Powell's Books, which has five locations in Portland, Ore., and whose City of Books location is among the largest independent bookstores in the country, will remain closed for a minimum of eight weeks—a term that will put a massive strain on the company.
"These are unprecedented and grievous times," owner Emily Powell wrote in a letter sent to employees and posted to social media earlier this week. "Only a few days ago we had reason to hope that we could continue with our meaningful work of bookselling and maintain some small semblance of normalcy. Now we see the path ahead more clearly: it is dark and scary."
According to Powell, the need to respond to the growing coronavirus quickly left the company little time to prepare. Powell continued: "We don’t expect we will be able to open our doors for at least 8 weeks, and very likely longer. When we do open our stores again, we expect the landscape of Oregon, and all of our abilities to spend money on books and gifts, will have changed dramatically."
She acknowledged the need for layoffs, the call to keep people on the payroll and extend health insurance for the durations, but admitted it was not an option she felt she could take. "No one can possibly know how much I wish I could make that happen," she wrote. "We are simply not that kind of business—we run on duct tape and twine on a daily basis, every day trading funds from one pocket to patch the hole in another. We have worked hard over the years to pay the best possible wages, health care, and benefits, to make contributions to our community, to support other nonprofits. Unfortunately, none of those choices leave extra money on hand when the doors close. And when the doors close, every possible cost must stop as well."
In all, approximately 85% of the store's 400 employees were laid off, according to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 5, which has represented the employees since 1999.
Powell, who took over the role of CEO in 2010 from her father, said she was "doing everything within my power to keep Powell’s alive for the next generation of readers, for the next generation of Portland and Oregon," adding: "and yet Powell’s is also where I grew up and have spent most of my life, and I cannot imagine attempting to move forward without so many of you, colleagues who feel like family."
She concluded: "My heart breaks for all of us. Our stores are meant to be full, our city bustling, our minds at ease. And for a time, none of those will be true. I know for many of you, your lives will be forever altered by our decision to close our stores and you will never think of Powell’s the same. For all of that and more, I am deeply sorry. I can only hope we might find a way to come back together on the other side of these terrible times."
Michelle Afroso, the bookstore's head of public relations, wrote a separate letter notifying employees of the terms of their layoffs. Concerning the remaining employees, she wrote, "if sales continue to decrease in the future, we will need to take further action. We will try to avoid additional layoffs by reducing the size of the company over time through a hiring freeze and attrition."
The union expressed "disappointment" that management took the move, writing: "The loss of profit is nothing compared to the lifelong trauma such a loss of income and benefits are likely to have for individuals." It has set up a Coronavirus Worker Relief Fund online for donations.
Employees fire back
A letter provided to Publishers Weekly signed by some 20 former Powell's employees and union members criticizes Powell's reaction to the pandemic. "Today, hundreds of Powell's employees were permanently laid off by Powell’s after facing extreme uncertainty following a temporary layoff, including many folks who have given decades of their lives to the place—the brick and mortar that held Powell’s together and made it the magic that it is," the letter reads. "We were let go with no severance or extension of healthcare during this time of pandemic when no one is hiring. We were told we would be receiving phone calls, but we ended up getting copy/pasted mass emails."
Powell's efforts to explain her actions was perceived as having added "insult to injury," particularly in light of what is seen as the Powell family's personal wealth. "The idea that they use “duct tape and twine” to hold their businesses together while they let all their working class employees go with no safety net is deeply insulting. Emily Powell calls us family but then treats us as entirely disposable."
The letter also asserted that at least one ex-bookseller had a "confirmed" case of Covid-19 and several more were suffering symptoms. (Representatives of ILWU Local 5 have yet to respond to PW with comment, and have not confirmed the letter's assertion.) They blame the bookstore for not allowing them to work at a safe social distance during a busy period leading up to the store closures. "Many of us rely on Powell’s healthcare, and it’s a bitter irony that we may have gotten sick on the same job that laid us off, which will no longer be providing us the care we so desperately need," the letter said.
The employees went on to criticize Powell's for maintaining a false facade: "Powell’s likes to wear a veneer of progressivism and uses the politics of their overwhelmingly progressive employees in their book displays and recommendations to cover their own behavior that often feels shockingly cold and apathetic, doing anything they can to retain as much power over us as possible."
Finally, the former employees acknowledged their passion and love for the institution despite its shortcomings, noting: "The various Powell’s stores have been at times magical places for all of us." But, they emphasized, "that experience has been marred by a corporate leadership that is profoundly out of touch with the things that made us special."
On social media, several former employees have been using the hashtags #powellslayoffs and #greedriseresist to continue to inform the public about their plight and to implore customers to write to Emily Powell to express their dissatisfaction with the decision. In addition, the employees encouraged customers to redirect any purchases away from Powell's online stores to donate money to the union's fund instead.
This piece has been updated for clarity.