The revolution swallowing Powell's Books?

By Razib Khan | May 27, 2011 12:14 am

A friend asked me today if I thought that Powell’s would be around a year from now. I had no idea what he was referring to. By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know he was referring to Powell’s Books of Portland. I mean that I had no idea that Powell’s was in any trouble. I thought of Powell’s as an institution which could weather any shocks, its huge selection and special experience giving it an edge over other independent booksellers (and even over Barnes & Noble and Borders). The main Powell’s store covers a full city block, 1.6 acres. The total inventory of the company is at 4 million books (new, used, etc.). The downtown Portland location can be overwhelming and all consuming. And I have many fond memories of the Powell’s in the Hawthorne District from when I lived in Portland in 2002. In fact, between 2000-2005 I purchased quite a few books at the main location, as well as at Powell’s Technical. Despite not living in Portland for most of that period, I regularly visited, and always made a point to get lost at Powell’s when I came through town.

And yet I just realized that it’s been five years since I’ve been to Powell’s! I just checked out their website, and it has obviously been through a redesign. I think it’s been five years since I purchased a book through that website. In my own mind the mythic proportions of Powell’s lives on (I even made a point to visit the original store near the University of Chicago in the summer of 2007), but quietly the reality of Powell’s has become marginalized.

Here’s what happened at over the winter to trigger my friend’s query, Powell’s Books Announces Layoffs:

The rise of e-books and declining store sales have led to layoffs at Powell’s Books, the landmark bookstore in Portland, Ore. The store’s management said on Tuesday it would lay off 31 employees as part of its “response to the unprecedented, rapidly changing nature of the book industry.”

The news that Amazon is selling more e-books than normal books looks a lot less surprising. If Powell’s can’t resist the tide, who can?

Is the bookstore going to die? As we know it, yes. But I suspect that physical locations will go through some sort of reinvention. ~10 years ago everyone was bemoaning the decline of independent booksellers at the expensive of mass market chains, but the reality seems to be that online distribution channels have kicked the legs out from under Barnes & Noble and Borders. So where does that leave independent booksellers? Their ultimate value add was never in rock-bottom prices driven by economies of scale. There are niches to be perfected, to be created. I’m looking for some creative destruction in the future.

Image credit: Cacophony.

MORE ABOUT: Books, Powell's Books
  • David Dobbs

    I have sometimes wondered how Powell’s was faring. I’m sad to hear this, but not terribly surprised. The big question is whether local, physical bookstores can find a way to still be physical nodes of bookishness, and, somehow, bookbuying. I suspect there are ways. I sure hope so.

  • Razib Khan

    they need to integrate their physical inventory into an online variant accessible via smartphone. there are major advantages to physical browsing, but i like amazon’s recommendations of similar books and such. i like seeing the responses of reviewers on amazon, etc. could amazon sue powell’s if powell’s just linked to amazon reviews? yes, you could buy the book on amazon, but i think many would have high time preference enough that they’d pay more more expense to get a book with good reviews on amazon at the store instead of waiting 3-5 days (+ more expensive shipping and the price difference might disappear).

    (i have gone online to look up more on books which i browsed/purchased at retail locations)

  • jld

    I have switched to The Book Depository because Amazon international shipping charges are outrageous, sometimes above twice the book value for cheap books.

  • toto

    As a first step they could simply put one of these simple 2D barcodes that you can flash on your smartphone / webcam and that would lead you directly to the appropriate Amazon review page.

    (Though I’ve never actually used these things, so I can’t tell how practical they are)

  • John Emerson

    A friend of mine who had a bookstore near Powells (Great NW) closed down his storefront and now does internet-only from a warehouse in a cheaper neighborhood. I believe that he also culled his low-value items and is mostly dealing in rarer books. He’s actually semi-retired.

    When a bookstore has a storefront these days it might just be for buying books.

    Very cheap books are often given to you free or for $.01 plus handling. $4 handling is inflated by $1+.

    Powells has already gone through one transformation, which let to a strike awhile back.

  • Ponder Stibbons

    Are you sure the Powell’s in Chicago is the original? They refer to the Portland Powell’s as their ‘sister store’, and I know the latter started out in Chicago, but otherwise there is no other indication.

    The Hyde Park store in Chicago has a very academically-oriented inventory, which might make them a bit more immune to the general decline in bookstores. It’s still possible to go into that store and find rare academic books for really good prices, and many of these won’t have electronic versions. And they are in the perfect neighborhood for academic books. I think it’s harder for physical bookstores to make profits on more popular books.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Powell’s has downsized their technical book store. They moved it to a smaller location just across the street from the main store. They also moved all of their popular (non-technical) science and technology books into the new technical books location. What is really killing Powell’s are the third-party store fronts on Amazon where you can buy second hand books for nearly free, plus the shipping costs. However, Powell’s is also selling books through their store front on Amazon as well. Powell’s is gradually downsizing. But I expect them to be around for another 10 years or more. They will eventually go out of business, but not for another 10-15 years.

    Seattle’s Pelican Bay books has also downsized significantly. They moved from their Pioneer Square location to somewhere in Capital Hill. I have not been to the new location but have heard it is significantly smaller than the old one.

  • Razib Khan

    Are you sure the Powell’s in Chicago is the original? They refer to the Portland Powell’s as their ‘sister store’, and I know the latter started out in Chicago, but otherwise there is no other indication.

    when i asked the clerks in 2007 they claimed they were the original, insofar as powell’s started out there, and later expanded to ptown. but the two lineages have no substantive relationship anymore. i don’t know the truth of it obviously.

  • Jon

    Just FYI, the Powell’s in Chicago was started by Michael Powell. His retired father worked there with him briefly and then opened the Powells that we Portlanders know and love. It was started as a totally distinct entity, although eventually Michael Powell moved to Portland and bought the store from his father. The two stores are affiliated, but not branches of the same company the way Powells Burnside, Hawthorne, and Beaverton are.

  • Ted Kosmatka

    It’s sad to hear the Powell’s is having trouble. I was just at the Portland Powell’s two months ago. The place seems mythic. I wanted to see and touch Carl Jung’s Red Book, and they had one in stock. It’s an amazing place.

  • John Emerson

    The younger Powell started the Chicago store. His father started the Portland store. Presumably he’d learned the book trade at his son’s store, and maybe he was financed by his son. The father ran the store for a long time; I think that his son came to Portland only after the dad died.

    I was an early customer at Portland Powells. Walt Powell (the father) was a colorful guy with a black sense of humor, and he was all business. I tried to haggle with him a couple of times and it was hopeless. The only bargain I ever got at Powells was a Volume II which was being sold separately. What Powell didn’t know was that the book had a difficult publication history and Volume I was never published.

    According to Walt, and there’s no reason to doubt him except that he liked to bullshit, the family is Ukrainian in ancestry. The Powell name was adopted at or after immigration.

  • dave chamberlin

    It used to be that you could get free parking at their Portland store if you told the attendant a palindrome he had never heard before. They stopped that many years ago, but it is just one of the reasons the place was unique. An ole crab nixes sex in Barcelona saved me a few bucks.

  • Zach K

    I’ve had similar thoughts about Strand in NYC… but unlike your example, I buy more books from that store than from Amazon


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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