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'll find more than 1,000,000 volumes on our shelves...what the Washington Post called 'perhaps the best bookstore in the world.'"

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). 

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.          


Phanero Noemikon said...

Well, I have every head-hunting or cannibal book that has ever come through there, man! I don't know poetry so well, but head-hunting books I know sort of.

It better to collect head-hunting books because its a joke, a metaphor of book-collecting.

Its like calling the book collector
an Ooga Booga
which is pretty much what he is.

Ooga Booga Curtis.
Sorry we didn't have that O so special bone for your nose..

here's a fico instead.
go catch a fish on a string..

ugly and dumb
the world moves on..

glory unto hades.
peace for the dead,
and brain-death
for the living.


Kirby Olson said...

In the year 2000 I was in there and found a signed book by Robert Duncan in the poetry section and bought it for 1 dollar.

I thought it was a laugh!

You can still probably find things in there, but lately they have unionized which probably means they need rapid turn-over in order to pay everyone.

With the healthcare deal looming on the horizon, they will have an additional burden.

I used to go in there in the 80s and would find absolute treasures: a bibliography of articles on Bishop Berkeley -- which before the databases was like a miracle to find for 8 dollars, and it still smelled new.

So that's where you've been the last few days?

There are probably still big bookstores lying about without an internet presence. There's one near here called the Bibliobarn. They refuse to go online and have an inventory of well over 200,000 books.

They buy up whole collections, and have for example a simply massive collection of train books. And another whole collection of math books (thousands upon thousands).

I probably shouldn't have told you.

Curtis Faville said...

Hey, Phaney, you may never have experienced Powell's at its zenith.

It was a gas. A concentration of good stock that would make your scrotum contract, in a manner of speaking.

Charles Shere said...

Yes, well, another thing about all this: the real demise (Powell's is certainly not dead) of many other, smaller, much more interesting second-hand book shops in Portland, lost to rising rents, the Internet, and no doubt to Powell's.

Same thing in Ashland, where one book dealer told me in so many words he didn't have the interesting books he used to have, because Powell's sent buyers through regularly to skim them off.

Ah, the good old days. The five or six volumes of Rousseau, in French, bought in Sebastopol for twelve bucks. The signed Stein found in Eugene for three. The complete Hawthorne set, beautiful, in Healdsburg, for twenty. Those days are gone.

Ed Baker said...

an huge ware-house book distributor here in 60-70's was

RPM I still got a couple of their catalogs..

Charlie Dukes and Dave "something" owned it

greatest collection of small press stuff on east-coast


my cousin in LA, Bernie Rifkin, is an Head Hunter..

he shrinks them and wears them in his porno-movies..

he wants me to send him my entire Very Rare library with all the signed first editions that I got he wants to sell them

last things I sold him he got them and I got a check that bounced!

John Perlman was just here he and Jan he signed ALL of his books for me.. now they are worth A FORT-TUNE


we'll all be worth more
we're dead!

Curtis Faville said...


Yes, well, Powell's was stiff competition to any bookstore within its range.

My point is that one might have expected the internet to knock off the small pins, but why would a huge operation like Powell's transform itself into an ersatz Amazon? Isn't that like throwing in the towel? If you dislike how your competitor does business, you can compete, or offer a superior alternative. I always thought that what made Powell's successful was in sharp contrast to the glorified mail-order model (like Amazon). Rather than stick with what had worked, it simply capitulated and imitated Amazon. The story here isn't typical, or shouldn't have been, because Powell's business model didn't depend on selling just cheap paperbacks to local customers.

I'm not even sure that Powell can compete in the internet market, especially since its practices in that arena are so slipshod. It's easy to hate Amazon, and what it's done to the book trade; it's harder to understand why Powell's chose to mimic it.

By "died" I obviously didn't mean it's on the verge of collapse. But as a version of its former glory, it certainly no longer exists.

Curtis Faville said...


Ashland has only one bookstore now, and it's little more than a sort of Goodwill shop.

benh said...

I'm confused this seems more like a rant about how the book world has changed in the past 15 years, and seems to have little to do with Powell's.

Curtis Faville said...

Dear benh:

The point of the post is to mourn the loss of a great bookstore.

The causes of the changes in book trading brought about by the internet are well-known, and well-documented.

