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A Novel Method to Sell Books

by John Balzar
Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1998


 
PORTLAND, Ore.--From Starbucks to grunge, from fashion sneakers to neighborhood breweries, the Pacific Northwest has hatched its share of pop trends. Microsoft and Bill Gates have bestowed the region an aura of sudden wealth and future-think. Next, perhaps, the reshaping of bookstores will occur in the fresh, drizzly air hereabouts.

By now, most people who follow publishing have heard the gee-whiz buzz about Amazon.com, the Seattle pioneer of the virtual bookstore. Online with this Internet middleman, shoppers can choose from the largest selection of books ever offered. As Amazon.com advances it, the bookstore of tomorrow will be no store at all. Like most things cyber, this innovation is often heralded as inevitable and welcome. But there is another, competing vision that hasn't achieved the same coast-to-coast notoriety.

Just down the road from Amazon.com, here in middle-class, middle-sized Portland, along a busy thoroughfare that cuts through an industrial zone, across the street from a brewery, in a boxy, uninspired building with bare lights and bare floors, the sign outside identifies the establishment as Powell's. It is a behemoth, consuming a whole city block. And Powell's right to challenge the inevitable triumph of the virtual bookstore is written in its own contrarian history.

Years ago, when television was going to eliminate the desire to read, Michael Powell expanded from giant and colossal. When computers were going to make books obsolete, Powell expanded again and opened a vast new sister store just for technical books. When chains of superstores crowded the market and threatened independent booksellers, Powell countered with his own picket line of outlying stores to defend his hometown market. In other words, whatever the wisdom of the moment Michael Powell found reasons to believe otherwise. In an age of specialization, he specialized in being a generalist, figuring a curious mind, no matter what its bent or breadth, would always delight in serendipity if given the chance. He refused invitations to franchise his formula and insisted on growing at home because bookstores are parts of living communities, not only businesses.

Now, the most audacious expansion of all--coming at what Powell calls the "most critical phase in the history of American book selling."

Faced with rapid emergence of online booksellers as well as continued expansion from chain superstores, Michael Powell is growing in two directions at once. Not surprising, he is expanding his presence on the World Wide Web as Powells.com. This is not a virtual store that acts as middleman for customers, but one with a growing inventory of out-of-print works available for immediate shipment. At the same time, against convention, Michael Powell is expanding retail floor space at his Portland store 60%.

To those familiar with Powell's City of Books on Burnside Street, the idea of expansion seems, well, breathtaking. Already, this emporium in Portland's gentrifying Pearl District sprawls across 43,000 square feet of book space with about 700,000 books on the shelves, many times what most superstores display. Last month, construction began on a project to tear down and rebuild one corner of Powell's block, adding floors and enlarging the retail store to 68,000 square feet with room for 1 million books and more areas for browsers to lounge and read.

"It's a bet," says Powell. "It's a bet on readers. It's a bet on books. It's my bet, and I'm betting I can do it . . . if this piece of our culture goes down, I'll go down with it."

Portland itself is likewise betting on this dry, peripatetic man of disarmingly accessible tastes. This summer the city approved construction of a colorful, old-fashioned streetcar line through downtown. The route will stop on one side of Powell's coming south, and the other side of the store going north. "We ought to call it the Reading Railroad," Powell deadpans.

Harbinger for Stores Nationally

Even though Portland ranks only 30th among U.S. cities in population, Powell's longevity and accomplishment mean it will be watched as a harbinger nationwide. Those everywhere with an attachment to the brick-and-mortar reality of bookstores have a proxy stake in its success--as well as the fate of other large independents, which lately have chosen expansion in the face of competition, including Denver's Tattered Cover, St. Paul's Hungry Mind Bookstore, Milwaukee's Harry W. Schwartz and Pasadena's Vroman's.

To these readers, great bookstores aren't just for books but sanctuaries. They are an argument against electronic detachment from the physical world. Agnostics may counter that Powell's is but a nostalgic arcade serving eggheads, Luddites and other misfits who always got picked last for sandlot ballgames. Even at that, it's a fantastic example of what an arcade can be, distinguished not only by size but by its far-ranging tastes and dense layers of expertise. Its high-ceiling industrial ambience is intentionally happenstance; its organization as orderly as our quicksilver culture allows. As always, new and used books, paperback and hardbound, are shelved together.

