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  Written by
  Susan G. Hauser,

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The life and tomes


The Life and Tomes of Michael Powell
>>Former U of C grad student turned bookseller Michael Powell owns the largest independent new- and used-book store in the world.

PHOTO:  The Life and Tomes of Michael PowellMoon Unit Zappa steps from the podium after reading to a large crowd from her new novel, America the Beautiful. She is the celeb author du jour, just the next in a procession that includes the likes of Adam Gopnick, Salman Rushdie, Garrison Keillor, and Jonathan Franzen.

Thirty years ago big-name authors bypassed Portland, Oregon. And then there was Powell's. Now the authors who come to the bookstore for readings make sure they leave time for browsing.

"I would like to move in here," sighs Zappa. "Just a cozy spot. It doesn't have to be a queen-sized bed. If they'd just let me hang out here."

It's not the décor that draws authors, booklovers, and tourists. The floors of the nondescript building-a former auto dealership-are bare and the shelves simple. But those shelves are filled with rows and rows of new and used books on four labyrinthine floors that bibliophiles navigate with the help of color-coded maps. Aptly named Powell's City of Books, the main store houses most of the company's inventory of 1.5 million books.

This is the bookstore that Michael Powell built: the largest independent new- and used-book store in the world. Its foundations lie in what was once a tiny student co-op in the Reynolds Club basement at the University of Chicago. The co-op, which bought students' books on consignment, became in the early 1960s a source of spending money for Powell, then a graduate student in political science.

He was soon scouting neighborhood thrift shops for salable books, lugging his prizes to the co-op by bike. Later he bought an old car, just so he could carry more books. Every Sunday morning he waited by his roomy 1955 Chrysler for the Maxwell Street flea market to open, so he could fill the car with books for the co-op.

Eventually the spoils of his scavenging made up about one-fourth of the store's inventory. When the manager left, he tapped Powell as his successor. "He knew I had a stake in the store," says Powell.

Although he already had a dissertation topic (the selection of Supreme Court judges in Oregon), Powell came to realize he was more entrepreneur than scholar. He managed the co-op for a couple of years, then tried catalog book sales under the tutelage of Joseph O'Gara, a Hyde Park bookseller from 1937 until his retirement five years ago. One day in 1970 O'Gara suggested they share a building at 57th and Harper. O'Gara would sell hardbacks; Powell would sell paperbacks.

"I said I would consider that, but I didn't have any money," Powell recalls. "He said, 'They want to talk to you.'"

"They" turned out to be three U of C professors in the habit of playing fairy godfathers to struggling Hyde Park bookstores. Sociology professor Morris Janowitz, PhD'48, spoke for the group, which included sociologist Edward Shils, X'37, and author Saul Bellow, X'39, both from the Committee on Social Thought. The three floated Powell a loan of $3,000, and Powell's Bookstore set up shop.

Years later, Powell was ensconced in the front row of Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, surrounded by other business and civic leaders, all part of a sold-out crowd listening to a lecture by Bellow. Someone in the audience asked, "Is it true you started Powell's Bookstore?" Bellow's answer was quick: "No, I didn't start Powell's Bookstore; Michael Powell started Powell's Bookstore. I loaned him some money-and he paid me back!"

Powell remembers settling back into his seat with relief. "I thought, 'Thank God! I don't have to slink out of town.'"

Not likely. At 61 Powell-looking a bit like a stocky Vladimir Lenin with his bald pate and beard-is so highly regarded in his hometown that he is occasionally touted as the ideal mayoral candidate. "I wouldn't have the tolerance," he scoffs. "I have the inclination to tell idiots they're idiots, and that wouldn't go over very well in politics." But with his stake in the future of Portland and an educated citizenry, he embodies the slogan inscribed on the town's oldest fountain: "Good citizens are the riches of a city."

Powell is a good citizen, contributing to the community as a businessman and as a champion of literacy and First Amendment rights. A former board member of the American Booksellers Association, he was the treasurer of and continues to be active in the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. Closer to home, he has served on the boards of the Portland School Foundation and Multnomah County Library.

