Posted in Books, Publishing

Why Powell’s Books in Portland Continues to Be an Important Bookstore

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Only a short decade ago, both bookstores and video stores were considered by most to be essential institutions. Although the Internet was certainly becoming more powerful by the day, eBooks were not yet attractive reading tools for the masses and Netflix was still limited to DVDs by mail, the capability of streaming only a dream for most film and TV lovers. In 2007 the bookstore and the video store appeared relatively safe, but as many are aware, technological advances and increasingly fickle consumers can make for fast changes. In the last ten years, one of the two major booksellers Borders Books closed its doors for good, and nearly every video store in the United States is gone, including the heavyweight Blockbuster Video. Owners of movie rental stores couldn’t foresee how powerful streaming services like Netflix and Hulu would be, and the people that ran Borders Books failed to account for the power eBooks would bring to reading culture. Today Barnes & Noble is still around, managing with its online branch and its early adoption of eBook devices to stay relevant as more and more brick-and-mortar stores fall by the wayside.

Although the owners of Barnes & Noble bookstores continue to struggle in the marketplace, independent bookstores, surprisingly enough, are staying strong, many offering deals for customers in store and online, both in physical book and eBook form. The most successful independent book stores are the ones that, unlike the owners of video stores and Borders Books, offer innovation, and one of the most beloved of them all is Powell’s Books in Portland, the largest independent bookstore in the world. Powell’s Books is a marvel for the eyes, and it may be the perfect place for any serious bibliophile to spend a long afternoon, but what continues to make Powell’s one of the most respected, important, thriving bookstores in the current marketplace is its constantly evolving innovation in response to dueling technologies.

Before examining the ways Powell’s Books has used innovation to succeed in the troubling economic times of the last decade, it is important to understand the difference between corporately-owned bookstores like Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores. Of course one major benefit a large chain of a brick-and-mortar store like Barnes & Noble has over smaller independent bookstores is its visibility around the country. Although less populated cities around the country may not have a Barnes & Noble, most cities do have one of the stores or at least is close to one. Secondly, customers know what they’re getting when they walk into a Barnes & Noble; they understand that the store will offer books at both new and reduced prices, as well as a café that offers coffee drinks and food options.

And third, even more so than many independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble offers something pivotal to book lovers, as Nathan Cummings explains: “an enjoyable browsing experience. I would visit Barnes & Noble to scan the shelves for new finds more often than to hunt for specific titles. And the peaceful coffee-scented ambience of my childhood is nowhere to be found [elsewhere]” (Cummings). As Cummings says, there is a familiarity with Barnes & Noble that can’t quite be captured by most singular independent bookstores. However, there is a coldness and a lack of personal connection in most corporate bookstores, and Cummings goes on to explain the one area where independent bookstores succeed in the current marketplace: “Independent booksellers leverage their close connections with local communities to provide personalized book recommendations based on store employees’ or frequent customers’ testimonials” (Cummings). There’s a personal touch that comes through that one can’t normally find at a Barnes & Noble, that a person certainly can never find online. Author Zachary Karabell adds, “The independents offer something neither Amazon nor the chains can: attention to the quirky needs of their customer base” (Karabell). These quirky needs can point to a whole range of possibilities, but at the heart of the argument is that independent bookstores offer more access and affordability, and important personal connection than Amazon and Barnes & Noble ever could. And when it comes to the most popular independent bookstores in the United States, innovation has been key to their successes.

Independent bookstores are everywhere, many of which offer unique opportunities and browsing experiences for the book-buying public. City Lights in San Francisco features three levels of books as well as its own publishing house, and it has a rich history in that it has “drawn in some of the best counterculture artists and thinkers in the U.S.” (McNearney). A notable independent bookstore in Los Angeles is The Last Bookstore, which pairs “their impressive selection of new and used reads and records with tomes repurposed to form art installations and a giant tunnel of books that runs through the store” (McNearney). Parnassus Books is a major draw for book lovers in Nashville, Tennessee, and New York features a host of quality independent bookstores including Bookbook and Harbor Books. Reno, Nevada, has two important independent bookstores that have remained steady for years the same time as corporately-owned bookstores like Borders Books in the region have failed — Sundance Books, which has been in operation for more than thirty years and offers both new and used books in a laid-back country-house setting, and Grassroots Books, which not only offers new and used books but also holds frequent warehouse sales where thousands of titles go on sale to customers for one dollar or less.

