Powell’s

Powell’s is a bookstore in Portland, Oregon.

This is a bit like saying that the Smithsonian Institution is a museum in Washington, District of Columbia: factually correct, but grossly understating the case.

I am aware that the readership will now divide into two categories: those who have seen it, and can verify that I’m not exaggerating in the least, and those who have not. Some of the latter may suspect that I am embellishing. If so, it is accidental. I am making a conscientious effort to stick to the facts.

For everyone who thinks that dead tree publishing is just dead, period, I offer you Powell’s. And not just because it’s a huge bookstore with multiple locations, but because it’s doing well in the Amazon and Kindle era. With smart, helpful employees. Of course, it does help the employees that most are working in what they consider paradise. Many of the customers arrive in wonderful, even spiritual frames of mind, as if entering a library, and are in a mood to treat the staff as temple caretakers, so it’s a good place to work retail.

The physical facts: the main Powell’s location in downtown Portland is about a five-minute walk from where the high-speed rail lets you off, past numerous exotic food trucks (I tried Georgian), to a three-story building that takes up an entire city block. It sells books, used and new, and very little else. I would estimate the shelves at ten feet high, all wood. Newcomers do well to accept a free map of the color-coded sections. It has clean bathrooms, wide aisles, places to sit down and rest a bit, and a rare book room. While you will find at Powell’s a copy of any current and popular book you seek, the hidden beauty is what you find that you did not know existed. It is a marvelous place for subject readers, especially if books on the subject tend to stay out of print once sales fade.

Take travel essays. I read a lot of travel essays. I’m not so much the Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux type; more the Tim Cahill, Tim Severin, Tony Perrottet, and Tony Horwitz type. (What is it about those two first names that seems to indicate a book I will like?) It combines a true adventure story with cultural and geographic learning. When I go to Barnes, and I still do, the Travel Essays section occupies one segment (roughly 4′ wide) of shelves about six feet high, and stuff I’ve already read or do not plan to read dominates it. Everything by Frances Mayes about Tuscany. Everything by everyone else about the glories of Tuscany. More about Tuscany. Anthologies themed on a region or gender. Titles designed to make the author out to be a badass, which he really isn’t. Titles meant to sound cute, but which would sound cute only to the sort of person who would never read a travel essay. Plenty of ways to learn that Paris is a major city with eight figures of population and lots of dog waste. Never a shortage of Bill Bryson’s prissiness. Still more about Tuscany.

Travel essays at Powell’s? About four or five segments of shelves ten feet high. Everything Barnes had, plus more: old hardbacks about people who did Brazil in the 1930s, or south Asia in the 1920s, and more. Might find Pico Ayer or Shiva Naipaul; Sven Hedin, Freya Stark. Best of all, you might find someone whose book has been out of print since before your birth, or who wrote about someplace besides Tuscany or Paris. And unlike Barnes, Powell’s isn’t likely to mistake Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic for a Civil War history book due to the title, or his Midnight Rising for a travel book due to the author’s past body of work. Powell’s employees might actually open the book and use their brains. And once you get them home, Powell’s price tags peel off without leaving a mess.

Powell’s has two major satellite locations, plus a few minor ones. I have been to the Beaverton satellite, and it’s about the size of a Costco. If one uses the costco (symbol [c], perhaps) as a measuring unit for gigantic stores, I would estimate the downtown Powell’s as a 3[c] store. If the Hawthorne location is anything like the Beaverton cavern, you could spend a day there alone. And that’s good for me, because downtowns are not normally places I like to be. All that urban vibrancy, rapid pulse, people-watching quirkiness that you find right at the heart of the action? Lost on me. I lived in Seattle for sixteen years. When I worked downtown, I went downtown in the morning and escaped in the evening. If I went at any other time, it was because I had a girlfriend or guests who liked downtowns. I probably took less than eight solo non-commute trips downtown in sixteen years, and I believe I overdid it.

While I will never tire of loving up on Powell’s, in this day and age one may reasonably ask: how do they stay in business? I think I have it figured out. If you find business icky, you can skip this para. You will not find a lot of deeply discounted used books at Powell’s. This is not Half Price Books, or Hastings, or Amazon sellers who put it out there for $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping. I do not know how cheaply they buy, but they do not have mega-low prices. Powell’s seems to assume that if you want the book, $8 or $12 won’t bother you. Their continued existence says that they’re onto something; it’s not just about ‘give me the best price even if my experience sucks,’ in spite of the conventional wisdom of airlines, Walmart, and so on. Powell’s also has unionized employees, and while the company handled the unionization better than many, there have been conflicts and layoffs. I don’t know what the pay and benefits are like, but I suspect they are not lavish. Part of the answer, therefore, to the business survival question is that staffing costs remain in check. Powell’s evidently was/is no sweatshop, but at least at one point, there were enough issues for employees to organize a union in spite of all social trends to the contrary.

That said, I would bet it’s a happier workplace than Barnes & Noble. While I’m not wishing any bookstores gone, even Hastings, former and current B&N employees I have spoken with fall into two categories:

1) Those who said it was a job full of callous management indifference, low pay, scrambled hours, inordinate pressure to sell memberships, and poor advancement opportunities.

2) Um…haven’t heard anyone tell me s/he liked working there. The employee discount, yes, but not the job.

If you read–and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t–Powell’s is the most important stop on your trip to Portland.

It was enough to get me to desire to be in a downtown.

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