With its million titles, Powell's of Portland has become
an institution. Andrew Gumbel reports...
WHO SAYS the traditional bookshop is dead? In this
age of chain superstores and online selling, it often
seems that the days of the old-style independent dealer
are numbered. But one American bookseller, at least,
refuses to believe that.
Michael Powell's sprawling den of a bookshop, or rather
series of bookshops, in central Portland already lays
claim to be the largest in the world - around a million
titles in stock, 360 full-time employees and annual sales
of some $30m (£18m). Now, in something of a challenge
to prevailing wisdom (after all, the on-line service
amazon.com is based just up the road in Seattle, and the
monster chains Borders and Barnes & Noble are never
far away), it is expanding further.
Its flagship store, Powell's City of Books, already takes
up an entire city block. Now one corner is going to be
torn down and rebuilt at twice the height. A vacant site
across the street will be turned into a two-storey annex.
Overall, floor space will be increased from 43,000 sq ft to
more than 60,000 sq ft.
Is this lunacy, or a flash of inspiration? "Bookselling is a
very competitive world, but there's definitely a role for
bookstores," Mr Powell explained. "The problem is that
the average corner store can only stock between 5,000
and 15,000 titles, a choice based largely on the taste of
the owner. And that cuts out 98 per cent of what is
Powell's is different partly because it started out as a
second-hand store. Michael, a sparky 1968-generation
liberal with a taste for bright shirts, and his father,
Walter, pioneered the concept of putting new and used
books together on the shelves, giving buyers a far
broader choice on a given subject. From humble
beginnings in the early 1970s, the business has grown
into a West Coast institution, much loved not only by
its customers but also by visiting authors. Two of its
bigger fans even chose to get married there.
Unlike Barnes & Noble, it stocks rare books, out-of-print
books, unfashionable books, academic books, books in
Ukrainian and books in Korean. Its strength is that it is
threatened neither by the superstores, which cannot
compete with its range, nor by the online services,
which cannot undercut its business except on a small
range of strong sellers that are easy to shift anyway.
Powell's has its own online service (at
www.powells.com), but offers no cut rates. It merely
advertises the inventory, and the larger customer range
enables it to be even more esoteric and obscure. One
book sold recently over the Internet was a original
language encyclopedia of East German institutions.
Powell's faith in the attractiveness of books is mirrored
by the curious bibliomania of Portland itself. Not only is
Powell's thriving, but the public libraries boast one of
the highest lending rates per capita in the country. At
first sight, this seems strange in a city without a major
university and far lower cultural pretensions than
Seattle or San Francisco.
Part of the explanation is the English-style climate. "It
helps to have a good dose of rain, because it drives
people indoors and they need something to do," said
Mr Powell. Part of it, too, is that Oregon has one of the
best school systems in the country. But part of it is also
due to Powell's itself - the store has become such an
attraction to residents and visitors that it has generated
a book craze all by itself.
"You know, Americans are very uncomfortable with idle
time, and one way to get around that is to read," said Mr
Powell. "For some reason we have developed a view
that we are a bunch of illiterates, and that only
university students and very smart people read books.
That's a dangerous way of thinking, and it's wrong."