Friday, July 22, 2011

Portland and the Book Seller

I have sent many different Prominent Portlanders emails, requesting meetings.  People who, I believe, have helped make Portland what it is.  One of the people I emailed (through Powell's marketing email address) was Michael Powell.  I figured it was a long shot, but why not?  All they could do is say no.  The day after I sent that email, Michael Powell called and set up a meeting with me for the following day at his favorite Portland Place, Powell's books.  I meet Michael in the coffee shop.  He looks like a typical older man, save the clear acrylic rainbow colored glasses he wears.  As we walk around the store to find a quiet place to talk, it becomes apparent that such a place might not exist.  Finally, behind some bookshelves and in front of some windows on the second floor, Michael tells me why Powell's Bookstore is his favorite place.

"I actually started selling books in Chicago on 57th and Harper, and my Dad thought it was fun, and he came back to Portland and started a store here.  My father said at the beginning, what this community needs is a really good bookstore. We were in the used book business then.  He started mixing new and used, that was the critical thing. I came back to Portland in '79 and worked with him until he died, and I have run the business on my own since then, and now my daughter is taking over, and she is running it, and I'm just puttering around in the warehouse.  It's been an interesting ride." 

We talk a bit about the evolution of the City of Portland, and I ask him if the current iteration of Powell's was what he had envisioned from the beginning.

"When I first started, I didn't envision all this, I just wanted to run a successful bookstore.  We were kind of middling size, as far as bookstores go.  When I came back from Chicago, Powell's was about an 8000 square foot store, which is fairly large for a bookstore.   My Dad had lost the lease on that space, and my first job was to find a new location.  So we found this spot, bought it, and moved in."

I ask him about the role the community has played in building Powell's into what it has become, and Michael becomes a bit more animated, though, he still has a hard time looking me in the eye.  I am starting to get the sense that he is painfully shy.

"Portland is a very strong community.  I've done a lot of volunteer work on boards and commissions and committees, so I have a pretty good sense of how Portlanders work and sometimes don't work together.  A great deal of my last twenty to thirty years have been involved in civic activities as well as the business, of course.   I've always had the feeling that, no matter what kind of business you're in, you have a self-interest and a community interest in making the community successful.  You want it to work so that your business can be successful, and you want it to work because you live here.  You want to see the community evolve into something ever-better.  You have to step outside your business or personal life, and play a role in the community.   The bookstore has played a role in the revitalization of this neighborhood and the city in terms of literacy, well-being and thinking well of ourselves as a community. I've always said this community, and maybe this is a little romantic, that this community is better, because as a community, it has seen ideas put into effect. Words have meaning, and ideas matter, and this is a community that understands both, and those words and ideas are in books. I'd like to think that a lot of people have made their decision to move to Portland at least partly, because this store is here.  It fills a need in their lives or it is iconic in that it reflects well on the community.  There is just a pleasant connection between the community feeling good about us and us feeling good about the community."  

We discuss the community's role in the progression of Powell's over the years, and Michael tells me it was one of the driving forces in how Powell's has grown.  He tells me that part of the reason for its success is that Powell's "goes to 11".

"Powell's is a place where people meet, and spend the weekend, and we encourage people to stay as long as they want.  They can read, hang out in the coffee shop, we don't care. You don't bring someone in from out of town without taking them to Powell's.  That's almost unheard of.  I owe it to the community.  Anybody can put a whole bunch of books on the shelves, but if nobody wants them, then you're gone.   I think it is popular to talk about retail providing community centers, I am not sure I would go that far, but Powell's is a place where people feel comfortable hanging out.  Other stores have the try it, buy it, move on mentality.  The other thing is that the people who work here, by and large, are knowledgeable book people who are passionate about books.  Our goal has been to make them passionate about selling books.  Part of it is the selection, part of it is the price points, you can buy a book pretty cheap here, if you want to.  If you're looking for a five dollar read, we got it.  I have always said there are three things that have made us successful:  mixing the new and used, letting it grow to the level that the customers said they were interested in seeing, and having an educated and knowledgeable staff.  That's a recipe for success.  I think other communities would have responded the same way this one has, I don't think Portland is unique that way.  It also helps a lot that we are open until 11.  Most places close at five.  It's a business thing, but it's a community thing too, and has proven that this is a safe community, and that is why it is important to keep it safe."

