Powell’s Past and Places: Success Then and Now
What becomes apparent when multiple bookstores are studied, rising and falling, is that there is much to be said for the strategies employed, and the philosophies followed, by booksellers, rather than a reliance on tradition or history. Fitting enough, considering that, as a product of literature, book culture must have a mind for innovation and open-mindedness. Nor must every successful campaign be characterized by its massive hurdles or growth in an unsupportive climate—simple faith and good luck on top of a good idea here and there can reward intrepid businesspeople handsomely.
Now the largest independent bookstore in the world, Powell’s Books is not yet fifty years old. As the site’s own Brief History page notes, Michael Powell first opened his own bookstore in Chicago in 1970, while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, just after Waldenbooks had achieved “fifty-nine stores in nineteen states” in 1969, as Laura J. Miller writes (45), and just before the time when “a new wave of mergers and acquisitions took place,” with publishers buying each other out seemingly just to stay afloat (40). Powell was lent $3000 by three professors: Morris Janowitz, Edward Shils, and Saul Bellow (it must have been a good omen that a literary figure of that caliber saw something special in Powell’s idea). Having sold plenty of books among fellow students before, Powell knew that the used paperback market could be lucrative in the right areas; having started with only part of the building space, Powell was able to buy the remaining spaces once the other owners vacated.
Not only was this initial venture very successful for Michael, but his father, Walter, saw something special in the book trade as well and opened a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon, in 1971, where the chain is now based and where all but one of its stores are located (Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing is in the nearby city of Beaverton). This store filled a used American Motors dealership—really filled it, taking every used book that came in.
Eight years after Walter’s store opened, he suggested to Michael that it would be a good time to return to Oregon, and Michael was convinced—he joined his father again, and multiple sides of the book trade were uncharacteristically brought together all at once—the decision to sell new books alongside the used in the same store, which was apparently unheard-of at the time, raised the store to a new level of convenience, assured a non-judgmental feeling for the customer, and created a rock-solid foundation for success.
Or, rather, a cement foundation. Powell’s rose up, as Michael put it, in “an undeveloped neighborhood,” consisting of “mostly warehouses, wholesalers, and auto repair shops.” But this general aesthetic of the area surrounding the store, this downtown region, was used to the Powells’ advantage. They deliberately cultivated the industrial look that they had started with—“pine wood [and a] cement floor,” and twelve-foot-tall shelves. Contrary to the observations of other bookstore scholars, Michael Powell felt that it was in fact the brightly-lit, low-shelved chain stores that made customers feel pressured, and that the relative bareness of their own stores and the feeling of fullness resulting from towering shelves created the homiest home for the literary mixing that Powell’s was all about. It is through this ingenuity and friendliness that Powell’s has been able to achieve a scholarly feeling of place, as given, for example, by David Harvey in “From Space to Place and Back Again,” as “a discursive/symbolic meaning well beyond that of mere location” (293).
Of course, this downtown area comes with its own history. “Burnside Street originally was named B Street as part of the ‘Alphabet District’ in northwest Portland,” Portland’s website says. The site also attributes the street’s initial inability to open “respectable businesses” to the way that it drew unsavory people for illicit activities in the 1860s. In 1892 it was named for David W. Burnside, a merchant. The early 1900s saw automotive innovations such as a track for streetcars and Burnside Bridge, and the rest of the .gov website page is seemingly all dedicated to roadway fixes that the street has had to make.
But not all of Powell’s stores are to be found on this once-foreboding downtown street. Two of Powell’s expansions are located on Hawthorne Boulevard: Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, appropriately enough, and Powell’s Books for Home and Garden. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the years in which these two stores opened.
Powell’s Books at PDX (the bookstore in the Portland International Airport), however, is listed as opening in 1988, and prides itself on being a full used bookstore in an airport, offering the same width of selection as any of the other stores as well as suggestions tailored to the specific traveling conditions of each customer. There used to be three different stores in PDX, but as of last year two of the stores closed.
Powell’s has also served Beaverton since 1984, but it was relatively recently that it opened the store that currently stands, Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, which is almost half the size of the City of Books, boasts what looks to me like an even taller entrance, and, according to Paul Smailes, “[takes] the best elements of all the Powell’s stores and [rolls] them into one [. . .] the big store feel of the City of Books, a very large technical book selection to serve [its] neighbors [. . . and] the largest children’s book section of any book store on the West Coast.”
(Powell’s Technical Books has ceased being its own store as of four months ago and has been merged into the main store, though that’s probably not to say that the selection of technical books has been downsized).
From a book-lover’s standpoint, what is perhaps most heartening about this branching out is that the existence of the megastore on Burnside Street has not in any way prevented these new locations from having distinct feelings; they aren’t built from smaller blueprints of the main store, but have their own unique rooms with defined purposes, like the Madison, Hawthorne, and Tabor rooms in the Hawthorne store, named after landmarks in the area.
But it’s not merely Powell’s physical storefronts that have flourished. The chain was, in fact, one of the first bookstores to hop on the online-retail bubble, in 1994, initially inspired to this level of expansion by a request from an English man to send a technical book. This transaction was $50 cheaper than it would have been had he simply gone through his local store (which would have had to order its copy from the States anyway). While most single purchases of a book are not quite so expensive, the amount of money that this man saved does at least seem proportional with how much cheaper books often are online. Michael Powell himself notes to Jeremiah Chamberlin, however, that “[there] are cheaper places” to order books online, but also that the store’s online sales presence is “steady.” Indeed, Powell’s.com has quickly come to account for between 25-30% of the store’s sales per year. It’s not titanic in the same way as Amazon and AbeBooks can seem to be, but it’s clearly set a good example for the field.
Thus, Powell’s is, today, not just the largest independent bookstore in the world (though that in itself says enough about the store’s success), but also just one of the most successful. As I noted in the timeline, Powell’s has recently had to let a number of its employees go—31, to be exact—in 2011, which was worrying, as such incidents in a bookstore’s history always are; and since Michael handed the store over to his daughter in 2010, the transfer of CEO position to Miriam Sontz a few years later feels like a very fast management turnover. But it seems to me that these factors ultimately say more about the growth of the book industry as a whole, the shifts of stock to different stores, fluctuations in success not only for the small(er) independents, but also megaliths like Borders. Michael feels that Powell’s has become not only a major attraction in Oregon (to paraphrase him, it’s one of three things that will immediately come to mind for a Portland activity), but also a big player in its transformation from a seedy downtown area to a prime location for boutique businesses. To take his point even wider, his store is prominent as a champion of book culture in all its facets.
Harvey, David. Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. Blackwell Pub, 1996. 203.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 40, 45.
The History of Powell’s Books
About Powell’s City of Books
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne
Powell’s Books for Home and Garden
The History of Powell’s.com
Inside Indie Bookstores: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon
Powell’s Books Announces Layoffs
The Espresso Book Machine Arrives at Powell’s Books
Owner, new CEO of Powell’s Books see strength in brick and mortar
Burnside Street History
Powell’s Wikipedia Page