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Independent Spirit: Emily Powell ’00

There’s a reason Portland, Oregon’s 41-year-old bookstore Powell’s is known as a “City of Books.”  It’s enormous. The downtown store, which proudly touts that it is the largest new and used bookstore in the world, inhabits an entire city block. Its 68,000 square feet are spread out over four floors and are organized into nine color-coded rooms that house more than a million books in over 3,500 sections. The high shelves, which collect hardbacks, paperbacks and multiple new and used editions of the same title together, stretch up to the ceiling and create labyrinthine paths through the cavernous space. (Before Powell’s took it over in 1971, the building housed a car dealership.)

It is easy to get lost inside the City of Books, either in a dreamy print lover’s reverie or simply because you’re overwhelmed. Walk up one wide, concrete staircase and you’re in the Purple Room, confronted with neat rows of books on history, feminist studies and philosophy; but come up another, identical staircase and you’re greeted by the Red Room’s long shelves full of volumes on foreign languages, travel and religion. How to navigate such an impressive, comprehensive superstore? There’s an app for that. (It’s called Meridian, and it will give you turn-by-turn directions through the store on your smartphone.)

Running this “city”—its mayor, if you will—is Emily Powell ’00. As CEO and president of Powell’s, she is in charge of not just the massive downtown location but also five other Portland area stores, a partnership stake in two more in Chicago (including the original location her father opened up in 1970), and about 500 employees. She also oversees a Portland real estate portfolio that includes the City of Books building, two warehouses, and another downtown building that she is currently working to turn into student housing for the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Walking through her store in flip-flops, Powell looks more the part of a college student searching for a class assigned book than a CEO, but, make no mistake, she knows her business. She’s been training to run it her entire life.

“During the holiday season, when I was little, my dad would stack boxes by the cash register so I could stand on them and see over the top and run a cash register,” she says. “He would take the books and read out the prices, and I would enter them.” Powell recalls an oft-repeated family story: “One customer I was helping with a sale said, ‘Little girl, when you grow up do you want to be a cashier?’ And apparently I didn’t even blink from making her change, I just said, ‘No, when I grow up I’m going to run this place.’ So I knew early on that it was what I wanted to do.”

That’s a good thing, because Powell’s is a family business. Emily’s father, Michael, opened the original store in Chicago when he was a University of Chicago graduate student, and it was so successful that he repaid his initial $3,000 loan within two months. Michael’s father, Walter, a retired painting contractor, so enjoyed a summer staffing his son’s Windy City store that he returned home to Portland to open his own Powell’s, eventually moving it into the flagship City of Books location it now occupies on the corner of 10th and Burnside.

Michael Powell joined his father there in 1979, and after those early bouts behind the counter at Christmastime, Emily began training to take over the company after her Haverford graduation. A roving internship gave her three months in each of the major departments to learn the business, but then, at the urging of the Austin Family Business Program at Oregon State University, which suggested successors should spend some time working away from their family business, she moved to San Francisco, where for four years she worked in retail, real estate and even the food business, as a pastry chef. She returned to Portland and Powell’s in 2004, and her eventual succession was publicly announced in 2006. Four years later, when her father turned 70 and retired, she officially took the reins.

“I took over at an interesting time, shall we say,” she says. “I took over in summer 2010, and obviously the recession started earlier than that, but it was the ongoing impact of it that we had to face as a business. We had to do layoffs of staff in early 2011, and then of managers in fall of 2011, and it was a very challenging year. …So certainly, addressing that huge shock to our national system and our local economy and our own business was a massive challenge, and it only just now feels like we’re seeing the other side of it.”

The recent recession wasn’t the only storm that Powell’s has had to weather, of course. In the 1990s it was megachains like Barnes & Noble and Borders that were edging independent booksellers out of their market share. Then came Amazon, the online behemoth that not only undersold many mom-and-pop shops but, with its endless warehouse space, could offer a comprehensive breadth of titles that few brick-and-mortar stores could match. And finally, in 2007, came what many predict could be the death knell of the traditional publishing world: the introduction of the Kindle. While Amazon’s e-reader no longer has a virtual monopoly on the digital book market, it definitely encouraged the first steps into this new world, where the Pew Research Center estimates that soon one out of every three sales of adult trade titles will be electronic.

Such market shifts have been catastrophic for bookstores. Borders, with 650 stores, couldn’t withstand the onslaught and went under in 2011. And the news for independent stores, which now account for only about 10 percent of the publishing business, is worse. The New York Times estimates that since 2002 the U.S. has seen the closure of one in five independent bookstores; that’s roughly 500 stores in total. But despite that, Powell’s survives, even thrives. Everyday, an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 people visit its main location, and at least 3,000 of those visitors leave with a purchase.

