To anyone who knew the store in its heyday--from the 1970's through the 1990's--this description of "the best bookstore in the world" could not by any stretch of the imagination be construed as accurate. Powell's in Portland, which was started as a satellite of its original store in Chicago, was originally conceived as a used book store, with some selected new books (a formula which was widely used in the trade during the 1970's and 1980's).
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The Demise of Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon
Powell's Books, of Portland, Oregon boasts that "Powell's City of Books is a book lover's paradise, the largest used and new bookstore in the world. Located in downtown Portland, Oregon and occupying an entire city block, the City stocks more than a million new and used books. Nine color coded rooms house over 3,500 different sections, offering something for every interest, including an incredible selection of out-of-print and hard-to-find titles...68,000 square feet packed with books...you'll find more than 1,000,000 volumes on our shelves...what the Washington Post called 'perhaps the best bookstore in the world.'"
However, the inception of the internet as a trading venue, caused a convulsive change in Powell's business model, as it had/has done throughout the book business. When I first "scouted" Powell's in Portland as a used/rare book dealer in the early 1990's, it was a virtual wonderland of inventory. Powell's financial position enabled it to acquire fine used books at an astonishing rate; the company became active in acquiring liquidated stocks from stores and collectors all over the country. Browsing its shelves took so long, because virtually every category was rich in rarities. Not satisfied with running a world class emporium on Burnside (the main location), Powells' expanded to the Hawthorne Street location on the East side of the river, and in Beaverton (in addition to separate technical books and cookbooks locations). Making the pilgrimage to Portland might involve renting a van just to accommodate the acquisitions that one might feel obliged to purchase. Powell's put Portland on the map of important places in the world for finding good stock.
Sometime in the late 1990's, all this began to change. Like many other dealers, Powell's began to segregate its better acquisitions, culling out higher priced items and sequestering them "off-site" in warehouses, listing them on the internet to the growing larger audience of the world wide web. This trend has continued. As late as 2000, it was still possible to find used and new stock in about equal proportion on the general store shelves. There was the "rare book room" on the top floor, and locked cases on the main floors which required the assistance of a hovering employee. The mean average price of books displayed to the general public steadily declined, as did the percentage of used stock. Browsing the in-store shelves of the main Burnside store recently, we noted the total percentages were something like 85% new, 15% used. The new stock was predominantly "quality paperbacks"; the proportion of used material was comprised primarily of damaged, x-library, or multiple remaindered copies. In other words, what the store was offering in its flagship store was about equivalent--in general quality--to what one would be likely to find at any Half Price Books outlet. And the story is no better at the Hawthorne or Beaverton locations. Hawthorne used to boast one of the finest used and rare book inventories (for its size) in the world; today it's nothing more than an ordinary neighborhood general bookstore, comparable to a small Borders.
So what has Powell's gained in compensation from its conversion from a world class used bookstore, to an internet giant? Anyone who's browsed Powell's online site, or noticed its listings on the "big A" megasites, has noted the amateurishness, and vagueness, of its descriptions. In addition, one might have expected that the truncation of rare/expensive versus quotidian/cheap would result in a high concentration of quality material in the warehouse listings. But this is not born out. Along with the steady decline of quality used books in the stores, there has been a continuous decline in the quality of the online listings.
How is it that an operation of this magnitude could have declined this rapidly, and precipitously, in just a decade? Are we to assume that Powell's analysis of the changing book market has resulted in a calculated targeting of the lowest end of the market, with an emphasis on cheaply produced mass paperback reprints and remainders, in total preference to traditional quality hardcovers and collectibles? If Powell's is still acquiring the liquidated stocks of failing used bookstores around the country, where is it hiding the better material? Or has the better material become so scare that even Powell's is unable to find any?
This seems hard to believe. In short, it's now obvious that, by accident or design (or both), in the antiquarian and rare book trade, Powell's is no longer even a marginal player. The pressures that traditional new and used book stores came under beginning in the 1990's and 2000's were easy to comprehend: Customers could find cheaper bargains from online big-box marketers like Amazon, more conveniently, and this transfer of loyalty destroyed the margins of most provincial operations. But Powell's was a big entity, with lots of capital behind it. They could afford to acquire better material on a continous basis, which might have insulated them from the market squeeze.
But it didn't. Powell's has become, in effect, a kind of small "Amazon" book store, comparatively large, even regional in its influence. But it has abandoned its local clientele in favor of the web audience. It is no longer a special place, with inspired merchandise and sophisticated taste. It's just another pedestrian bookstore, no different, and no more ambitious--despite its size and impressive organization--than any typical corporate outfit.
A once great bookstore has quietly died.