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The map helps.

Philip Guedalla, the English biographer and historian, said that biography is "a region bounded on the north by history, on the south by fiction, on the east by obituary, and on the west by tedium." At Powell's City of Books, not far from downtown Portland, Ore., biography is bound by W. Burnside, N.W. 10th Ave., N.W. Couch St., and N.W. 11th Ave. The map you see of this rambling building, one of the largest bookstores in the world and reason alone for visiting the Rose City, indicates that biography is not confined to any one aisle or room but, instead, is spread out over the entire block, placed by subject. The biography of an artist would be in the Orange Room, for instance; the biography of a business tycoon would be in the Rose Room.

But, even armed with a Powell's map, you can't expect to park and dash into the store to quickly pick up a book you may be looking for. Getting in and out of Powell's, where new and used copies of books are housed side by side on crowded shelves, is an all-afternoon -- or an all-day -- adventure.

"...even if the building had been specially-built for [housing books], it would not have been easy to find your way around without some orientation," reads a sentence from the map. The map helps get you through the maze by listing book categories and rooms on one side and by showing the layout of the rooms and shelves on the other. Some of the less common categories listed: Earthworms, Log Homes, Nostalgic Writing, Utopian Studies.

Because the rooms are identified by colors, it was necessary to print the 17- by 22-inch map in full color (spot color, not process color). A legend under the introductory text identifies the colors and the amenities and services, including the access lift and elevator, public telephone, stairways and cashiers.

The lower left corner of the map shows the Anne Hughes Coffee Room, set among shelves of magazines, graphic novels, gardening and Dover books, and not far from a Rare Book Room. "If nobody's [in the Rare Book Room], pick up an escort at the Used Book Buyer in the Green Room."

When you fold down the top of the map, another room shows up: the Purple Room, which you can reach by climbing some stairs in the Rose Room. The folding dramatizes the room's location.

The other side of the map lists Powell's several satellite stores, some specialized, in the surrounding area.

The map, probably not a candidate for an art directors' award, is, nevertheless, pleasing to the eye and, more important, readable: a simplified and colorful version of an ordinary set of floor plans for an out-of-the-ordinary institution.

Roy Paul Nelson, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, is the author of a number of books on design, art, media and writing, including "Publication Design" (Wm. C. Brown Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa).
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Title Annotation:Look of the Book; map of Powell's City of Books
Author:Nelson, Roy Paul
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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