"We have higher library use than almost any other place in the nation," notes Ginnie Cooper, director of the Multnomah County library system. "I think one of the reasons we're so high-people say it's the rain-but I actually think it's Mike Powell. He's helped us be a city of readers, a city that values books and knows they matter."

His civic interests go beyond the literary. He is concluding his second term on the Port of Portland Commission, which oversees the airport, drydocks, marine facilities, and land development. A board member of the Association for Portland Progress, he's considered the engine behind some of the city's transportation innovations: a light-rail line that goes from downtown to Portland International Airport and a 4.7-mile streetcar line-the first urban streetcar built in the United States in 60 years-that just happens to pass his bookstore.

When voters were faced in 1992 with the first of a succession of anti-gay measures that targeted schools and school libraries, Powell was a general in the battle to defeat it. "We turned the bookstore into a billboard on that issue," he says, raising more than $60,000 to fight the ballot measure through sales of buttons and bumper stickers. He donates books to prisons, children's homes, and charitable organizations. To date, his company has donated books valued at half a million dollars to local school libraries. In addition, he is a sponsor of Portland Arts & Lectures, the series that brought Saul Bellow to town.

Avin Domnitz, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association, describes Powell in the same terms most Portlanders would use. "He has always considered himself a part of the community, never above the community, even though the scale of his operation has transcended what most independents in this country have accomplished. He is a real contributor to the bookseller community."

PHOTO:  The Life and Tomes of Michael PowellBY 1979 POWELL'S BOOKSTORE had taken over the entire Hyde Park building originally shared with O'Gara (O'Gara's stayed in business, moving several blocks west on 57th and then, as O'Gara & Wilson, several blocks back east). Powell and his wife, Alice Karlin Powell, AB'68, AM'78, a Montessori teacher, might have stayed in Chicago forever. But his father, Walter, who had run the Hyde Park shop one summer for his vacationing son, had started his own used-book business, Powell's Books, in Portland in 1971. Now it was Walter Powell's turn to ask for help, and his son returned to Oregon.

"He had lost his lease, which seemed like a terrible thing at the time," recalls Powell of the predicament facing his father, who died in 1985. "But it actually gave me an opportunity to put my imprint on a new store and be involved in that move, the layout, design, and decisions. A year later we moved to the current location."

That location-1005 W. Burnside Street-was a square block that had housed an American Motors dealership. Powell's Books used half of the 40,000 square feet and leased the rest to various industrial concerns, including a tow truck company. They eventually grew into the whole building and then outgrew it. With the addition of two floors to the building's north side in 1999, the main store contains 98,000 square feet.

Powell's decision to scrimp on décor, he says, merely shows that he takes books more seriously than interior design. "I've always thought the point here is to get the author's voice to the reader's ear and be as invisible as possible in the process." He wants his store to have the feel of a good library, the kind of place where a person can literally get lost in the stacks-as one man did a few years back. Engrossed in books, the reader hadn't noticed that the store had closed. At 1 a.m. he called Powell at home and asked the owner to get out of bed and come let him out.

Many travelers come to Portland just for Powell's; according to the city's visitors association, it's second only to the International Rose Test Gardens as a local tourist attraction. Some people love the store's funky ambiance so much that they have chosen to begin their married lives in its aisles, with wedding guests squeezed among the bookshelves. There are those who say that stepping into Powell's makes them feel like they've died and gone to heaven, and indeed the bookstore is the final resting place for one customer; his ashes were interred in the pillar-constructed to look like a pile of books-at the store's north entrance.

"There's a great deal of pride about Powell's and almost community ownership," Powell says. "Every once in a while a rumor goes around that we're going to sell. It would be almost like selling City Hall."

The company's prodigious inventory is contained in the main store, two warehouses, and seven satellite stores around town, including a travel specialty store, a cooking and gardening bookstore, a technical store, and two shops at Portland International Airport. In Chicago he maintains half ownership of Powell's Bookstores, which include the Hyde Park store, two other retail stores, a wholesale division, and an annual trade show for buying and selling remainders. When he moved to Oregon he turned the entire operation over to co-owner Brad Jonas, X'80.

