Powell’s Books: Betting on the Underdog

Close your eyes and imagine the story of the classic underdog. What do you see? Do you see a scrawny, disadvantaged loser without a change, or something more? The concept of the underdog has been around for ages, applied to any and every competitive situation known to man, including the book industry. In this particular case, that underdog is Walter Powell, a simple man with a simple dream.

Walter Powell was inspired by his son, Michael Powell, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 1970.
Once out of college he decided he would attempt to open a small bookstore on the outskirts of this beloved city. The bookstore was mildly successful; however it is better known for its influence on Michael Powell’s father, Walter, who often assisted Michael in the bookstore. This gave Walter Powell a taste for the bookselling industry, and just like Harriet from Parnassus on Wheels, he became ravenous for the bookselling adventure.

Powell’s City of Books: Portland, Oregon 2015

Walter Powell decided he wanted to open a bookstore somewhere in downtown Portland Oregon; he searched high and low for that perfect location, struggling to find a place to root his business. He was not satisfied with any of the locations he found throughout the search, until he stumbled upon an old warehouse which was previously used as a car dealership. In October of 1971 Walter Powell took a huge risk; he bought the old car lot and warehouse and suddenly Powell’s City of Books was born.

From the beginning of this endeavor Walter Powell struggled attempting to figure out where he wanted his bookstore to fall on the proverbial cultural map. In the early chapters of her book, Reluctant Capitalists, Laura J. Miller discusses the idea of culture and commerce; arguing that they should not be considered individual entities, but seen as vehicles making each other accessible to the general public. “Culture” as a concept is the idea of how society constructs itself, allowing people to grasp a better understand of the world and how human beings individually fit into it; while “commerce” as a concept is the ways in which money and goods are exchanged. How are these two concepts seen in relation to Powell’s City of Books? Walter Powell chose to position his bookstore in an entirely industrial part of the city of Portland, right smack dab in the middle of the hustle and bustle of growth and development.

The relationship between culture and commerce allows Walter to begin to question where he, and his bookstore, belong amongst these industrialized businesses and people. Faced with this particular conflict of “place” (Cresswell) Walter Powell had to make a decision: where is that perfect balance between big chain bookstore and local hole-in-the-wall community staple? If the bookstore was going to have any chance of survival Walter was going to have to find an answer to that question. Shortly after the bookstore’s birth Powell realized he would have to make it his mission to move with the crowd, rather than against it; expanding and developing the bookstore to keep up with the thriving city surrounding it, or it was at risk of being swallowed whole by the industrialization. By examining the surrounding neighborhoods, Powell began bringing culture and commerce together, making a point of purchasing every marketable book he could get his hands on. While this endeavor gave Powell a spring-board to keep his head above water, he still needed to do more and push harder to give Powell’s City of Books a firm foothold in the Pearl District.






It was not until 1979 after Walter Powell and his son, Michael, officially became business partners that the two of them decided to give their business plan a revamp which would forever change Powell’s City of Books for the better. While the neighborhood surrounding Powell’s was particularly industrialized it still had a sense of personalized identity. The other businesses around which were successful had found that balance between culture and commerce. The people didn’t want huge chain stores blocking the skyline; they wanted stores with unique qualities that were still able to hold their own in the business world. As Michael and Walter continued to build Powell’s City of Books they realized they needed a brand new concept which would help to define their “place” (Creswell) in Portland. Walter, with the help of his son, expanded the horizons of Powell’s City of Books becoming the first bookstore to sell new, used, rare and out-of-print books all in one place on the same shelves.

This change allowed Powell’s City of Books to begin to gain a proper foothold in the community of Portland, but the bookstore was far from being safely settled. In the beginning, Powell’s City of Books was a stand-alone bookstore, which was Walter’s intension, but this caused some issues for the bookstore itself. As the Pearl District continued to grow and develop Powell’s was beginning to lose its grasp because it lacked many of the positive qualities associated with superstores, specifically standardization. In Laura J. Miller’s book Reluctant Capitalists she explores the constructive nature associated with standardization, especially in association with the merchandise sold as well as the store’s general layout.

Today’s Layout of Powell’s City of Books.

Powell’s City of Books was already successfully combating the first aspect, merchandise, selling basically any book they were able to obtain and market; however, the store’s layout was still posing a problem. When someone enters a bookstore, whether they have the intention of buying or browsing, the goal is to have the easiest and least painful experience possible. In the beginning Powell’s City of Books was a hodge-podge of a bookstore; it lacked a set, easily-navigated system which left customers frustrated and confused. It was not until Michael Powell took exclusive control over the company upon his father’s retirement in 1982 that this problem was resolved. Michael broke the store into rooms; each room had a theme ranging from Shakespearean literature to graphic novels. Once the store gained this organizational standardization Powell’s City of Books was able to solidify its foothold in the Portland community, allowing them to begin work on further expansion throughout Oregon.
In 1988 the Powell’s Book Company opened its very first branch store: Powell’s Books at PDX, which is the local airport stationed in Portland Oregon. After this store’s opening Powell’s books continued to grow and flourish; opening a grand total of five stores to date, each having its own specific focus. Powell’s City of Books is still considered the headquarters of the company due to its extensive size and collection, but that does not undermine the company’s branch stores.

