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The Rare Book Room

Emma Chesnut, Editor

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Portland is known for a lot of things: rain, bridges, hipsters and of course for being weird. But possibly Portland’s most famous attraction is Powell’s City of Books: the largest independent bookstore in the world. For those of us that live in the Portland area and enjoy the company of books, Powell’s is like a massive playground filled with every bit of information or fantasy that you can imagine, sorted by room and color. Many of us have been to Powell’s and explored each level searching for the perfect book, but who has scavenged their way through the Pearl Room, behind the front desk, to a space that looks as if it should be off-limits; The Rare Book Room.

The Rare Book Room is exactly what it sounds like: a small room filled with shelves of valuable books that have been sold or donated to the store. While anyone is allowed in the area between 11am to 7pm, you must first ask the information desk for an official looking pass before entering the domain (while it feels special, this protocol is only to ensure the room doesn’t get too crowded) and leave all other non rare books at the door.

I asked the rare book expert/Powell’s employee what the rarest book they had was, to which she responded “It depends on what you qualify as rare.”

I was referring to the most valuable, or well, the most expensive, but in reality, price is not the only factor that qualifies the rarest of books. By definition rare implies that the item is scarce, but Powell’s finds value in the quality and specifics.

The room’s info pamphlet claims that “A book may be desirable because it is a first or limited edition, because it’s signed by the author or because it is particularly beautiful or particularly old.”

Unfortunately their rarest book by the standard of expense was not out for the public to see.

“[It’s] a first edition Journals of Lewis and Clark from 1814, with its original folding map,” said the book expert employee. “It’s locked away in a ‘secret’ room, I haven’t even seen it!”

The map traces the journey of Lewis and Clark from centuries ago. Powell’s 1814 Lewis and Clark Journal was priced at such a large number because it is one of very few copies to have an intact map in the book.

The book is priced at $350,000 and is one of only 23 remaining copies, but it is not the oldest treasure that Powell’s holds. Among the books that customers can carefully and respectfully browse through is De Bello Judaica or The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus published in 1480. A little over half a millennium ago this book was made on a very early version of the printing press and sent out into the world to be absorbed. Who knows how many curious readers and students soared through the pages of this book before it was passed from person to person for countless decades? And so, after so many years, it has landed on a bookshelf in our local book store. If that book could talk it would surely tell a marvelous history, and not just the one written on its pages.

The Rare Book Room isn’t for everyone. A person uninterested in books or history would quickly find it a bore, but book fanatics and amature antiqurians alike will enjoy the selection of old, new, and interesting that Powell’s has compiled. For those interested, it’s worth wondering.

In my experience, I found an early edition of the book “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A story that I vividly remember reading when I was little and dreaming about adventure. When I looked at the decades old copy at Powell’s I couldn’t help but wonder how many other children or even adults were inspired to dream from it’s aging pages.

The City of Books is a treasure in itself for the Portland community. You could campout in its never ending aisle for hours, and as I found no matter how many times you visit you can always discover a new gem. For the book lovers, I encourage you take take a visit to Powell’s, hike up to the pearl room, and discover your own rarest book.

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The Rare Book Room