Michael Powell reflects on creating the legendary book store and keeping it strong for the next generation

By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer

This past July, Michael Powell, the architect behind the icon Powell’s City of Books, handed over the company to his daughter Emily, now the third generation to run the family-owned business after Michael and his father Walter. Yet every Portlander feels a little bit of a birthright to Powell’s. It is the largest independent bookstore in the nation, and yet it still feels like our collective personal library, a giant cubbyhole where we go to get lost for an hour or a day — and happily emerge 20 pounds heavier.

This is what Michael Powell created, turning a store into a destination. Thirty years after Powell bought the company from his father, Powell’s flagship store at the corner of 10th Avenue and Burnside stands defiantly between the old and the new, between the city’s historic core and the revitalized Warehouse and Pearl districts; between the physical and the virtual.

The halcyon days of brick and mortar bookstores would appear to have passed. On the other edge of Portland, the downtown Border’s store has closed shop. The nation’s second-largest physical bookstore chain is on the brink of bankruptcy as it tries to refinance and to drum up cash. A decade ago, Borders’ owners made a miscalculation in unloading its online sales to a little company called Amazon.com, now the largest seller of books in the United States.

Powell’s has taken a few nicks from the market changes, recently closing its technical bookstore. Street Roots sat down with Michael earlier this month to talk about how Powell’s has thrived and how it’s going to survive. We begin by talking about the plan to turn a family business into the largest independent bookstore in the nation.

Michael Powell: I think we had a commitment to a couple things. One was to afford readers the broadest possible perspective of reading, so that meant having a lot of different books on the shelves and that necessitated a lot of space, so letting it grow, but growing at a pace our customer base grew, so there was an organic process. The store started out here in Portland at about 3,000 to 4,000 square feet and grew in chunks, from 10,000 to 20,000 and to its current level. At no point in that process did we say we were going to be a certain size or a certain volume or anything. We were just seeing that our customers were indicating that they could stand it to be bigger and so we made it bigger. The bigger wasn’t about just bigger, it was about giving good books and opportunity, and that meant time on the shelf to find a readership. And then having staff commensurate with that, and creating a healthy environment.

We didn’t sit down and do a strategic plan to take us out 10 or 20 years. It was an organic process. It was a commitment to creating as broad a audience for books and as broad an book audience for readers as we possibly could.

J.Z.: And you started bringing in speakers.

M.P.: That was organic, too. It was that the only speakers we could get were self-published or oddball writers that were writing marginal books. It was a very New York Coast thing. And I literally went to a tradeshow once with a very polished brochure that showed that Portland was an airport between San Francisco and Seattle and you could send your speakers to Portland on their way between the two. So slowly over time we developed a reputation. And now we get a nice selection.

J.Z.: In July you handed the company over to your daughter, Emily.

M.P.: She earned it. She earned the right to take it on. She is the president, my wife and I are the owners.

J.Z.: You’re going to stay involved?

M.P.: To coach her and to be available to do small projects and keep handling books in some manner, but not as president of the company.

J.Z.: What did she learn from you?

M.P.: I have no idea, you’ll have to ask her that. Probably damn little.

I’m always surprised when she talks about her experience. When she’s out speaking publicly she’ll talk about books being influential to her in her formative years. She also has a passion for the business, but these are times that are particularly challenging in the book world, and she also has the knowledge and intuitive use of the technology. You can view any of the other social networking ideas as a way to promote reading — or as a challenge to reading. And so I think she can position the company to be in that role.

J.Z.: You bought the business from your dad in 1981. Was there even a kernel of thought about where the media was going to go at that time?

M.P.: No. The first time we took cognizance of how the media was evolving was when we decided to put some of our inventory on the Internet. And at that point, 1994, the Internet was a social media, not an economic media. It was against the informal rules, but you could get into a lot of trouble if you tried to sell something on the Internet when we started. But that was changing. We weren’t the first to start selling books on the Internet but we were certainly one of the first. And then from 1994 to 2003 or so there was this great gold rush opportunity to sell books on the Internet, and lots of people saw that happening and it became a very competitive market and a crowded venue.

It’s been a small part of our business and continues to be a small part. Then you have Amazon come in with the Kindle and had the market share and the dollars to make it work, and of course now you have the iPad. But it’s only been in the last five years that there’s been a serious competitor to the book.

J.Z.: In five and 10 years on, is Powell’s City of Books going to be the same place?

M.P.: It shouldn’t be. I told Emily when I signed the business over that if we’re doing exactly the same thing in five years I’m going to take it back. Because you have to be constantly adapting, finding new strategies to present material and display it and what material you’re displaying, and the mix between new and used, and all of that needs constant attention and there’s an evolution to all that. And more importantly what’s our strategy for electronics? And she’s hard at work at helping us find a way to be more relevant in that electronic world.

