Oregon's `Book City'
A huge, innovative bookstore in Portland stocks new, used, and rare tomes to satisfy the wide-ranging reading interests of customers
PORTLAND, ORE. — DON'T talk to bookstore entrepreneur Michael Powell about a declining public interest in reading as pop video culture takes over the United States.
"That's a very specific New York phenomenon," Mr. Powell says dismissively, "a New York Review of Books syndrome also known as `Western civilization ended when I left college'." He can point to all kinds of statistics showing that Americans are reading more, not less, and that the book industry is robust and growing. Besides, he's too busy buying and selling millions of books a year himself in a business with an average annual growth rate of 25 percent.
On a typical Saturday morning at Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., hundreds of book lovers are roaming the aisles, tucked into reader-friendly nooks and crannies, or having a good read over a snack in the attached cafe.
They may be wandering the children's room with their offspring or admiring a 1685 Fourth Folio of William Shakespeare's plays (price tag: $10,000) upstairs in the rare-books room. They could be leaving each other notes on a "Read a Good Book Lately?" bulletin board (everything from Robert Graves's "I, Claudius" to "Chilton's Repair and Tuneup Guide to 1965-86 Ford Pickups").
Some are checking the schedule of readings by visiting authors or waiting in line with cardboard boxes and sacks of books to be resold.
"OK, it's 11 o'clock. Is anybody ready to leave?" a mother asks her three kids, who've rendezvoused in the humor section. "I need more time," pleads one. "I need more money," says another.
Powell's is one of the largest bookstores in the country, unique in that it sells both used and new books intermixed on the shelves for different budgets. The main store on West Burnside Street has 43,000 square feet and fills a city block in what used to be an automobile warehouse. There are six branch stores in the metropolitan area, including travel and technical bookstores, a recently opened annex in a garden-supply store (Portland is well known for its high interest in gardening), an audio bookstore , and a shop at the airport.
"They are unique simply in the size and breadth of their inventory, and that really separates them," says Floyd Ottoson, director of sales for Pacific Pipeline of Kent, Wash., which is the largest book distributor in the Pacific Northwest. "I'm a student of philosophy, for example, and I can find things there I can't even find in a library."
"What also makes Powell's unique is that it's a community resource," adds Mr. Ottoson. "They've bridged over from being just a store to being public space - very similar to a library but more inviting."
Powell began selling used textbooks when he was a political science major at the University of Chicago some 20 years ago. (He still owns three used-book stores in that city.) Several years later, he joined a book business in Portland started by his father.
Powell operates on this guiding principle: "It's just an elemental fact of life that people like to read." As a marketing innovator, he constantly asks himself "What have you done new today?" For him, books and reading are not just a business but a cause.
On the morning he was interviewed, he already had spent two hours working on a literacy program called "Start Making a Reader Today" (SMART). It's a support system for volunteer tutors who work with children in grades K-3, each of whom receives two books twice a month. Powell's role is to find books for the 750 kids in eight area schools (numbers that will double next year).
"A lot of it is hat in hand," he says. "I go begging to publishers or buy them cheap if I can." Proceeds from the store's "Save a Sack" canvas-book-bag sales program go to the Oregon Literacy Foundation.
"To me, they do all the things a bookstore should ideally do," says Marianne Sluis, assistant head of the ordering department for Bookpeople distributors, which sells to book- stores around the country. The Oakland, Calif.-based firm specializes in small presses, and Ms. Sluis notes Powell's exceptional ability "to pick up on new trends and new books immediately."
"I can't tell them about a new book they haven't heard of," she says.
Miriam Sontz, manager of the main store, ticks off the impressive numbers for the operation she oversees: Three-quarters of a million volumes in 75 sections (not counting three warehouses), $13 million in annual business, 175 employees. Powell's is open 14 hours a day, and there are 45 lines at the switchboard to handle inquiries. The store's main resource, says Ms. Sontz, are those employees. She describes them as "a lot of independent souls, free thinkers, liberal, highly motivated." Most have at least
a bachelor's degree, and many have done graduate studies in the subject area where they work.
Those employees stocking books in Russian, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Japanese speak those languages, she says. "Anybody can buy books, but it's the people making those decisions who make the difference."
"One of the strengths of the store is that it's so encyclopedic," she adds. "The academic, the librarian, the casual reader - anybody can find something of interest." The "city of books" locator map available at the entrance lists nearly 500 topics and shows where to find them in the orange, rose, gold, blue, purple, and green color-coded rooms.
Thousands of books come and go here every day, but Powell's is also a favorite hangout for Portlanders and visitors who may spend half a day here with no particular purchase in mind. "There are street kids who are here all day reading, which is good," says one salesperson.
The Portland area has a strong independent bookstore community with more than 100 such businesses. Some have suggested that there are lots of bookworms in the Pacific Northwest because it rains so much. But there's more to it than that - as there is in Denver, where another very large independent bookstore (the Tattered Cover) is immensely popular.
"The urban environment here is healthy," explains Powell. "Stores can stay open late. There's not the urban-suburban split. It's a society that places a lot of value on education, and people are more likely to be actively involved in public affairs and the arts. They value ideas, because ideas are seen to have leverage in the community."
"Also, people here don't feel beaten down or out of the loop," he adds. "There isn't the cynicism that you find elsewhere. There are possibilities here, and people feel good about that."
"I don't think we've even begun to test the limits of interest," says Powell, who reads a lot of books on business but also mysteries and international police stories for fun. "The wonderful thing is not only to be involved in a good business but in something that is so good."