Powell's Commitment to Free Speech
At Powell’s, we believe it is the right of every reader to determine their reading material, and it is the duty of the bookseller to provide it with care and without censure. We do not ban books or censor ideas. Instead, we show our commitment to free speech and our respect for all readers by carrying an extensive inventory of books from a diversity of viewpoints.
Frequently Asked Questions
Other businesses choose not to sell certain products for a variety of reasons. What makes bookselling unique?
In 2021, bookselling is an act of faith as much as it is a commercial enterprise. As booksellers we trust that people will continue to value the labor, artistry, and tempo of the written word in a digital era; and we have faith in the alchemy between readers and writers to create positive change in our world.
There are very few places left in America today where the free and peaceable exchange of opposing ideas is practiced. By virtue of their inventory, bookstores can be such a place. In the interest of fostering thoughtful dialogue and illuminating American discourse as it stands — as opposed to how we wish it looked — we allow books of all kinds to share our virtual and physical shelves.
Shouldn’t you make exceptions to your policy for politically or socially inflammatory titles?
Booksellers are not censors. We have the privilege to curate, promote, and act as guides to the books and ideas we value, but it is contrary to our core mission of free speech to impose limits on what our customers read. At the end of the day, making space for books and readers with whom we disagree is the nonviolent antithesis to the dominant impulse to shout down (or worse) anyone who doesn’t support one’s worldview, something we see daily on social media and, more terrifyingly, in America’s seats of power. Given the choice between holding our noses over a book and bowing to pressure to begin banning them, we will always choose the former.
Why would you sell a book online but not in stores?
Publishers collectively release hundreds of new books every week. Even a store as large as the City of Books can’t carry every book on the market. To expand our offerings for our customers, Powell’s and many other retailers make their distributors’ and publishing partners’ catalogs available for purchase online.
Is it true that you ban books?
No. A banned book is a book that is pulled from public access as a direct result of objections from a person or group. While we support peaceful protests regarding the books we carry, we do not make a practice of removing books from our inventory due to employee or community objections.
As noted above, even a store as big as our downtown Portland location can't carry every book on the market. As a result, the books that we do not buy for sale in our stores are often available for purchase on Powells.com.
Our Commitment to Free Speech
As an independent bookstore, Powell’s believes that it is our responsibility to respect your choice of reading material. We dedicate ourselves to providing a wide array of books, authors, viewpoints, and voices, and our selection sets Powell’s apart from our peers in bookselling. We provide these options in support of free speech and, just as importantly, because we believe that exposure to a multiplicity of writing — in fiction and nonfiction alike — facilitates critical thinking and spurs conversation and growth.
As a result, there are books in our stores and online inventory that contain ideas that run counter to our company’s and many of our employees’ values. However, many of us also read these books to inform ourselves about events; learn about local and global history; and to understand the arguments of people and groups with whom we disagree. While we understand that our decision to carry such books upsets some customers and staff members, we do not want to create an echo chamber of preapproved voices and ideas. It is not our mission or inclination to decide to whom our customers should listen.
Our reading lists, blog posts, and store displays highlight and promote our support for diverse voices, racial justice, and human rights. And we will continue to carry a broad inventory because we believe it is the best way to do the fundamental work of bookselling, which is to make available and disseminate ideas and foster dialogue.