While opening more bookstores did wonders for the company as a whole, something else had an even bigger impact: the internet. In early 1994 Powell’s Books broke into the online spectrum with a splash. Other online bookselling companies, such as Amazon.com did not come into existence until late 1994. Since Powell’s was able to get online before these other booksellers it gave them a serious leg up on the competition. Powell’s online book sales were hugely successful and by 1995 they had their entire store inventory available online.

As one would expect Powell’s Book Company continues to grow and flourish today. When Walter Powell first opened Powell’s City of Books he had a simply dream: he wanted a place where people could find what they were looking for, whether that be the the perfect book, or the perfect type of comradery. The beginning was hardly an easy feat for the Powell Partners, but as the years progressed they were able to find their footing in Portland and its surrounding areas. Everyone loves the story of that classic underdog. That defeated figure that doesn’t seem to have a fighting chance, which with enough luck, knowledge and perseverance can come out on top. Walter Powell and his City of Books is the perfect example of just what hard work and dedication can really accomplish.



Powell’s Website http://www.powells.com/

Powell’s Locations http://www.powells.com/locations/


Storefront http://www.bloomberg.com/ss/09/06/0619_best_independent_stores/16.htm

Store Layout Map https://www.google.com/search?q=powell%27s+city+of+books&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=643&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=FNHhVLSGBMOrNsKChOgB&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAw#imgdii=_&imgrc=X7UtS4AzyRc62M%253A%3BpZi4kldXrtfliM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fbroadconversation.files.wordpress.com%252F2012%252F07%252Fpowells-map.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fbroadconversation.com%252Ftag%252Fpowells-books%252F%3B600%3B382

Website Snapshot https://fbcdn-sphotos-h-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xpf1/v/t34.0-12/11004501_10206338294004026_1589726198_n.jpg?oh=506cf40986745610729b29bf7addd752&oe=54E42AED&__gda__=1424241724_1566e1ad5321095e2aa872a36af21899

Inside Powell’s https://www.google.com/search?q=powell%27s+city+of+books&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=643&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=FNHhVLSGBMOrNsKChOgB&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAw#imgdii=_&imgrc=fpPWMs11i_fvIM%253A%3BGyPTurundrsEhM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.capstone.org%252Fimg%252FPowells_Book_City.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.capstone.org%252FPDX%252F20-reasons.php%3B620%3B349

Advertisement https://www.google.com/search?q=powell%27s+city+of+books&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=643&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=FNHhVLSGBMOrNsKChOgB&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAw#imgdii=_&imgrc=gWS9EeUFJs3-vM%253A%3BhVgJ1E_x4N0ioM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252F41.media.tumblr.com%252Fdc3ca1cf3c7b7e25298594864b818fc6%252Ftumblr_mesmhkaqQL1rr1hc7o1_500.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Francidxwritings.tumblr.com%252F%3B450%3B590

Street https://www.google.com/search?q=powell%27s+city+of+books&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=643&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=FNHhVLSGBMOrNsKChOgB&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAw#imgdii=_&imgrc=uEWoJ_Ksrm1NoM%253A%3BuWEAzGu9phF1AM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fupload.wikimedia.org%252Fwikipedia%252Fcommons%252Fd%252Fd2%252FPortlandStreetcarAtPowells.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Frobertfrostsbanjo.blogspot.com%252F2012%252F03%252Fcity-of-books.html%3B2581%3B1599

Images on Timeline:

Inside Powell’s http://www.powells.com/info/briefhistory.html

Website https://fbcdn-sphotos-h-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xpf1/v/t34.0-12/11004501_10206338294004026_1589726198_n.jpg?oh=506cf40986745610729b29bf7addd752&oe=54E42AED&__gda__=1424241724_1566e1ad5321095e2aa872a36af21899

Specific Store Locations

Emily Powell https://www.google.com/search?q=emily+powell&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=643&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=OdzhVO3QFcadgwTz-oOYDA&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAQ#imgdii=_&imgrc=d0vpEb_qJlUG5M%253A%3BkqNJT6hB59SVeM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fhaverford.edu%252Fgenerated%252Fdynamic%252Fhhp%252Fwp-content%252Fuploads%252F2013%252F01%252Femily-powell-800×600.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.haverford.edu%252Fhome%252F2013%252F02%252F13%252Findependent-spirit-2%252F%3B800%3B600



Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006. Print.

Cresswell, Tim. “Defining Place.” (n.d.): n. pag. Print.

Cresswell, Tim. A Global Sense of Place. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.