"When Mike left, this was a great, solid, strong, scholarly used-book store, but we have evolved," says Jonas. "I think that's a strength of Mike's that he brings a lot of good people together and then he gives them enough room to operate."

The only problem with operating a bookstore named Powell's, says Jonas, is that his customers expect him to have the same monumental inventory as, the Portland store's vast Web site. Internet sales, 85 percent to customers outside the Northwest, account for one-third of the entire Powell's Books business. Online sales have doubled every year since 1994, when Powell's technical store first put up a rudimentary site. Now the site is almost ready to launch its first foreign-language editions, in German and Spanish.

"The site is known for a certain eclectic approach to books and a slightly wacky feel," says Powell. With features such as author interviews, staff recommendations, and book reviews from, Atlantic Online, and the Utne Reader, it was listed in Forbes magazine's Spring 2001 Best of the Web issue. Yahoo's e-shopping guide for 2000 called it the best book site.

There are no discounts, but has what and Barnes & Noble don't: a sea of used and out-of-print books. The other two buy books from Powell's to fill their own orders.

Many of the used books come from Powell's customers. Each store has used-book buyers, with most of the 30 buyers at the Burnside Street store. On an average day they buy 3,000 to 5,000 books from walk-in sellers. Buyers are regularly dispatched to house and estate sales and auctions, sometimes as far away as England. The store also occasionally buys the complete inventory of a used-book store going out of business.
"Michael's all about this. He sees himself as a used-book buyer," says Michal Drannen, Powell's marketing manager.

Indeed, at a book auction in Chicago, Powell landed a first edition of The Whale, the title of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick when it was published in Britain in 1851. Powell bought the book for himself but is deliberately vague about its value-somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, he says.

Adventure and sea stories have long been among his favorite books. He still re-reads the Horatio Hornblower tales that ignited his imagination as a child in Portland, where he was raised by his Ukrainian father, a schoolteacher and painting contractor, and his schoolteacher mother, who was from a long line of commercial fishermen in Oregon. While in high school and as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, Powell spent his summers fishing on the Columbia River with his grandfather, earning spending money by catching salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon.

These days when he wants to get close to nature, he heads for the high desert of eastern Oregon where he and his wife have a vacation home they call the All Hat Ranch. (Their 22-year-old daughter, Emily, lives in San Francisco.) The ranch's name refers to an expression of disdain Texans have for weekend ranchers, people who are "all hat and no cattle."

Powell admits that he almost became more than a weekend rancher after his 500-plus staff voted by a narrow margin to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The three-year contract they demanded was signed in August 2000 after ten months of sometimes bitter negotiations. The reserved, even shy bookseller, whose wages and benefits were generous by industry standards, was hurt that he was demonized in the process, depicted as a rapacious bully, with some employees picketing and parading a life-sized puppet of the boss around the store.

"One of the things Oregonians pride themselves on is a certain civility of conduct, a certain commitment to honest interaction," says Powell. "What I hated was the contentiousness of it, I hated the personal vilification that's involved in the process." Believing that his staff didn't need the kind of support and protection that unions offer, Powell argued that he bent over backwards to provide extra benefits and high wages.

Now, he says, he has moved past the battle though the memories are still painful."My greatest fear was that I would become so disenchanted with the business that I wouldn't want to be involved any longer. I thought that would be a tragedy of a high order for myself because it's been my life."

Today Powell's Books is back on an even keel. The aisles are filled with book lovers every day of the year, and nearly every evening a touring author gives a reading, often brushing shoulders with other customers later while browsing for buys.

Alison Dale-Moore, director of Powell's Rare Book Room, where the used-book buyers' "finds" are displayed, was recently embarrassed that she hadn't recognized the distinguished gentleman carefully thumbing through the books. It was Salman Rushdie.

Not to worry. Her faux pas can't top her boss's. Soon after Powell had used the $3,000 loan to open his Hyde Park store, one of his benefactors dropped by to put some books on hold. Powell didn't recognize him.

"I said, 'What name should I put it under?'" Powell recalls. "And he said, 'Saul Bellow.' And I misspelled Saul. He had to correct my spelling."

Susan G. Hauser, AM'75, is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. For 16 years she has been a regular contributor to the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal.

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