Portland's Powell's Books beams up its customers with the best science fiction selection

There are over 100 bookstores in my city, Portland, and I have had long love affairs with several of them. Like the old Beaver Trading Post, where I used to buy secondhand science fiction novels for 15 cents, back when science fiction wasn’t respectable, and neither was I. Or Looking Glass Bookstore, where they’ve had great science fiction ever since the place was a little hippie hole-in-the-wall where you could get high from the other customers’ pot just by breathing. But Powell’s Books is the place I have to tell about, because it’s so amazing: a complete city block, two stories, of new and used books — the greatest bookstore in America. And in the very middle of this incredible literary labyrinth is an acre or so of science fiction.

Powell’s science fiction and fantasy section was founded by old Mr. Powell’s assistant, a mad and modest genius called John Henley, and it’s a wonderful collection. Shelves of bug-eyed monsters on tattered old paperbacks tower over displays of shiny new cyberpunk. Walking down those aisles you realize that in those books on both sides of you people are shooting off in rocket ships to battle Venusian slime monsters, watching a sun go nova, exploring a black hole, moving faster than light, arguing with robots, conversing with dragons, boldly going where nobody even thought of going before. Customers stand with their noses in paperbacks and their minds a thousand light-years away. You can hear ideas crackling like static, and signals coming through from Arcturus. Alien beings walk those aisles. It’s a wonderful place for the imagination to take off from — a kind of launchpad, a Cape Canaveral of the mind. Most of us won’t ever get to outer space, but in the books on those shelves we can share the dream, we can share the stars.

— Ursula K. Le Guin’s next novel, Searoad, will be published in October.