Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a variety of special promotions, starting with, naturally, books. The bookstore is offering a curated collection of “50 books for 50 years,” which aims to “show us who we have been as a country and a species and where we are going,” according to its website, and emphasize “the power of the right words, at the right time, to act as a mirror and a beacon.” The titles range from Assata: An Autobiography, by the Black Panther activist Assata Shakur, to contemporary novels like No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. Then there are the 50th-anniversary sidelines, which include a City of Books–branded IPA brewed by Ex Novo Brewing Company and bookstore-scented candles and cologne.
Looking back on the store’s history, the last year and a half may have been the most contentious. With the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the chain temporarily closed all of its locations in early spring and laid off 432 booksellers—85% of staff—out of roughly 500 total employees. What followed has been 18 months of strife between management and the employees’ union, the permanent closing of two Powell’s locations, a bookstore and a kiosk in the Portland airport, as well the chain’s home and garden store.
Today, Powell’s Books has three locations, including the flagship downtown City of Books location, which has a 68,000-sq.-ft. retail space, with nine rooms, three floors, and 3,500 sections; it takes up 90,000-sq.-ft. in all, including offices, and covers an entire city block. The two other locations are in the Cedar Hills neighborhood (32,500 sq. ft.) and the Hawthorn neighborhood (14,000 sq. ft.).
The current status of Powell’s, one of the largest and best-known independent bookstores in the country, is in flux. “It has been an incredibly difficult period,” said Emily Powell, 43, owner and president, in an interview at her offices earlier this month. “I’ve been at the store my whole life, and it is has never been this much of a struggle.” Sales are currently at 69% of what revenue was during the same period in 2019.
Powell described the atmosphere in bookselling as very strange. “Right now, we are one-day-at-a-timing it,” she noted, adding that she expects the holiday season to be “bizarre” and that the well-documented issues with the supply chain are a real concern. “We have ordered as many books as we can, and we have no idea what is going to show up and when. And getting anything shipped, in or out, is a crapshoot.”
At present, Powell’s has 342 total employees, though that number changes frequently. Asked about the broadly negative reaction around Portland to the staff layoffs—a sentiment that remains strong today—Powell said, “When we closed down the stores, we laid off most of our employees, and if we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be here today. That was the choice we found ourselves facing, but it was the only one we could make.”
In October 2020, Powell stepped away from the role of CEO and hired Patrick Bassett, a business consultant from Eugene, Ore., to take her place. The previous CEO, Miriam Sontz, retired in 2019 after 34 years with the company. Emily’s father, retired in 2010. (Michael still works in the warehouse five days a week processing used books).
“By the time we got to the summer of 2020, everyone was fried,” Powell said. “We needed more bodies, and when he came on, Basset’s first undertaking was just getting the stores open. He’s responsible for the next five years, making sure that the stores and website are running and executing on a daily basis. My job is to look and make sure the ship is pointed in the right direction and being prepared for the next generation.”
Powell said that the cost of running the store goes up every year, while sales are stable or going down, sometimes precipitously, as in 2020. “This means you have to find another way to approach your business,” she noted.
An early pioneer in online sales (it started selling online in 1994), Powell’s has seen web orders decline in recent years. “Our website has sucked for a long time,” Powell said. “I am comfortable saying that—I’m not comfortable living with it.”
Powell’s recently hired a new head of technology, whom Powell feels is capable of tackling the large task of managing the vast database on which the store’s business depends. “We have a very large IT department that no other bookstore that I know of employs,” she explained. “If we don’t have the sophistication we need in our database, then we can’t serve an online client or an in-store client as well.” If the store cannot quickly solve its technology challenges, it will “be out of business in five years,” she believes. “It’s that important.”
In the near term, getting customers back into the stores is the top priority. During the closure last year, the main entrance of the City of Books location was remodeled to create a more open and inviting space, and in November, local coffee roaster Guilder will open a new café at the store. “We’re also in discussion to add a tasting room for alcohol,” Powell said.
Asked if Powell’s would consider further expansion, perhaps to more neighborhoods and with smaller footprints, Powell replied, “I’d like to open more stores. The question is finding affordable real estate. And we won’t open a new store just to open a new store. We would have to learn something from opening a new location and reach customers we are not already reaching.”
Remarking on the half-century history of the store, Powell said that the legacy is both humbling and intimidating. “The question now,” she added, “is how do you cross that threshold and make it to the next 50? Honestly, that’s what’s on my mind. While it is tremendous that we’re still here—especially given our size, especially given the kinds of challenges we’ve gone through—the question is, Just how do we do what we do in a new, better, and different way?”
Ultimately, Powell said she feels less like a proprietor and owner than a caretaker. “Our customers really own our store, and if we do something that alienates them, we won’t last,” she explained. “When you come back in 10 years, Powell’s will be a fundamentally better and different bookstore.”
This article has been updated with additional information about current employee levels and to correct errors.