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The Bookstore that's Made it Big

by Andrew Gumbel
The Independent (London), September 6, 1998

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 possible."

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."

Copyright 1998 The Independent. All Rights Reserved

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Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.