The irony and mystery is why a business as powerful and well-positioned as Powell's should have been persuaded to capitulate to its primary competitors by slavishly imitating their business model, rather than relying on their strengths and natural advantages. Once the pride of Portand, Powell's is now no more than another big box retail book chain, like Borders and Barnes & Noble.

Who could have predicted that this would happen?

As far as calling how I presented my case a "rant"--I do object to that characterization, which has come to serve as a cliche for any reasoned or measured argument on the internet. Rants are screaming and breathless tirades. That's obviously not how I conduct my myself on my website.

benh said...

@Curtis I can concede that my choice of the word 'rant' could have been a poor one on my part, though I would argue that the same could be said for your choice of the word 'death'.

Now as you point out what is 'dead' is the world that existed before the internet when there was less communication between sellers of products. I collect cameras, I miss the days when I could go in to thrift stores and find a really good camera for a steal for a price because they didn't know what they had. Thanks to ebay and google that experience is harder and harder to have. So should I blame the thrift sore owner for attempting to find a sane price for there product? I feel your pain, it would be nice to still live in that world, but we don't.

I think that your point about Powell's being dead because they have moved on from there 'former glory' is a disservice from what they still do offer. If you really want to go to B&N then have at it, but any of the powells, even the location out in Beverton is so much better. Yes there is room for improvement, but that is not an indication of failure.

Curtis Faville said...


I don't have an answer to the problem of Amazon and the internet. I'm surprised that Powell's didn't either, though.

My post isn't a personal, self-pitying complaint over spilt milk. Things happen in the world, and we all adjust. It's like losing a beautiful stretch of open country to tract housing: You don't hate the people who live in the homes; you don't even hate the contractors--after all, they're just trying to make a living. But it's still a tragedy when it occurs.

In the case of Powell's, it's hard to understand why they did what they did. What possessed them to become a poor sister to Amazon? They're selling books for $2.98 online, and offering the same books in their store. How is this a successful business model? What would make anyone want to go to Powell's, if they could find the same stock online on Amazon, or Alibris?

It shouldn't have been necessary for them to do this! They had a great system, and a large, loyal following, and they blew it off. Why? I don't know. Maybe someone could explain it to me, without becoming unduly embarassed?

Powell's--in name only--certainly continues. But only in name. They've become Borders under a different name. They could sell the whole operation to Borders, now, and you wouldn't even notice it had happened.

benh said...

Is it so bad to have the ability to look at what is in a store while not being in the store? Isn't that what a catalog is all about, I can remember my mother and her huge sears catalog's calling to have things shipped. How is having a website that sells a book that can also be picked up at the store any different?

As for why adopt the Amazon model, I have no answers, but my guess is that because Powell's is a for prophet business and Amazon showed that it has a profitable model to follow.

Your point about having a large following that they blew off, you make it sound like no one ever goes there any more?

And lastly if Borders bought Powell's, I think that you would notice a big difference. All the strange tattooed kids that stock books would be out, the good coffeeshop would be replaced with a Starbucs in "Seattle's Best clothing" and all used and rare books would be removed from the shelf.

Yes if you are looking for the latest addition to Oprah's book club then you have options, and Powell's is one of them, but is that so bad? Especially when you consider the things that Powell's does that Borders doesn't.

April @ Random said...

Great background information. I just visited the store last week and did my own blog post about it. I linked to your blog. Thanks!


Anonymous said...

In the mid-90s I was head used bookbuyer at the Powell's on Hawthorne. I can tell you exactly what happened: Lionheart. Michael Powell, having decided that Powell's needed to change with the times, hired a consulting firm from California to teach employees how best to live, act and multiply in a work environment.

Ask yourself --what good can come from hiring an outfit that calls itself "Lionheart"? The name sums up this odious, slightly cultish firm's philosophy and stance with perfect concision.

Nothing was ever the same after Lionheart. Flim-flammery, in its most stupid form, had begun. It was impossible for Powell's after Lionheart even to make evil decisions with any intelligence. The old spirit had been eaten alive.

Curtis Faville said...

It would be interesting to know why this "outside" sales research group was called in in the first place. Was it in response to falling sales, or an intuition that the model was about to change?

The new books bookstore outfits that tried to challenge Barnes & Nobel and Borders straight up, discounting bestsellers, etc., failed. It looks now as if Powell's was trying, in effect, to compete openly with the internet giants, like Amazon and Alibris. This was a radical realignment of their market strategy.

