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.