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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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 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,"
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.
said I would consider that, but I didn't have any money,"
Powell recalls. "He said, 'They want to talk to you.'"
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.
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
remembers settling back into his seat with relief. "I thought,
'Thank God! I don't have to slink out of town.'"
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
only problem with operating a bookstore named Powell's, says
Jonas, is that his customers expect him to have the same monumental
inventory as Powells.com, 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.
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
Salon.com, 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.
are no discounts, but Powells.com has what Amazon.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.