I have no idea how successful their new strategy may have been, for their bottom line. But I do know that if I were an Amazon or Alibris customer, nothing about what Powell's now does would hold any cachet for me: Why would I go to Powell's if I could get the same stuff at Amazon, with more selection and range? It just makes no sense.

If the reason they stopped dealing in better traditional hardcover used stock was because they couldn't acquire enough of it, that would be understandable. It's certainly true that there are a lot of amateurs beating the bushes for rare books, which may be the cause of the scarcity.

My hunch is that Powell's may be in no better shape now than when it embarked on its new strategy. But I wouldn't know. They're a privately held firm.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I was just in Powells' the other day. It will be my last visit EVER. After the constant rude and just down right bad service, the stupid and ignorant pricing, (one fast example of this, after entering the rare book room and not even getting a hello from the strangely surly clerk I mentioned to him that the 400.00 set of Lord of The Rings was still available from Easton Press his response was "Well?" Well you and your store look like idiots to anyone who has a computer and half a brain, so how can I trust any of your prices in this shop? That's well.) I simply can't keep going down there. It's the same inventory that never moves because its not priced correctly but I think there is something that you missed here. Powells does not want the physical location to do to well. Michael owns that building, such primo real estate. If he can translate his shoddy store onto a shoddy website and fire all those tattooed morons then he should be fine. Worst book store in the world.

Anonymous said...

The unionization of Powell's is another big reason the store is so nondescript now. I worked at the Burside location through the nineties and all through the unionization drive. Much media attention was given to the pro-union employees and there were plenty of articles describing the "us vs. them" environment but the truth was, there was a very large percentage of employees who didn't want to unionize (close to 50% at Burnside) and that faction went almost entirely unrecognized. In fact, the vote to create the union only passed by about 6 votes (with something like 25-30 eligible votes not being cast). It literally could've gone either way. I think when you create a three-way division of ideologies like that, there is no way to function like a team ever again.

Curtis Faville said...

I think you'd really have to make a case for unionization being the cause of the changes at Powell's over the last decade.

Those changes were brought about by very deliberate management decisions. And they weren't about accommodating employee standards or benefits. Powell's simply abandoned used books, and became a "new books" bookstore. All the remotely interesting material was moved "off-site"--and the business tried to imitate the Big A's online. This had nothing to do with unionization.

Anonymous said...

And now that Emily Powell has ascended to the throne (now Prez) and brought in more California consultants, a freeze on most hiring and the purchasing of most rare books, employees disappearing, continuing pursuit of the Amazonian holy grail without adequate professionalism, organization and computer platform/support, things feel shaky for customers and staff. Keep your ears open in the stores and you'll hear all about it. Powell's still has a toll free number where you can call to place orders and ask questions about merchandise, and it's a good thing since the website doesn't always work very well, checkout sometimes not at all and the information on used or older books is (and has always been) frustratingly scanty.

Anonymous said...

Rumors have Amazon (via ABEbooks) looking to own Powells, Close connections (closer than normal seller-to-listing-site relationships) are obvious. Powells model has been emulating Amazon for a quite a while.

Anonymous said...

A cause for even greater concern(IMO): Powells is in the process of centralizing all book ordering. This means that the massive input from staff regarding what is stocked at the individual locations will be gone. Eww.

Anonymous said...

I knew powells from the early 8os and you are right. and I was abook scout from the late 90s on until I went online. you see, us book scouts who used to bring them great stuff got tired of the lower and lower prices. I can sell a book for 35 that powells wont even buy. they also dont buy the off beat books that I would buy anymore, because they want the easy movers. My brother who comes all the way from Canada has been complaining for the last few years about what happened. He was here in the early 80s too.
I never sell the anything good anymore unless I am desparate.
they dont take chances anymore

Anonymous said...