Arguably the most important independent bookstore in the country, however, has to be Powell’s Books in Portland, which not only calls itself the largest independent bookstore in the world but also offers the latest in innovation when it comes to staying relevant in the modern digital age. Powell’s Books first opened its doors in 1971. The venture was the idea of Walter Powell, a retired painting contractor who worked at his son’s bookstore in Chicago one summer and was so enamored by the experience that he decided to open up his own bookstore in Portland. According to the company’s website, “Walter swamped his original location by buying every marketable used book that came through the door, finally pushing the whole operation into a former car dealership on Northwest Burnside” (Powells.com). Of course the massive size of the place was immediately a draw to book lovers, but when Walter’s son Michael joined him in the Powell’s Books venture in 1979, he brought his unique approach that remains true to this day: “used and new, hardcover and paperback, all on the same shelf; open 365 days a year; and staffed by knowledgeable and dedicated booklovers” (Powells.com).

The first use of innovation at Powell’s Books is indeed its inclusion of both new and used titles because it gives customers options, particularly when it comes to the money in their wallet. And although many independent bookstores, including Sundance Books, designates its used titles to a specific section of the store, Powell’s offers its used copies right alongside its new ones for all titles in stock. Powell’s does not believe in pushing its used titles to a specific wing for those who don’t want to shell out as much cash as everyone else but instead gives each of its customers plenty of options, with used copies on some titles, depending on their conditions, offered for different prices. Powell’s Books is also innovative in its store design, so mammoth that the owners needed to make the browsing experience as easy to navigate as possible for its customers. Therefore, each room is painted a different color to signify what section a customer is in; for example, cookbooks are in the orange room, while mystery is in the gold room. At 68,000 square feet, Powell’s would be too intimidating for half of the book lovers walking in if it wasn’t super clear in its layout, and one way Powell’s is innovative compared to many cluttered and confusing independent stores in the country — Commonwealth Books in Boston, Massachusetts, for example, is one long hallway of books stacked to the ceiling with few discernable labels on its many shelves — is that customers can get happily lost in its many levels and endless rooms but not actually become lost, its many overhead navigation menus and color-coded spaces easy to make sense of throughout the store.

Powell’s Books remains relevant specifically in the face of changing technology due to its online bookstore and the ability to sell as well as buy. Of course for any business to succeed it needs an online presence, as reporter Amy Haimerl expresses: “After years of losses, [independent bookstores] are emerging from the decimation. In a twist of fate, it is the internet — the very thing that was supposed to wipe them out — that is helping these stores” (Haimerl). What Powell’s Books offers that outranks it over most other independent bookstores in the country is that it gives consumers a searchable database of all their stocked titles and the ability to buy both new and used books over the Internet. Their web site is not only a hugely important element of their business — one can purchase their items from anywhere in the world, not just those who live in Portland — but it also gives consumers a reason to support an online book company that’s not Amazon. Most independent bookstores only succeed by their brick-and-mortar business, and so Powell’s Books is innovative in its online side of the business that continues to flourish.

Another method Powell’s Books enacts to stay relevant is to engage its consumers not only with book buying but also with book selling. The same way Grassroots Books in Reno invites its customers to make money by selling personal items — including books, DVDs, and CDs — Powell’s Books also has a wing of its company that’s devoted completely to purchasing books from its customers. What makes Powell’s Books unique in this regard is that one doesn’t have to sell his or her books in the Portland brick-and-mortar store (although that’s an option); again, using the web site, customers can type in their personal items one by one and see what books they own Powell’s Books is searching for, what will go for little money or lots of money, and what the final buying price will tentatively be. This practice points to a sense of community, especially among those who may live across the country but still get to take part in the daily buying and selling practices of Powell’s Books. It’s a win-win situation, Powell’s Books taking in used and new titles for their shelves, customers making a profit from selling items they no longer need, and a community that works together to make a better shopping experience overall.

Powell’s Books also stays innovative is in its focus on in-store events, like book signings and author talks, and a top-floor section specifically dedicated to rare, out-of-print books, all which can’t be done online or at home. As much as Powell’s reaches out to consumers who can’t be in Portland, they also go out of their way to provide substantial events for book lovers in-house that goes beyond an occasional author visit. Most bookstores, both corporately owned like Barnes & Noble and independently owned across the country, offer author readings and signings, sometimes from big-name authors and sometimes from local ones. As author Caitlin Kelly says, “How often, really, can you get within a foot of any other creator of culture, someone whose work keeps you up late into the night, turning pages? Many serious readers are still thrilled to meet a real author and to chat with them, even for a few minutes, to see what they really look like and whether they’re nice to fans” (Kelly).

But Powell’s Books is unique in that it offers one to three major events nearly every day of the year, an innovation to be sure because it gives customers a daily reason to come to the store to see who’s up next. In March 2017 for example, Powell’s offered a wide range of events that include readings from major authors (Isaac Marion, Christopher Merrill), readings from local authors (Marni Bates), and conversations between two authors at the same time (Bianca Bokser and Karen Brooks), as well as writing workshops for students, kids’ story-time sit-downs, and various book group meetings. Powell’s doesn’t only offer events for serious book lovers and scholars but also customers of all ages who might not want to just read books but also learn to write them too.