Walking into Powell's, one is met by the sensation of vastness. Employees call the entry the "oh-duh zone," on account of the stupefied reaction that overcomes newcomers. Just how prodigious is the store? If everybody in Portland bought a volume here, Powell's would retain almost half its inventory. Merely to open in the morning requires a staff of 25. Total payroll is 200, with another 150 people in six satellite stores and at the company's warehouses and corporate offices. The information booth at the entrance provides 12-panel foldout color maps that direct customers to 548 categories of books--from Alcoholics Anonymous to Zoology. These classifications are further subdivided on the shelves. If an idea has an impact on our lives or thinking, it is reflected here: . . . dieting, dinosaurs, disabled living, divorce, dogs, dolls, drafting, drama, drawing how-to, dreams, drugs, druids, dungeons & dragons, dyslexia, earthworms . . Looking to read about the end of life perhaps? "Death and Dying" can be located in the Rose Room in the health section. Also in the Purple Room is sociology. If you prefer "Death and Reincarnation," these books are between metaphysics and astrology. Thee "Judaism" section, covering one wall a third of a block long, is broken down into subcategories of scripture, prayer, observance, history, thought and culture, Jewish mysticism, women, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

Powell's does not just carry books on how to speak a foreign language or guidebooks to foreign countries, it devotes aisles to books written in other languages. The German section, for instance, contains 5,000-or-so volumes. Selections are available in Japanese, Spanish, Russian, French, Korean, Chinese, and even Native American languages. In its quiet, leather-smelling upstairs rare book room, Powell's offers such gems as a copy of "The Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by himself." Published in 1845 in Boston "by the anti-slavery office," the volume is priced at $1,250. A first-edition of "Moby Dick" goes for $12,000.

On the average, three writers give readings at Powell's every two days. Its coffee shop is a well-worn rain shelter for Portlanders of all ages. Increasingly, it seems, Powell's is a tourist attraction, too. This June, the city visitors association recognized Michael Powell's "significant contribution" to the city.

Virtual Bookstores Blur Size Issue

Is it the largest bookstore in America? In all likelihood yes, based on number of volumes and number of titles. Michael Powell says "probably" it is, but he and his employees know the title is not worth fussing over. For one thing, virtual bookstores blur the issue. Amazon.com bills itself as "Earth's biggest bookstore." That's because it offers access to so many available books, perhaps 2.5 million. But it does not stock these books itself, except for a few bestsellers. At least some of what it sells each day are obtained online from Powell's and then forwarded to Amazon.com's own customers. Besides, a large inventory is not necessarily enough distinction these days. Far more satisfying would be the reputation as America's greatest great bookstore. That's an honor only customers and time can bestow.

"If Ted Turner wanted to, he could open 20 stores this size," says Powell. "But what he cannot do is what we've been doing for 20 years--building the base of knowledge for what books, of all the books there are, to display for our customers."

Therein remains the essential fascination with Powell's, both for those who run it and those who shop here: What is the proper balance between size and taste? How many books? Which books? What is the balance between meeting the immediate needs of readers and exposing them to what they don't yet know they want? Or reminding them of what they forgot they once enjoyed? Or this: Do bookstores need an edifice at all anymore?

Questions like this are compelling because the virtual bookstore is such a flexible concept. It can be both egalitarian and anarchic, like the Internet itself. For those browsers who want guidance, such stores can provide reviews from both professional critics and fellow readers. For those who like to socialize, if only facelessly, there is the chat room. Beyond all this, new and much-publicized software programs attempt to decipher from questionnaires or past buying habits what new books to suggest next to readers--or, perhaps, as doubters fear, to suggest merely what publishers are anxious to sell.

In any event, like reading itself, shopping online is a solitary experience. By contrast, the chain superstore has institutionalized the concept of the bookstore as a community social center, a place to read, a place where writers can meet their public, a place to do homework, have a coffee and enrich oneself in quiet conversation. A place to find a soul mate.

These stores have also enlarged consumer expectations, by stocking tens of thousands of volumes for customers with distinct tastes while still promoting and profiting from mass-appeal titles. Just in case, however, the chains are now entering online selling with a vengeance. With their mighty warehouses of new books and their ability to ship overnight, their connections to writers and publishers, they may ultimately challenge Amazon.com's domination of the Internet mail-order business.

In this changing milieu, Powell's faced its choices. "We asked the question this way: 'How big do we have to be to satisfy ourselves?' " recalls Miriam Sontz, general manager of Powell's main store. From that discussion came the decision to expand in different directions simultaneously. Powell's would become an Internet bookstore, specializing in out-of-print books. By having, and enlarging, its own stupendous inventory it would serve customers directly and also supply the growing network of competing virtual bookstores. Books that might be too narrow to warrant display space on even Powell's extensive shelves, could be warehoused until that day someone, or some other store, comes inquiring.

