Powell's CEO and veteran bookseller Miriam Sontz is retiring this year. Below, she shares memories, reflections, and advice on the challenges and thrills of spending a career in books, and describes her plans for retirement. (Hint: They don't involve meetings.)
You can take the Miriam out of Powell’s, but can you ever take the Powell’s out of Miriam?
No; happily, no. My passion for the transformative power of reading, my love of business, and my joy in working with other dedicated people were there before Powell’s and I’m sure will remain part of me after Powell’s. Powell’s nurtured my growth and solidified my commitment to this organization. I have been a (mostly) grateful student for the past 35 years. I will take those teachings with me.
Of all the roles and responsibilities you’ve held at Powell’s, which most informed who you’ve become as a person in the world — as a friend, parent, neighbor, shopper, leader?
Early in my management career, an employee died. I was at the funeral, listening to friends, family, and coworkers reminisce. I realized two things — one, I was expected to participate. I was, by virtue of my role and the role of work in our lives, expected to speak and acknowledge her contribution and our loss. And second, and more importantly, I was reminded about the web of relationships that comprise everyone’s life. That work, though important, shows us just a piece of a person. That whenever we interact with another in a business setting, we are shown just a small fragment. The richness of others is usually hidden from view. I try as a friend, parent, neighbor, shopper, and leader to be a little more revealing about myself in the hopes of reciprocity, of learning more about the other.
What will you miss most about working at Powell’s?
The stories. Staff walk up and tell me a story about a customer interaction; people at dinner parties tell me their stories about Powell’s; I’m walking down the street in New York wearing a Powell’s T-shirt and someone stops to tell me their story. Every story is about the power of a person’s experience in one of our stores. I take pride in my contribution to making that story occur. Every story reminds me that we have created something very special and unique. Sometimes you can forget about the magic because you are dealing with the overflowing toilet, the shipment that arrived damaged, or the air conditioning that fails on the hottest day of the year. Stories remind me of what is available every day when we open the doors — a cornucopia of books, a community of readers, and a welcoming place for all.
What are you most looking forward to giving up?
Responsibility. I have been a VERY responsible person all my life and I am looking forward to testing my ability to be irresponsible. I am not even sure what that means, but I’m eager to experiment. So far, the things that come to mind are: sleeping late, going to movies in the afternoon, hiking during the week. As you can see, not very wild and crazy. I am accepting suggestions.
Looking back on your tenure at Powell’s, is there anything you regret?
I bolster my courage with another woman’s courage. I believe women have been doing this since the dawn of time.
I am not good at goodbyes. I am in denial about partings. I’m that person who drops you off at the airport and doesn’t get out for the final hug. Or I’m the person who, when dropped off, bolts for the ticket counter with a backward wave. So my regret has to do with how I’ve said goodbye to some people. I could have been kinder, more appreciative, and spent more time acknowledging their contributions.
Here’s a thought experiment: If you had never become a bookseller, what realistic, alternate life can you imagine for yourself?
I have no fucking idea. Good thing I found bookselling.
What role can a store like Powell’s legitimately play in cultural movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter?
Different independent bookstores have handled this differently. We have decided to let our books speak and set the tone for discussion. We have displays and staff picks that encourage readers to investigate and think about these issues, and other topics such as gender and civil liberties. One of my favorite quotes from Walter Powell is, “Never underestimate the intelligence of our customers.” I believe we support that idea by the wide variety of books we stock. I also believe that we actively work to make sure that our stores are places where everyone can feel comfortable and welcome. Sometimes politics is expressed by wearing a button or voting a certain way — other times politics is expressed by treating one another with respect and dignity.
What bookselling memory always makes you laugh?
I was walking behind two preteen boys. One said, “This is a big bookstore.” The other turned to him and said “Nah, I’ve seen bigger.” Love that braggadocio and swagger.
Describe a vivid nightmare you’ve had about bookselling.
Recently Barnes and Noble fired their fourth CEO in five years. Shelf Awareness
ran a mock campaign where booksellers could nominate their candidate for this position. I was nominated, along with hundreds of others. I took it as a compliment and promptly forgot about it. But my brain held on to that thought and a few nights later I found myself in a nightmare, being interviewed for the CEO position. I woke up in a cold sweat, totally grateful that I never had to answer those questions.
What do you wish more people knew about you?
I am basically a shy, quiet person who does not like being the center of attention. I am happiest walking in the woods, reading a book, cooking for my family. I have pushed myself beyond my comfort zone in order to fulfill my role and responsibilities. In my 20s, I read about Margaret Mead doing anthropology research in Samoa. She went into the field and worked with Samoans, not knowing their language or customs. My mantra as I walk into situations where I feel overwhelmed or challenged is to say to myself, “Margaret Mead in Samoa.” I bolster my courage with another woman’s courage. I believe women have been doing this since the dawn of time.
Are you going to run for political office?
Nope. I am looking forward to a life with no meetings. See Answer #4.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the fact that we have balanced our passion for books with the necessities of running a business. If we lose sight of either, we jeopardize this institution. If we maintain equilibrium between the two, we are able to be creative and fund the next exciting phase of this adventure.
What qualities does a woman have to possess to achieve your level of professional success in bookselling?
I think everyone needs to balance humility with self-confidence. We all need to be humble enough to admit when we don’t know something, when we have made a mistake, or have just lost perspective. We also need to be self-confident enough to be assertive about what we do know, what we do hold dear, and what we would like to risk. We need to know when to listen with humility and when to take action. I think this is a practice that all humans could benefit from.