We discuss the impact the conversion to digital books has had on Powell's ability to sell actual books, and what he sees as the future of book selling at Powell's.

"With the economy and the Kindle, we are feeling the pressure.  Oregon was particularly hard hit in this last economic downturn.  We're not quite sure how much of what we are feeling is the economy and how much is digital, but it is probably some of both.    Our sales aren't what they were.  Hopefully either it will balance out, or we will find other strategies.  We do digital sales, we don't do very many, it's a small part of our business, but we have been doing that for 15 years.  It's just that the digital universe is pretty much run by Amazon and Kindle, which is closed to us.  We're kind of frozen out of most of the market.  At the moment we are working with Google and Sony and some other products, and hopefully we will have a strategy that works.  I understand the utility of it, it's not like I don't get it, it's just harder for us to have a role in it.  Where the balance will be?  Will it drive most bookstores out of business?  Or will they survive by bringing in more non-book products?  There are people who see Armageddon.   It's your generation, (mine, evidently), and the generation behind you that we're worried about.  My age group, by and large, we are not going to adopt these electronics, but, those who are used to texting and using all the varieties of technology it seems are a little more comfortable with digital books, but we'll see.  We were the first bookstore of any size or credibility to show up on the internet.  We are quick to find new strategies to take the business, I just don't know what that is going to look like in five years." 

I comment that it is hard to imagine there is a stone that has yet to be unturned by the business, but he offers that there are areas that Powell's can still grow into, though the logistics are yet to be worked out.

"An area I'm interested in working in is in books in languages other than English.  We do a pretty good job here with those, but I think we could do a lot better job.  There is an under-served audience.  There a million people in the United States who speak Italian.  If I can reach that market, I have a market for books in Italian.  I just have to be smart enough to reach that audience.  Sourcing the product is also the issue.  You really have to understand the language to parse out what the book is.  I can fake it in French and German, but can't fake Japanese or Chinese.  But there is a market for those books.  We sell a fair number of books here in Japanese.  We're not doing anything to find quality books, we're just taking what people sell us.  It costs a lot to bring a book over from Japan.  That adds to the cost of the book.  Finding good foreign language books, then, getting them here is the thing.  So I am sorting out some critical logistical issues.  I remain cautiously optimistic, but then, I have always been that way.  I have never taken anything for granted, am always thinking about what's next, what are the next challenges."

We start to discuss how technology has changed the way Powell's does business, and he reveals to me that he still has not figured out how to work his VCR.

"When I got into this business, the only technology we had was a rotary phone.  Didn't have a cash register, didn't have anything but electric lights and a rotary phone.  That was true for a couple of years.  Then we got a cash register, and then computers crept in, and now, we almost have more computers than people.  The pace of that accelerates, and now, I have a PC at home and I don't really even use it any more because I can do everything I need to do on my iPhone.  I mean, I was never a huge user of computers, to me it was always a limited functionality.  We didn't get computerized here, with inventory, until 1994.  It changes the business enormously.  I honestly don't know how people keep up with all the changes in technology, or how they keep track of it.  You need a certain skill set to operate it all, and I'm a guy that can't work my VCRs.  Hell, I still have a Walkman.  I bring it with me to the dentist.  It's how you make those two or three year leaps to the new level of technology.  It's exhausting, but, a lot of people do it.  I hope it brings more quality to their lives.  Some times I wonder if that is true.  I never thought I would be seeing the evolution of printed material.  It has been a standard from of text since 1455.  Suddenly, there is an alternative.  I guess you could call it a challenging time.  A lot of internal runnings of this business rely on different versions of the internet, and if it collapsed, it would be disastrous."  

I comment that not many people are able to claim that they have created their favorite Portland Place, and Michael comments on what he loves most about Powell's.

"When I first started Powell's, I knew I would be making my favorite place to be, because I always liked working in the store.   I would say that in the early eighties, some of my happiest days were just seeing the customer accounts grow, and watching the books sell, and finding new books, so it has really been great.  I just bought a pretty good library on Oregon history, and I am working on processing it at the moment.  That is something I have always enjoyed and will continue to enjoy, and I hope that it's relevant.  I don't want to be the guy winding clocks that nobody wants to look at."

Finally, I ask him if he has a favorite book.

"I don't have a favorite book.  It's like asking what's your favorite child.  I guess, the one I just read, the next one I am going to read, the one I haven't found yet is my favorite book."

No comments:

Post a Comment