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Independent's Day

by David Sarasohn
Posted with permission from the March 17, 1997 issue of The Nation magazine


 
As soon as the Oregon Citizens Alliance — a crude regional first draft of the Christian Coalition — put on the 1992 Oregon ballot a measure declaring homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse," Portland bookseller Michael Powell reacted strongly.

"We turned the store into a billboard," he recalls.

Even for the overheated politics of 1992, it was a big billboard. Located on the fringe of downtown Portland, Powell's City of Books fills a good-sized block, offering more than half a million new and used titles in a space that looks like it might be holding a going-out-of-business rug sale. Over twenty-five years, gradually pushing itself out into seven color-coded rooms, each the size of a large army mess hall, Powell's has grown into a semantic superpower.

But as much space as it takes up on West Burnside Avenue, Powell's takes up even more in Portland's community and cultural life. Michael Powell, a former University of Chicago graduate student in political science, isn't exactly a philosopher-king, but he's something at least as rare in nineties America: a bookseller-baron. People generally make an impact with masses of money or votes; Powell speaks in Portland from the top of a huge pile of books.

It may not be the classic way books are supposed to influence a community, but it's the same principle. In Casablanca, everybody goes to Rick's; in Portland, everybody goes to Powell's, wandering among ten-foot-high shelves marching in relentless rows toward huge, usually rain-streaked windows. Locals wearing the trail boots or hooded parkas of the Northwest culture drop by after a movie or before a dentist appointment or to pass a Saturday, walking past the entry room's first casual statement: 300 feet of books on feminist studies.

There is a power in that mass of books, in a place that will not only have the book you want — perhaps in Urdu — but will have six other books on the subject that you never knew existed. It brings together people who read books and — in more than 250 appearances a year — people who write them.

"When we got started bringing authors to town, you couldn't get a decent author to Portland," says Powell, who looks like a graying graduate student. "Portland's access to ideas, authors and books has grown as Powell's has grown. It's not cause and effect, but it's synergy."

The role has actually been more direct. In the early eighties Powell's was the first business to sponsor Portland Arts & Lectures, the city's first serious author lecture series. Now, the series has moved from a 400-seat auditorium to a 2,700-seat theater, and it draws the kind of writers who fill the room.

"We get people to come here because Powell's is here," says Julie Mancini, who runs the series. "We got Larry McMurtry because he wanted to buy books for his store in Georgetown. Doris Kearns Goodwin comes here because she finds books she can't find in Cambridge." And Portlanders go to Powell's to buy books by the authors who come to speak.

"What Michael got first, before anybody," says Mancini, "was that it wasn't about selling books in his store, it was about supporting Portland's literary arts," which would end up selling books. Now, she says, "if there's a new edition of the Bible, people expect God to be at Powell's to sign books." Of course, notes one local author escort, there are some writers who would probably do better elsewhere — "such as Oprah's trainer." Robert Shapiro, approaching in his limo for an appearance to flog his O.J. book, took one look and worried that he'd been sent to the wrong place, and would be lucky to have twenty people appear. Actually, 150 showed up to hear him. But he was right; it was the wrong place.

Powell's is, for example, the kind of store that every other autumn sprouts a thicket of resistance to the latest affront to civil liberties defacing Oregon's ballot — a local seasonal custom, something like deriding the newest arrivals from California. Hence, the store's particularly active role in organizing opposition to the 1992 effort that would have amended the state Constitution to tell gays that it didn't apply to them.

"I was personally outraged," recalls Powell. That meant signs throughout the store, public speeches and a substantial financial contribution by Powell, encouragement of bookstore employees to volunteer and an effort that raised $65,000. Throughout October, the intensity level at Powell's seemed to build. "As we got deeper into the campaign," says Powell, "it became clear that other businesses were not stepping forward."

For months, the store seemed to feature as many pink-triangle "Straight But Not Narrow" buttons as flannel shirts. If the center of support for the ballot measure was a network of conservative churches, the opposition formed in the aisles of Powell's.

In 1996 the store was bedecked with campaign signs protesting an initiative that would have limited the state Constitution's free-speech protections in a drive against pornography. "When you call Michael on a free-expression issue," says David Fidanque, head of the Oregon A.C.L.U., "if he's not on it already, he'll be there soon."

"I see Michael as being very important, more significant himself than the bookstore," says Portland essayist Sallie Tisdale, author of the recent study of pornography Talk Dirty to Me and chairwoman of the Northwest branch of PEN. "He's very generous, he doesn't look for credit and he's been very important in anti-censorship efforts around here."

