The Scoop on Powell's Books' Downtown Remodel

Portland's beloved bookstore overhauls its Burnside flagship with the future in mind.

By Zach Dundas January 21, 2014 Published in the February 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Nick Stokes

Wouldn’t you know it: you arrive at an internationally renowned tourist destination, only to find it covered with scaffolding. 

Starting in late January, visitors to Powell’s City of Books—America’s largest independent bookstore and world-famous beacon to the literate—will have a version of this archetypal experience, as the bookseller begins renovating its flagship store. The landmark West Burnside entrance will close until August. Inventory ordinarily housed in the Green and Blue Rooms of the 70,000-square-foot, color-coded literary labyrinth will move elsewhere in the store, or into warehouses.

While the immediate cause is a seismic upgrade, the renovation by architect Ernie Munch will reach far beyond safety. An exterior face-lift will aim to match a neighborhood where Anthropologie and Whole Foods share streets with scruffy bars and social services. (Stucco in “Bohemian Black,” for example, will replace the long-standing cream and car-exhaust color scheme.) On a typically busy day, the City of Books sees more than 7,000 visitors, a number that swells beyond 12,000 during peak retail seasons. Widening the passage between Green and Blue, for example, will improve sightlines and foot-traffic flow for such masses. 

These moves also reflect a deeper effort to prepare Powell’s for the future. “We’re thinking 20 years out,” says Emily Powell, the company’s 35-year-old owner. “Of course, there will always be changes, but this project sets us up for the next generation.” 

The next generation? In books? Borders is dead. Barnes & Noble is struggling. Independent booksellers like Powell’s are under siege from Amazon, Apple, and big-box stores. New-media pundits have predicted the demise of Powell’s printed core product for decades now. (Somehow, strangely, books continue to appear.) The boldest aspect of the Powell’s project may be the implied faith that there is, in fact, a future—one in which Powell’s writes its own script.

“The broader industry is on everyone’s mind, of course,” Powell says. “But every time we focus on ‘the changes in the book business,’ we lose sight of who we are. The larger industry pushes us to act, but we need to act in a way that’s true to ourselves.”

On a winter afternoon, Powell leads the way to the back of the Purple Room, a light-flooded nook full of history books. “It’s one of my favorite spots in the store,” she says, “and people don’t shop social sciences the same way they used to, so we shouldn’t have many interruptions.” She explains that high-concept pop-history—a commercial approach pioneered by the likes of Salt and Guns, Germs, and Steel—now often lures readers away from the more traditional, academic titles in this sleepy corner.

Along with the physical remodel, the Purple Room’s inventory will be reorganized and reedited—part of an ongoing effort to serve evolving tastes. “That means looking at our data and our history,” Powell says, “and figuring out ways to accentuate and deepen what we already do.”

If anyone is attuned to the dynamic tension between change and stability, it’s Emily Powell. She basically grew up in the City of Books. She says the store’s inimitable aroma—a pleasantly musty compound of paper and dust—reminds her of her grandfather Walter, who founded the company in 1971. Emily apprenticed at the store’s used-books buying counter and answering customer e-mails, then took the reins from her father, Michael, in 2010.

She now leads a business that’s both an international icon—during a recent vacation in South Africa, she says, strangers repeatedly noted her husband’s Powell’s hat or T-shirt—and an essential local symbol. “If you were going to pick one business in Portland not to fail, you’d pick Powell’s,” says Greg Goodman, the developer who oversees downtown’s largest property holdings. “People elsewhere know three things about this city: the food scene, the Trail Blazers, and Powell’s Books.”

A bookstore may seem a very tenuous civic anchor circa 2014, and Powell’s has not been immune from industry tempests. Powell says sales have fluctuated unpredictably since the Great Recession hit, with steady growth elusive. In 2011, as e-book sales soared, the company engaged in painfully public layoffs. But Powell’s turns out to be a leader of a strangely resilient breed. 

“There’s a popular narrative that indie bookstores are hanging on by a thread,” says Oren Teicher, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association (ABA). “That’s not true.” After falling to 1,600 stores in 2008, the ABA’s membership rebounded to surpass 2,000 stores last year, as a new generation of independents pop up around the country. Nationally, sales at indie stores have risen, too. (Meanwhile, e-book sales appear to have leveled off.) “The growing consciousness around shopping locally has made a huge difference, and Powell’s took the lead in developing localism as a core of its identity,” Teicher says. “They also pioneered invisible things like point-of-sale and inventory technology.” (The company collaborated with an Indian firm to create proprietary retail software a few years ago; the same partner is now working to reengineer

In the midst of change, Powell’s remains Powell’s: During an hour-long stand-up chat (as any regular knows, chairs are scarce), a few intrepid browsers find their way to that remote Purple Room corner. They ignore Emily Powell to peer at shelves of arcane history tomes. “It’s a heavy responsibility,” Powell says. “Ultimately, this is a business that belongs to the community.” 

This unusual quasipublic status carries certain challenges. As Powell talks about tweaking the look of the Burnside entrance during the remodel, for example, her visitor expresses some affection for its dingy current state, something like a loading dock crossed with a New York subway platform. “I know!” she says. “This is what keeps me up at night. We’re a strange and unique beast, and we don’t want to lose that. If it were just me and my ego, we could do something really pretty and fancy and expensive. But that would not be true to Powell’s. So how do we make it better without losing that quality?

“We’ve always been inventory-driven,” she adds. “Do we have the books? We do that pretty well. We need to concentrate on becoming the best version of the Powell’s experience we can be.” 

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