“I think Portland is a part of it,” says Powell. “I think there’s a community here that supports independent retailers, but in particular supports reading and literacy and arts, and we’re lucky to be a part of that and to have helped contribute to it over the years.” Numbers bear out this speculation. According to the Indie City Index, a project of economic development consultants Civic Economics and the American Booksellers Association, Portland ranks number six on the list of the 10 most vital independent retail scenes among cities of one to three million people. Additionally, according to Greater Portland Inc., a regional partnership that recruits business to the area, 90 percent of the region’s workforce has at least a high school diploma, making it number seven in educational attainment in the U.S.

“Portland has changed a ton in the last 20 or so years—the part of town Powell’s is in looks totally different than it used to,” says Alison Hallett, the arts and web editor for the weekly Portland Mercury and lifetime Portland resident. “But Powell’s is still there. For me, at least, it’s one of those places that connects Portland’s past to the present.”

Powell’s also has scale in its favor. In response to the find-anything-at-anytime ethos of Amazon, many other indie booksellers either couldn’t compete and closed up shop or narrowed their focuses and specialized, carrying only mysteries, cookbooks or children’s lit. But Powell’s, thanks to the vast real estate of its flagship store, can still be (almost) everything to (almost) everyone. Small-press poetry chapbooks? Travel maps? Graphic novels? Powell’s has them all under one roof. Even technical books, which are housed in a separate building, are available. And unlike a faceless internet superstore or a mall chain store, Powell’s is clearly staffed—from the stock people on the floor to the marketing director in the corporate office—by people who are themselves bibliophiles.

“I think there’s something about the fact that if you go into our break rooms, it’s silent because people are reading,” says Powell. “If we have a meeting that’s starting a few minutes late, people are talking about reading, and it’s just a pure pleasure. That is what we live and breathe for. I’m sure that’s the case in a lot of other larger bookstores, but somehow we take it to a higher level.”

If independent bookstores’ greatest competition comes from the Internet, then at least Powell’s has been behind enemy lines since the beginning. Powells.com was the Internet’s first online bookstore, in 1994. “We were online before Amazon,” says Powell, “not that that matters.” About a quarter of Powell’s business now comes from its online portal, but when Powells.com was launched it was an experiment spearheaded by early adopters of the Internet who worked in the technical bookstore and wanted to put that store’s inventory up online. “Then my dad received a letter from a customer who said he was looking for this particular book,” says Powell. The man, who lived in the U.K., had tried to buy the book from its American publisher but was told it would cost him $80, plus $40 for shipping, and that it would take up to eight weeks to arrive. “He said, ‘I found it from you guys and you had it for $45 and I had it in a week, and I am thrilled.’ And my dad thought, ‘That’s good. You’re thrilled. I’m thrilled. There’s a business here.’ And so we started the effort of putting all of our inventory online.”

While today you can certainly buy any of Powell’s four million titles online, nothing can really compare to being inside the store. It’s a place where you can browse the seemingly endless shelves for treasure. It’s a place where romances have started in the café. (“I think comparing favorite books in Powell’s is pretty much a Portland dating ritual,” says the Mercury’s Hallett.) It’s a place where one room carries rare, antique first editions and another offers a device, called the Espresso Book Machine, that will publish your own book or print a hard-to-find title. It’s a place of community, and sometimes it’s just a place to get out of the famous Portland rain.

“We are uniquely ourselves and dedicated and devoted to the discovery of ideas,” says Powell of her store’s secret to success. “You can’t help but walk into the store and get chills—I still get chills each time I walk in—because you’re immediately drawn in so many directions, and all of the people that are there with you, even if they’re just there looking for a car repair manual, are engaged in that same process. It’s not Kmart, it’s not the grocery store where you have to have an agenda. It’s a place where everyone can find something, and even if you don’t want to spend any money—we’re often featured in The New York Times as a frugal travel destination—you can just walk around and it’s a good way to spend your afternoon.”

It is obvious that Powell, who is married to writer John Connor and is actively involved with Portland area youth-oriented nonprofits like Camp Fire Columbia, Caldera and the International Carpe Diem Foundation, cherishes the “magic” of her store and the unique shopping experience she is offering her customers. So, unlike many other second- or third- generation family business owners, she is in no hurry to make sweeping changes or put her own modern stamp on the brand. She likes Powell’s just the way it is, thank you, and has ever since she was that small child standing on boxes ringing up customers at Christmas. “If I have a vision, it’s about daily, continual improvement in small, incremental ways so that you don’t notice along the way that [the store] has changed or gotten better,” says Powell. “You just know that you want to keep coming and keep buying books from us.”

-Rebecca Raber

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Haverford magazine.

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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