In most places, a bookstore — even one with a European history section the size of Andorra — wouldn't have a mission statement. Powell's does. "We have a social responsibility to the community and to our industry to fight censorship, promote literary awareness and encourage authors and their works," the statement declares. The goals don't always run together smoothly. In February Powell took down a photo exhibit from the book Angry White Men after black employees complained.

But what supports the mission statement, and the store's prominence, is ultimately the store's range. Compared with his half-million titles, Powell estimates, a chain superstore might carry 150,000. Mention of other big stores in other cities draws a quick dismissal; Powell says he knows their square footage, and they can't have what he's got. Moreover, it's his personal bookstore, the ultimate graduate school reading list: "We value things that other bookstores don't, especially history and social sciences. A fan of Civil War history will come from out of town to find ten books that he's never heard of."

And if there are complaints that Powell's is less strong in subjects such as art and architecture, that it's weak on periodicals, and that other local bookstores develop specialties in areas like New Age and science fiction, Powell's clearly has a special voice in a city shaped by — and open to — its impact.

"If this place was in New York, it wouldn't be big news," says Powell. "But the irony is that because of economics, this kind of store doesn't exist in big cities, so it's even more striking to find it in a mid-size city." To Powell, the difference isn't just metropolitan rents. "I can't imagine," he speculates, "in New York City, doing extremely well at 10 or 11 at night." At Powell's at that hour, browsers are still unfolding the store's map to find their way to the Korean studies section.

But the impact of Powell's on the book world is not about store hours. Orin Teicher, of the American Booksellers Association, notes that Powell's, along with Denver's Tattered Cover bookstore, has provided "a model that major national groups used in developing the superstore strategy," which may well give Michael Powell something to answer for. But it also helped establish the now growing sense of bookstore as agora, a meeting place in a society more comfortable with walls than with openings. And while Powell's puts on constant author readings, and the coffee room may even provide some literary discussion, Michael Powell has a clear-eyed sense of the nature of the store's cappuccino contact scene. "Powell's is a place to have a cup of coffee and pick up members of the opposite sex," he says. This can, of course, also be done at Borders — but maybe not in the medieval cookbooks section.

To Michael Powell, his store intentionally has a different style and a different mood from that of the corporate superstores. "With the wooden shelves, the cement floors, the tall aisles, we have a sense of space. People don't feel that the only function of the place is to sell them something," says Powell. "A place where the lights are a little too dim, a place that's a little dusty, doesn't exude the feeling of buy and get out." The difference extends, notes Powell, to his bookstore's public role as well as its ambience. The superstores, he figures, are not about to go leaping into the middle of an initiative campaign to decide whether gays should be called names in the state Constitution.

"It's highly unlikely," he figures. "They're not in the business of satisfying their shareholders by alienating possible customers." Powell, by contrast, answers to nobody but himself and his own collector's obsession. Portland, in fact, has a number of small independent bookstore owners who think Powell's is something of a chain itself, with its dominant public presence, seven branch stores and kiosks in public spaces and hospitals. There are also three stores in Chicago, where Powell first went into the business, before deciding that it was a nice place to sell books but he wouldn't want to live there. Powell explains that the strategy is to bring books to people, and the approach includes small outlets specializing in cookbooks, gardening and travel.

"I knew Powell's when it was a used-book store," says Bob Maull, of Portland's Twenty-Third Avenue Books, and president of the Oregon Independent Booksellers Association. "It was a different place than it is today." Originally, the booksellers association had a rule that excluded Powell's by limiting membership to single stores. Now Powell's belongs. And while Maull credits Powell's for bringing authors to Portland, and sees a difference from the national chains because book-ordering decisions are made locally instead of by "some buying division in New York," he's dubious about the argument that it creates a literary atmosphere that benefits other bookstores. Powell's has not, of course, warded off the coming of Barnes & Noble. Michael Powell expects that when the last brightly lit self-help section of the last new chain superstore is opened in the Portland area, Powell's will be surrounded by at least ten giant competitors. And nationally, he notes, in the past four years independent bookstores' share of the market dropped from percentages in the high twenties to the high teens. But by Powell's calculation, his store will still have the strength of its local commitment and involvement, the insistence that books can have a major impact on local life.

And most of all, Michael Powell is convinced that no chain is ever going to match his store's monumental reach, the seemingly endless stretch of book spines. Against the boast of billions of hamburgers sold, there's always the claim of the largest menu.

"I have a friend at the American Booksellers Association," says Powell with his collector's gleam, "who keeps trying to think of things we don't have. One day he said 'Albanian studies' and I said, 'Language or history?'"

 

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