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Inside Indie Bookstores: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon

Jeremiah Chamberlin

Having grown up in a bookstore, she must have a familiarity with this world that few people possess. To say nothing of her commitment, since it's a family business.
There's a great story about Emily. When she was about eight or nine, she and I were doing Christmas cash register work. I would open the book and read the price, and then she would key it in the cash register and make change while I bagged the book. A lady came up who was trying to be nice to Emily and said, "When you grow up, are you going to be a cashier?" And Emily, counting out her change, says, "When I grow up, I'm going to own this place." [Laughter.] And by God, she is.

That was never in my mind, as a given. In this day and age, the world beckons. I just told her, "You'd be a damn fool not to kick the tires that had been good to us. I don't ask or expect you to go in this direction, but I think you'd be foolish not to give it a shot." And out of the blue one day she called from San Francisco and said, "You know, I'm ready to take that shot if you're ready."

Was she in college at the time?
No, she was working in San Francisco. She had a boyfriend down there and she was in a variety of things—she was an apprentice to a maker of wedding cakes, then worked as an assistant to the head of a law firm for a couple years. And, you know, she enjoyed San Francisco very much, but I think that gave her the motivation to say, "Well, I think it's time to try the book business." She had worked here for a year earlier, right out of college, but she needed to really get out and try something else in the world for a while.

How hands on or off will you be once you retire?
Well, I'll tell you a story. I had someone like you come to interview me and he said, "So when you retire, what will you do?" And I said, "Well, you know, I'll probably go out to the warehouse and process books, get them out of boxes. I like doing that." And he laughed. So I said, "What's funny about that? You don't think I can do that?" And he said "No, no. I was out on the floor interviewing one of your employees and I said, ‘What will Michael Powell do when his daughter takes over?' And he said, ‘He'll go over to the warehouse and process books.'" So I guess I'm known for my limited talents.

Somehow I'd like to stay involved. You know, you learn a lot, and business is complex, and you can't know everything and you can't be everywhere. Just walking around you see things and you say, "I wonder why they're doing it that way? That doesn't seem as efficient." Or, "Do they know that people in the other store are doing it differently?" So I think it'll be helpful to have someone with an educated eye watching the business from the inside, to see where those opportunities are. For example, there are several things we're doing by hand that we ought to be doing in a more automated way. At the moment, those are opportunities. You're always working for productivity efficiencies because your costs go up and you've got to keep your costs and revenues in balance. The casual approach we had to the business fifteen years ago just doesn't work. Certainly with the high investment in technology we have and the high investment in inventory, we better be very grounded in what we're doing, and alert.

You came into this neighborhood when it was mostly just car repair shops and warehouses, and now it's become more of a boutique area. Do you think Powell's had a hand in that transition? I imagine that most people must think of you as an anchor in this community.
Well, I think we're an anchor for the city. That may sound immodest, but somebody's got to say it. If you have a relative come into town, or a friend come into town, and they say "What is there to do in Portland?" If you name three things, one of them is going to be Powell's. Because the city's proud of it. You don't even have to be a reader—you just want to show it off. Biggest bookstore in America, maybe the biggest in the world. You know, if you've got the biggest ball of string, people think you're kooky. But if you have the biggest bookstore, it says something positive about the community—that it supports a store that large—and people like that message. And we try to then earn the respect of the community by not just running a good business, but also being involved in the community. I spend a lot of my time on boards and commissions and planning efforts. I chair the streetcar board. We just created what will now be about eight miles of streetcar. We're the first city in America to put new streetcars back in.

Like old-style trolleys?
No, they're modern-looking streetcars, and they're European built. They're not San Francisco cute; they're modern, sleek streetcars. And we move four million people each year. I've also been involved in dozens and dozens of committees and commissions, some in the arts and some in social services and some in politics. Not partisan politics, but political efforts to do things or to stop things from happening, all aimed at trying to fulfill the vision of a city that is a twenty-four-hour-a-day city, that works, that's attractive and great to do business in, and great to live in. I think people respect the work that we do in that area. People will stop me and say, "I love your store," but sometimes they'll stop me and say, "I love what you do for the community," and they're referring to a broader level of involvement. People ask me if it ever gets tiring, being stopped by people. But I think no; when they stop, that's problematic. That means we're doing something that's not working. I get involved in political things, but they're almost always around censorship or involved with access to books. Oregon has a very strong constitutional defense of books, but we also have the same element of the population that would like to, for a variety of reasons, control that flow. You know: "Don't put gay books in schools, don't let anyone under the age of eighteen be exposed to bad books." But we win those fights.

Still, they usually take a lot of energy and some money, and with the first anti-gay measure in Portland—Proposition 9—businesses were very closely involved. I have gay staff, of course, and friends who are gay, and they challenged me. There was an element of that legislation that involved not letting libraries, specifically school libraries, have gay-related materials. But we just turned the store into a poster board for that issue, and we won it, and we were very proud of that.

So you helped defeat it at the ballot.
Yep. There were two efforts and we won both of those. Not by overwhelming numbers, but we won. If we can define the issue as one of censorship, and they can define the issue as perversity, and you let that go in a challenge, they'll win. But Oregonians don't like censorship, and again I say not by overwhelming numbers, but we do win. And so we get involved in those issues and they seem to come along with certain regularity, every four or five years. Otherwise most of the stuff I get involved in is more planning. I don't get involved in partisan politics as a company. In fact I keep the company very separate from that. Personally I do get involved, but I try to keep it as separate as I possibly can.

As a citizen, not an owner.
Yeah, yeah.

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