Powell’s maps its strategy

PORTLAND, Ore. – Powell’s Books’ flagship store is so large, visitors get a map at the door. Not that some people would ever want to find their way back out.

Visitors wander through the warehouse-sized store, which sprawls across an entire city block. They loll in a room dedicated to the arts, wander a few aisles on metaphysics and browse shelves of nautical fiction.

Powell’s is one of the nation’s largest independent booksellers, offering 4.5 million new, used, rare and out-of-print books. It competes with the likes of Barnes &Noble, Borders and Amazon.com. But unlike many of its independent bookstore brethren, Powell’s survives and thrives.

“Powell’s is viewed as one of the pre-eminent bookshops in the world,” said Mitchell Kaplan, president of the American Booksellers Association. “No one has done it the way Powell’s has done it.”

And no one but a Powell will continue to do it. Founder Michael Powell, 65, recently announced he is handing the business over to his 27-year-old daughter Emily – renewing the commitment to keep Powell’s an independent, family-run endeavor.

The challenge for the bookstore’s second generation, industry experts say, is to continue the innovation that made it a quirky leader among corporate competitors.

“I’m not sure what the next big thing is,” said Daniel Raff, associate professor of management at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “But he (Powell) has been involved in several very major big things so far and has made out … with really striking efficacy.”

Michael Powell was a graduate student in Chicago when he started his first bookstore in 1970, with the encouragement of friends and professors, including novelist Saul Bellow.

His father started the Portland store after visiting his son for the summer. When Michael joined his father in 1979, he moved the business to a larger location – a former car dealership where it still stands. And he decided to sell new and used books on the same shelf – an unheard of move that paid off.

Powell’s grew from one store to six, expanded its main store and launched an online business in 1994, just before Amazon.com. Online sales now make up about one-third of the company’s revenue.

“It’s not enough to love books,” Michael Powell said. “You have to love the business of it.”

Powell was onto something early. Used books and online sales have revolutionized the bookselling industry in the past few years, industry groups say.

Powell’s has staff who scour the globe for the best used books and even go on road tours to hold weekend used book buying events around the country. The result is a inventory that could provide a book to each of the Portland area’s 2 million or so residents and still have 60 percent of its stock.

Michael Powell said he sees technology, overseas and non-English books as areas to grow. Daughter Emily agrees but said it’s too early to talk about where she might take the company. She’ll transition in over the next six years, with the help of family business consultants.

She’s already worked in the online division and then moved to used books, two areas crucial to the store’s success and also areas where the other current senior management did not have prior experience.

Emily Powell said she recognizes what she is stepping into. The company has become more than a company – it is a bibliomecca of sorts.

The store is internationally known. Powell’s sent one of the first shipments of commercial goods to Vietnam following the end of the war, $50,000 worth of books. It is currently working with a Saudi prince to develop a library there.

About 10 years ago, the company shipped an entire cargo freight container of one title – the Sears and Roebuck “Wish Book” catalog – to China. The buyer was interested in promoting the concept of capitalism by showing people the images of what variety it could offer.

“My goal is not to be visible. My goal is to be successful in getting books to readers,” Michael Powell said. “Every book has a potential reader, so the challenge is to find that linkage. Sometimes it takes more effort; … sometimes there is only one reader.”

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

FILE - In this Monday, March 23, 2020, file photo, a worker walks near a mural of a Boeing 777 airplane at the company's manufacturing facility in Everett, Wash., north of Seattle. Beginning in 2024, some 737 planes will be built in Everett, the company announced to workers on Monday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
With 747 out, Boeing to open new 737 Max line at Everett’s Paine Field

Since the last 747 rolled out of the factory, speculation has been rife that Boeing might move some 737 Max production to Everett.

IonQ will open a new quantum computing manufacturing and research center at 3755 Monte Villa Parkway in Bothell. (Photo courtesy of IonQ)
Quantum computing firm IonQ to open Bothell R&D center

IonQ says quantum computing systems are key to addressing climate change, energy and transportation.

Nathanael Engen, founder of Black Forest Mushrooms, sits in the lobby of Think Tank Cowork with his 9-year-old dog, Bruce Wayne, on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Growing green mushrooms in downtown Everett

The founder of Black Forest Mushrooms plans to grow gourmet mushrooms locally, reducing their carbon footprint.

Barb Lamoureux, 78, poses for a photo at her office at 1904 Wetmore Ave in Everett, Washington on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Lamoureux, who founded Lamoureux Real Estate in 2004, is retiring after 33 years. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Barb Lamoureux, ‘North Everett’s Real Estate Agent’ retires

A longtime supporter of Housing Hope, Lamoureux helped launch the Windermere Foundation Golf Tournament.

Bothell
AGC Biologics in Bothell to produce new diabetes treatment

The contract drug manufacturer paired with drug developer Provention Bio to bring the new therapy to market.

FILE - The logo for Boeing appears on a screen above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Boeing is reporting a money-losing quarter as both its civilian-airplane division and the defense business are struggling. Boeing said Wednesday, April 27, 2022,  that it lost $1.24 billion in the first quarter and took large write-downs for several programs.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)
Boeing plans to cut about 2,000 finance and HR jobs in 2023

Boeing plans to outsource about a third of the eliminated positions to Tata Consulting Services in Bengaluru, India.

FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, March 11, 2019, rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The number of deaths in major air crashes around the globe fell by more than half in 2019 according to a report released Wednesday Jan. 1, 2020, by the aviation consultancy To70, revealing the worst crash for the year was an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX on March 10 that lost 157 lives. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, FILE)
US board says Boeing Max likely hit a bird before 2019 crash

U.S. accident investigators disagree with Ethiopian authorities over the cause of a 2019 Boeing 737 Max crash.

Store owner Jay Behar, 50, left, and store manager Dan Boston, 60, right, work to help unload a truck of recliners at Behar's Furniture on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. Behar's Furniture on Broadway in Everett is closing up shop after 60 years in business. The family-owned furniture store opened in 1963, when mid-century model styles were all the rage. Second-generation owner, Jay Behar says it's time to move on. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Behar’s Furniture in Everett closing after 60 years

“It’s time to move on.” The small family-owned store opened in 1963 and grew to cover an entire city block.

Katy Woods, a Licensed Coach, Branch Manager, and experienced Banker at Coastal Community Bank.
Coastal Community Bank Offers Classes for Businesses

To support local business owners and their teams, Coastal offers complimentary Money… Continue reading

Innovative Salon Products online fulfillment employees, from left, Stephanie Wallem, Bethany Fulcher, Isela Ramirez and Gretchen House, work to get orders put together on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, at the company’s facility in Monroe, Washington. The company began including pay, benefits and perks to its job listings over a year ago, well ahead of the new statewide mandate to include a pay range on job postings at companies with over 15 employees. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New state law requires employers to give pay range in job postings

Washington’s new pay transparency law aims to narrow wage gaps based on race or gender — though some companies may seek loopholes.

Paddywack co-owner Shane Somerville with the 24-hour pet food pantry built by a local Girl Scout troop outside of her store on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
An out-paw-ring of support: Mill Creek pantry feeds pets, day or night

With help from local Girl Scouts, the Mill Creek pet food store Paddywack is meeting the need for pet supplies in a pinch.

Kelly Cameron is the woodworker behind Clinton-based business Turnco Wood Goods. (David Welton)
Whidbey woodworkers turn local lumber into art

In the “Slab Room” at Madrona Supply Co., customers can find hunks of wood native to the south end of Whidbey Island.