For those in the area, the in-store events offer multitudes of opportunities that go beyond the mere shopping experience, and additionally, Powell’s understands that an area dedicated to ultra-rare and used books, some of which are so priceless that they’re placed behind glass, is another incentive for readers to come into the store. Located on the fourth floor, the aptly named Rare Book Room offers a unique entry into the world of book history, with “1,000 square feet of dark wood shelving, ambient lighting, antique furniture” and “several thousand of valuable books, including an extensive library of reference works about antiquarian books” (Powells.com). Customers can peruse an extensive collection of titles that include a De Bello Judaica. [And] De Antiquitate Judaeorum Contra Apionem, published in Verona way back in 1480, and History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark of the Missouri, Thence Across the Rocky Mountains and Down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, a title published in 1814 that currently has an asking price of $350,000 (Powells.com). The Rare Book Room acts as an additional incentive to bring more consumers into the brick-and-mortar store and keep them there longer by offering a diverse book-browsing experience than what is available at most bookstores around the country.

A final way Powell’s Books stays innovative is in its embrace of the self-publishing model. Self-publishing has come into fashion in the past decade with the rise of eBooks, but it’s important to understand that self-publishing has been around for centuries, the act of an author bypassing agents and especially publishers to put their books into the hands of readers through their own personal means. Most bookstores look down on self-published books and never offer them to customers, but Powell’s Book is innovative in not only acknowledging the self-publishing revolution but also enabling authors to self-publish their titles through their Espresso Book Machine by On Demand Books. Introduced in 2012, the machine allows for the self-publishing of one’s own book as well as making copies of previously self-published manuscripts, like those of Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein, as well as classic novels that have since gone out of print. The emphasis of the machine is on the printed book, not the Ebook that one normally equates to self-publishing, and reporter Alison Hallett argues that the Espresso Book Machine is a welcome addition to Powell’s Books because “despite owning and liking a Kindle, I still have a stubborn preference for reading in print, and all other things being equal would always take a print book over a digital one. Plus, being able to create physical copies of hard-to-find/out-of-print titles is pretty amazing in its own right” (Hallett). Self-publishing has been at the forefront of controversies and changing digital landscapes in recent years, and so for Powell’s to not look down on the revolution but embrace its possibilities adds to their relevance today and beyond.

Video stores may be long gone in 2018, as is Borders Books, but many bookstores continue to thrive even when faced with dueling technologies, and Powell’s Books remain on top due to its emphasis on innovation. It’s a famous, massive, sprawling bookstore filled with thousands of book titles in all genres, with color-coded rooms and a mix of new and used books for the consumer to choose from. But its innovation goes deeper than that, the store’s emphasis on its online web site allowing book lovers from around the world to both buy and sell titles through Powell’s and become part of a large community that exists beyond Amazon’s omnipresent walls by presenting alternative ways of exploring all aspects of books. In addition, the store offers daily events and a unique rare book room to bring more customers into its brick-and-mortar store, as well as a self-publishing machine to stay current in the practice of the constantly evolving publishing model. Despite what the naysayers may have believed in years past and even today, bookstores continue to stay afloat despite Amazon’s overwhelming influence, and Powell’s Books in Portland remains a truly innovative powerhouse that will continue to grow and stay strong for many decades to come.

Works Cited

Cummings, Nathan. “Brick and Mortar: Lessons About the Future of Bookselling.” Harvard Political Review. 12 February 2016. Web. 21 March 2017.

Haimerl, Amy. “The Neighborhood Bookstore’s Likely Ally? The Internet.” The New York Times. 5 October 2016. Web. 27 March 2017.

Hallett, Alison. “More on Powell’s New Espresso Book Machine.” The Portland Mercury. 4 May 2012. Web. 29 March 2017.

Karabell, Zachary. “Why Independent Bookstores Are on the Rise Again.” Slate. 9 September 2014. Web. 21 March 2017.

Kelly, Caitlin. “People Are Still Buying Books at Indie Bookstores.” Forbes. 30 August 2016. Web. 27 March 2019.

McNearney, Allison. “The Best Independent Bookstores in America.” The Daily Beast. 17 December 2016. Web. 22 March 2017.

“The Rare Book Room.” Powell’s City of Books. http://www.powells.com/findastore/powellscityofbooks/therarebookroom/ Web. 29 March 2017.

“The Rare Book Room FAQ and Trivia.” Powell’s City of Books. http://www.powells.com/findastore/powellscityofbooks/therarebookroom/faq. Web. 29 March 2017.

“Who We Are.” Powell’s City of Books. http://www.powells.com/info/about-us. Web. 22 March 2017.

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