So you would find an oversize volume entitled "The Penal Code of the Somali Democratic Republic" at Powells.com, but not on the shelves at Powell's. Michael Powell could then wish the best of luck to all, including Amazon.com: His online survival plan would be part of every one else's survival plan.

At the same time, Powell's would also grow exponentially at home. This would allow the display of still more new, old, esoteric or oddball books that nobody else would have room for. The two-front expansion plan had its own logic. Powell's could become a national powerhouse while staying at home. It would be both forward-looking and tradition-bound. But, really, what clinched the decision was something simple and irrepressible: a passion for books.

Powell's has been a greedy buyer of out-of-print books for years. At any given time, the line of people entering the store to sell books can be as long as those waiting 40 feet away in the checkout line to purchase them. Powell's buys about 3,500 books over the counter each day--or perhaps 1.2 million a year. Increasingly, the store acquires complete collections, including the entirety of other bookstores. When a Cleveland store went out of business, Powell's shipped back seven 40-foot containers. More recently, Powell's swallowed up a 50,000-volume bookstore in Bloomington, Ind. When the boxes of books arrived, Michael Powell reached in and the first book he grabbed was a first edition of "Intruder in the Dust" by William Faulkner.

Room to Read Is Disappearing

So book are stacking up. Shelves are full. Room for customers to sit and read is disappearing. The warehouse gets backlogged. In the end, Powell's gambled on expansion for the most ordinary of reasons: to make room for more books. "We've got the fever," Sontz says. Or, as Michael Powell puts it, the joke on himself, "If you buy two books and sell one, before long you're going to need a pretty big store."

There is just the stubbly silhouette of a beard, graying, on Michael Powell's face. He is balding, not particularly tall and wears the latest wire-rimmed glasses. He has the countenance of a teacher and seems to be one of the few people at Powell's who cares to wear something besides a T-shirt to work. Today, at 57, he is, to use the old term, one of Portland's city fathers. His bookstore gives more to Portland public school libraries than the school district does some years. He serves on boards and commissions. His appointment book is full of favor-seekers. Married with a daughter, he championed gay rights against right-wing initiatives.

Born in Portland, Powell began as a nickel-dime operation in Chicago. He would buy books at the Maxwell Street flea market--as many as he could carry on public transportation--and resell them on consignment at the University of Chicago co-op bookstore. From that, he saved $200 to buy a car so he could transport even more books. Then three professors loaned him seed money to open his first store. One of the professors was Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow.

Powell Retains Financial Interest

In 1970, Powell's opened in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, 1,000 square feet and no employees. The store remains today, and Powell still holds a financial interest in it. That year, Michael's retired father, Walter, visited and minded the shop while his son took time off. Dad enjoyed himself, returned to Portland and, in 1971, opened his own bookstore, also called Powell's. A retired contractor, he was not a bookish man by nature and so was unencumbered by traditions. For instance, he saw no reason why new and used books should not be shelved together, one of the store's pioneering moves. He also figured readers ought to have what they want, which meant a big inventory. Walter's old business cards tell the history of Powell's: 50,000 volumes for sale, then 100,000. In 1979, father called and asked his son to come home and join forces next year, they moved Powell's to the current Portland location. This was the great leap of faith--that a city block was the right size for a bookstore. Michael took over in 1981.

Although he does not stock bodice-ripper romances because, he says, his customers don't ask for them, Powell does maintain a lively erotica section, a huge inventory of science fiction as well as all variety of how-to and self-help books. He argues that independent booksellers are sometimes too precious in their tastes. If you start out thinking that only a few people share your refined ideas about books, Powell says, "it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy." To make his point, he recalls, why, just the other day a customer of Powells.com sought works of a little-known novelist named Robert Wilder. Powell was surprised to learn his store had hardback copies of five out-of-print Wilder novels. The customer bought all. "Just think, if there is a need for five Robert Wilder novels, what is there not a need for?" he enthuses. "As long as you keep quality up, you cannot have too many books. Impossible."

Quality, of course, is a qualifier. Thus, while Powell talks about giving readers what they want, he also remains intent on giving them a chance at what they should have. This has been the role, and the charm, of the bookstore in society, at least the kind of bookstore with books in it as opposed to the virtual store. This old-fashioned kind of bookstore has always been a polite argument about tastes between seller and buyer. Popular demand sometimes wins out. Powell's displays more books on cooking than on baseball because Portlanders want it that way. But walk upstairs into the Purple Room and browse the section on deceased British notables. Here Powell's puts the world into its own measured perspective: Princess Di biographies warrant one shelf; Winston Churchill five.

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. 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.