, recommending a book present for a picky dad, or doing the detective work to figure out just what bestselling novel in 1989 had an orange cover. It was Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn.

When I get to my desk on the fourth floor, I put on my Latex gloves and start loading up the five plastic tubs I brought from home. I have to pack about 50 books, along with stacks of correspondence, various knick-knacks, and a bunch of photos throughout the years. One of the photos is of me and my son at a pumpkin patch when he was nine. He was three when I started working here and is 25 now. He literally grew up while I worked here. From Goodnight Moon to Little Critter books, Manga, Rick Riordan, outdoor trail books, Stephen King, and college textbooks. If this is my last day here, it isn’t how I imagined it.

When I’m finished loading up, I take the elevator (only one person allowed at a time!) down to the Powell’s side door exit, where I’ve parked my car on the bare and silent streets. The HR person buzzes the door open and I move all my boxes outside to the sidewalk. I turn around and wave to her, but I don’t want to say goodbye. Instead I say through the window, “See you later.” She smiles at me like she has the same wish. “See you later!” I say again, louder, in case she didn’t hear me.

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Kevin Sampsell

Kevin Sampsell runs the influential micropress Future Tense Books and his writing has appeared in many publications and anthologies, including Best American Essays 2013. He is the author of a memoir, A Common Pornography, a novel, This Is Between Us, and a forthcoming book of collage art and poetry, I Made an Accident.

2 thoughts on “An Empty Icon

  • April 6, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    Lovely piece, Kevin.
    So sad for everybody.
    Thanks for all your work over the years.

  • April 6, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    This is sad. Thank you Kevin for your support to me and other micro presses. I still can’t believe that you stock my poet plant press books., but then again, that is what Powell’s is all about isn’t it? Truly one of a kind. Sounds like you had a dream job. Thanks again.


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