As a Powells employee, I have watched this tragedy happen firsthand. It was NOT the union coming in that caused this, but rather the workers being changed to being treated as individuals with individual gifts & talents to offer to "shelf monkeys" - robots who shelve books, answer the phone with pat answers and now with the recent layoffs, too few workers to do the work. No wonder they are grumpy. As a union shop, we are not paid on a large scale - after almost 8 years, I barely make $12 per hour. We are threatened with "investigation or discipline" on a daily basis. Some of us have been so intimidated by management that we are coming to work every day afraid of what the next will bring. Also in fear of losing our jobs. Employees will respond as they are treated - therefore, because we are treated in such a manner, we respond by minimum work and not "going out of our way" to assist. No time for that anyhow, management keeps all on a short leash and if we take too long with one function we are subject to "discipline". Most of us would leave if we could - the economy is such that we know another job is not going to happen. Powells is going to fail - big time - if it continues on this path. They are duplicating Borders and yes, probably Amazon as well. It is also no longer local. Programmers have been let go and that work will be outsourced - something Powells has carefully never done - consultants are all over the place and Emily Powell or whatever her new name is - has 2 business degrees and no love of books - does this tell you anything. Took over the company because of the pressure from her parents. I give it 5 years tops. The one person that said "why shop at Powells when it is cheaper at Amazon" is absolutely correct - folks are no longer even supporting a local business that made its fame and fortune by being local. Enough said.

Anonymous said...

I remember the 'old' Powell's, and used to call and order over the phone. I work for Amazon now, and rather than purchase from them as a blind rule (meager employee discount), I purchased from Powell's online. It wasn't a used or rare book, and I likely could have found it for less somewhere else. My point is this: If you want to see someone drown, just sit back and bitch about them not knowing how to swim...or, apparently like many, do nothing at all.

How about some constructive advice, suggestions or other great 'thinking outside the so-called box' (which in my mind is the all to often way of saying 'be creative') ? Why not jump in the water and help the poor sot...? Complaining about how they've 'died' is tantamount to pushing their head under water with a stick and calling them stupid for not swimming to shore...

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

I take your point, and I'm sympathetic to the line of reasoning.

The first question I think is what the probable direction of the larger market is. The "old' Powell's flourished within the context of a market that was swept aside by the internet revolution, and online selling. And now books themselves, as a media, are under pressure as well.

In a sense, I'm dreaming. Could Powell's exist in the form that it did before? Almost certainly not. Nothing you or I or anyone can say or do will change these market forces, which drive changes which few of us from the old paradigm feel comfortable with.

My point is that Powell's abandoned their model far in advance of any necessity to do so--in my humble opinion. They looked at Amazon, and simply threw up their hands and decided to copy them. That decision had ramifications. When major retailers stop acquiring stock, then the value of that stock plummets fast.

Did Powell's really make the right decision, at the right time. Did its determination to become a cloned version of Amazon serve either its local customer base, or the larger audience over the internet? I have no idea, but I do know that what I once valued at Powell's, no longer exists.

Constructive criticism begins in frustration. Frustration that Powell's no longer markets quality hardcover stock. Frustration that they "off-site" any interesting book worth more than $20. Businesses as large as Powell's "create" consumers, not the other way around. If you only sell "quality" (i.e., cheap, crummy) paperbacks, that's the market you're creating. If customers don't have anyplace to see and feel and smell and experience real interesting books, how will they ever want them, or want to buy them? Selling is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Powell's changed its model to suit "virtual" online selling, and left their "real customers" with the typical Borders/B&N fare. How did becoming just another mass marketing warehouse help them?

I have no idea what their bottom line showed, or how that drove their decision-making. But I do know the change was unwelcome for many people, including me.

My constructivve advice to Powell's would have been: don't try to take on Amazon on their turf, it's not a game you can win. Do what you always did, and do it better than anyone else. Leave the cheap shit paperback market to the megasites. Concentrate on the market that you have some chance of competing in. But if you're committed to online selling, at least do it better than anyone else, instead of sloughing off responsibility by making cursory condition descriptions and understaffing your web unit with inexperienced dead-heads. Powell's internet selling program has been ridiculous. There was no excuse for that!

Aside from moving to Portland, I'm not sure how more involved I could become. Apparently Powell's did hire an outside contracting sales analysis group to "advise them" on how to compete with Amazon, and the business model they were given was what Powell's adopted. A lot of staffers who were fired after that had some mighty sardonic things to say about the change.

artpearson said...

Powell's was first on the internet, before Amazon existed, so this was not a reaction to Amazon. It started with the Powell's Technical Bookstore after it moved to Park Avenue, and then extended to the main store. If you were not a techie you would not have been aware of that. And what is wrong with making rarities available to a larger market?