Powell’s City of Books swells with customers on a Sunday during the holiday season. Shoppers visiting the book store that engulfs a downtown Portland city block stream through its 3,500 sections that organize around a million titles.
But there is one book that almost no one, including staff, is able to see. Locked away in a secret location is the store’s most expensive book. It’s only taken out for serious buyers.
“It’s legendary in terms of Powell’s lore,” said Jeremy Garber, the events coordinator. Garber has worked at Powell’s for 10 years and has never seen it. “I don’t think it’s even at the store.”
I asked three different employees where the book was. I got three different answers.
“We’re not just going to draw you a map and say to somebody ‘if you want it come and get it’,” said Michael Powell, the former president of the family store.
Powell’s $350,000 Book
Inside a secret room, Powell pulls the book, or more specifically a two-volume set of the 1814 Lewis and Clark Journals, from bubble wrap. The manuscripts were published eight years after the explorers’ return. Only 1,417 copies of this edition were printed.
“This version is extremely rare. We think it might be the only one left in private hands,” said Powell. “This edition has the map. Which I will not unfold.”
He said one mistake, one tear in the map, could potentially cut the price of the set in half. It’s not a risk he’s willing to take on a journalist.
The edges are tattered, the covers have some wear, but it’s in amazing condition for a 200-year-old book. That’s the main reason it costs $350,000.
The preciousness of this book means nearly no customer or employee will ever see it. But its presence is still significant.
“Anybody who collects Americana books, the 1814 is the cornerstone,” said Roger Wendlick, one of the leading experts on rare Lewis and Clark books. Wendlick calls this set the Holy Grail.
“The story itself is America’s epic. There is nothing better in America than the Lewis and Clark journals.” That might sound a little over the top, but for him it’s the absolute truth.
The Holy Grail
Wendlick dedicated his life to amass the world’s most complete private-collection of printed Lewis and Clark materials. For a blue-collar construction worker from Portland, it turned into a big problem.
“I was insane. I was addicted. It was a passion beyond control,” remembered Wendlick. “I had 11 credit cards … They were all maxed. I had refinanced my house — twice — getting ready for the third time so I could have more money to buy books.”
His obsession took him across the country and deep into the world of antiquarian book collecting. In a way, it all led to a moment.
After approximately a decade of collecting, there in front of him was the 1814 journal — like the one at Powell’s — the Holy Grail.
Through a forged relationship with the seller, he was able to buy it on a handshake. He paid off the $12,000 bill in monthly chunks. He estimates the book is now worth around $200,000.
It was his prized book in an unmatched personal collection, all built on debt. He wrote in his memoir that a few years after the purchase, the debt from his 11 credit cards topped $142,000. The stress, he wrote, was so overwhelming that even his doctor advised selling the collection.
He struck a deal with Lewis & Clark College. In a half-sale, half-donation agreement he parted ways with his collection and retired.
Why Are The Journals So Expensive?
Wendlick and Zach Selley, the interim head of special collections, carefully open the school’s copy of the 1814 journal. They’re inside the college library, a door away from Wendlick’s collection.
“This is the edition that we’re talking about which matches the set that’s at Powell’s,” said Selley as he pulls the two-century-old journal out of the leather bound cases.
There are two main factors that link the college’s journals to the $350,000 ones.
These journals are both in what collectors call their original boards. That means the journals are in the original state, paperbound, with the plain cardboard front cover still attached. Many journals were rebound in leather to match home libraries at the time.
Here’s a good comparison of the difference:
The second is the famous map folded into the first volume. “We’re not going to unfold it,” said Selley quickly.
“It’s fragile,” added Wendlick.
“Very fragile,” said Selley.
The map was drawn by Captain Clark. At the time, this was the most accurate snapshot of the Western interior in the United States. It laid the foundation for the country’s future expansion.
What makes the Powell’s copy so expensive is not only does it include this map, and the original boards, but it’s in terrific shape. Wendlick believes there are only around 30 of these journals in similar condition left in existence.
The Rarest Of Rare Books
But the book’s steep price isn’t just about supply and demand. It also reflects how these historic manuscripts enrich the store. Shoppers can experience it when they open the door to the Rare Book Room.
Inside, several thousand titles glow under Tiffany-style lamps. The library includes early publications of Albert Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity”, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Ulysses.”
Dark paneled shelves that wrap around the room are lined with distinct editions from familiar names — Langston Hughes, Ayn Rand, T.S. Elliot, Leslie Silko, Ken Kesey and more.
“I’ve had a woman start crying,” said Kristen Berg, a Powell’s employee for 23 years. “She was just overcome by some of the beautiful things in here.”
Berg helps manage the room, and said when visitors come up for air they overwhelmingly ask employees two questions: “What is your most expensive book and what is your oldest?”
The oldest book in Powell’s is De Bello Judaico [with] De Antiquitate Judaeorum Contra Apionem — known colloquially as the Jewish War. It’s the fourth edition of the manuscript, translated from Aramaic and Greek into Latin, and printed in 1480. That’s 84 years before Shakespeare’s birth; 12 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
This is the book that made the woman mentioned earlier cry. It’s price tag is $12,500. As for the most expensive book, “I always tell people have your banker talk to my banker because I’m not accepting a check,” said Berg.
Back in the secret room, the Lewis and Clark manuscripts lie without romance on a drab table under fluorescent light. “People are always asking us what’s our rarest book. It’s fun to say it’s an edition of the Lewis and Clark journals as opposed to say a 14th century, 15th century German religious tract or something,” said Powell.
Powell said they like having the 1814 journals in the store. But business is business — the set is very much for sale. “Somebody said ‘wouldn’t you feel bad?’ Well, that price would heal a lot of wounds,” said Powell.
He wraps up the journal and locks it back in the safe where it will sit until a buyer comes to the secret room. If they’re serious enough, he might even unfold the map.