This is very much a hold-and-see-what-happens environment. You watch Borders slowly slide over the precipice and you thank God it’s not you. And you figure out what they did wrong and what you can do to avoid their fate.

J.Z.: Are you nostalgic for the way things were?

M.P.: I don’t think we’re in the buggy whip business just yet. But I sometimes wonder if we’re going to be the last. I’m not nostalgic, but I enjoy, and still think most people do, the printed book. It’s a question of how much you have to accommodate the new technologies and how much you continue to make what you do important to people.

J.Z.: When we talk about the new climate, I think of WikiLeaks. What are your thoughts about that and the new world of journalism and distributing information? I know censorship is a bailiwick of yours.

M.P.: It is. I can’t say much about WikiLeaks, but it used to be that publishers, rightly or wrongly — whether they’re newspaper, book magazine, TV, radio — exercised judgment, and that judgment would be based on quality, social mores. For example, you wouldn’t see pornography or a variety of other things in print. Mainstream publishers didn’t print what we call pornography, and there was a holding-back of0 some kind. Across most fronts now that holding back has evaporated, short of what’s illegal, and in some cases what is illegal. Those books were clearly labeled; you could choose to view them or not. But I would say books, like Madonna’s book, began to cross that threshold, and it was in your face. And I think with the Internet and that rush to get anything you can say said, it doesn’t have to be verified for fact, and WikiLeaks is probably an example of that phenomenon. Whether it’s good for the country or not, I don’t know. I personally have a reservation about publishing something that puts people’s lives at risk. I’m not putting that standard out there as a First Amendment standard. But diplomacy can’t operate where everything is out in the public. I’ve been in meetings where we’re trying to sort out approaches to problems, and if every word were in the Oregonian, nothing would happen, because when you’re looking over your shoulder trying to second-guess every word you said and how it’s being viewed. It stifles process.

J.Z.: How would you assess the current climate for business in Portland?

M.P.: I can tell you right now, the economy is not great. There are a lot of businesses hurting and we’re down a little bit. How much of that is the e-book world and how much of it is the economy, I have no way of parsing that information. When you have unemployment in excess
10 percent, that’s fewer dollars churning through. Customers are more cautious; they’re buying less expensive books. And so we have to be aware of those situations.

I kind of feel like things are beginning to pick up a little bit, and I don’t know why I say that. This is the only recession where I think people ate their way through it. I don’t go to a restaurant that doesn’t seem to be packed. But I don’t know if the restaurateurs would agree with that. And there are restaurants closing, but then there are 600 food carts open, too.

It will come back, at some level, at some pace, and there’s every indication that it will be slow.

J.Z.: How much is in the hands of the city, the efforts of the Portland Business Alliance, by fellow businessmen downtown? What can be done by the city to do better?

M.P.: There are lots of elements into why a business is downtown and why it’s not. There are a lot of reasons why people do business in the suburbs: Free parking and lots of it. Streets are arguably less congested, access to the suburban customer, so you have the Washington Squares of the world. I would say that downtown has been relatively healthy. The Business Alliance has done a great job of working on some of the issues that are constraining – graffiti, street cleaning, working with agencies to help on the homeless situation. I think the business community here has a good record to deal with some of the issues that make downtown more challenging. And I think we have a very healthy downtown. There are elements that I wish weren’t there.

But I would say that compared to other downtowns, it’s a pretty vibrant central city. In my lifetime, certainly in the last 20 years, virtually all the arterial streets; Mississippi, Alberta …

J.Z.: There are a lot of adorable shops opening, but they’re also closing. And I wonder how you view these changes in those communities, reflecting on your own entrepreneurial experience when you see these businesses pop up and then close in a year and half.

M.P.: Some close, but not all. But overall, I think most people would say they appreciate what happened on these streets and it’s why people move to Portland. It’s economic vitality. That kind of move of the new urban infrastructure and grittiness, if you want to call it that, made it exciting. I grew up here and I came back in 1979, and I could count on one hand the number of restaurants I would consider taking out-of-town guests to. That’s all changed. It might be seen as superficial, but people find it fun, and that’s what makes life interesting.

And books figure into that. I’m not unmindful of what Powell’s has meant to this community, sometimes I can’t believe it. It’s a blessing.

J.Z.: What are you reading these days?

M.P.: Most recent book I picked up is on the Norman occupation on England, and I’ve been going through a whole phase of Medieval history. The occasional mystery or thriller. I read a couple of books a week. My reading’s limited to after the dishes are washed.

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