Powell’s books survived Amazon. Can he reinvent himself after the pandemic?

PORTLAND, Oregon – During its half-century in the heart of Portland, Powell’s Books has survived an endless array of fundamental threats – the long-awaited death of reading, the rise of Amazon, the supposedly unrecoverable abandonment of the center – American city.

None of this prepared for the tumult of the past two years.

The pandemic closed its stores for several months and turned the city center into a place to avoid. The Black Lives Matter protests have attracted opportunist anarchists who have wreaked havoc, sparking a fierce crackdown from law enforcement. Growing ranks of homeless people have set up camps in front of storefronts blinded by protective sheets of plywood. Forest fires choked the air, permeating an almost biblical sense of doom.

A quirky, old-fashioned business, Powell’s has retained its traditional aura in the digital age, while also portraying itself as a hero in a now familiar story of American urban rejuvenation. Its flagship store – a large maze of books filling a former car dealership – anchors a once risky neighborhood whose warehouses have been swapped for glass-walled condos and furniture shops.

But the latest plot twist hints at a potentially unhappy ending. Like the rest of Portland’s urban core – and like downtowns across the United States – Powell’s grapples with staggering uncertainty. How will brick and mortar stores behave in an age of continued fear of a deadly, airborne plague? What happens to city life when sidewalks are littered with rain-soaked effects from people who can no longer afford rent?

“People don’t come downtown like they did before the pandemic,” said Emily Powell, 42, owner and president of Powell’s Books, the company her grandfather founded in 1971.

At the age of 6, she helped her dad take care of the cash register during Christmas shopping. After college, she moved to San Francisco, working in a wedding cake business, then real estate, before returning home to join the family business. Now she’s absorbed in how to update Powell’s in a city facing serious challenges.

“I don’t think 10 years from now you’re going to say, ‘God damn it, what happened to Portland? He never came back, ”Ms. Powell said. “But I don’t think it will be the same. I think there’s going to have to be a creative adaptation, and I don’t really know what that looks like.

i’m not really sure is a phrase that is now the subject of vigorous training – in Portland and in communities around the world.

Consumption patterns have been reshaped by the pandemic, with online merchants capturing a greater share of spending. Experts debate the sustainability of a tenuous economic recovery as the global supply chain has passed the breaking point. City planners, employers and families dealing with the intricacies of life are re-evaluating the benefits of going to offices.

In Portland, the uncertainty is particularly poignant given the markers of lasting upheaval. Many downtown businesses remain closed, a reminder of the chaos that surrounded last year’s protests in one of America’s most isolated cities.

The rows of tents lining the sidewalks have grown to Steinbeck-like proportions, with duffel bags full of clothes piled up next to camping stoves. Here is the product of decades of rising house prices, falling wages for many workers, and persistent cuts to social services in the face of unemployment, drug addiction and desperation.

None of this attracts shoppers to downtown businesses.

“A lot of people have been intimidated by the protests,” said James Louie, whose family has controlled Huber’s – a restaurant with elegant mahogany dining rooms – for 70 years. “They are also intimidated by the homeless, even though they are, for the most part, harmless.”

Still, Mr. Louie added, “I’m optimistic downtown will eventually make a comeback.”

This view is prevalent given Portland’s famed success in reinvigorating its downtown area once before, bucking the American trend of suburban sprawl.

Beginning in the 1970s, local governments limited development to preserve green spaces beyond the city, while investing heavily in public transit and cycle paths.

The question is whether the pandemic and social ferment combine to undermine that trajectory, or rather catalyze the next revival by forcing city leaders to tackle the legacy of systemic racism and the affordable housing shortage.

Among those who oversee Powell’s, growing concerns about the downtown area coincide with a desire to seize an opportunity for reinvention.

When the closures hit, the company focused on online sales, which traditionally accounted for only about a fifth of its revenue. Powell’s is redesigning a clunky inventory management system while updating a website that looks like a memorial from the dial-up Internet age.

“It’s a terrible website, and it hasn’t changed for about 20 years,” Ms. Powell said. “If we can’t fix our internet problems, we’re probably dead in the water.”

Whiskey tastings are planned in the rare books room. A new cafe is being installed in a corner facing the street, replacing the cafe which was closed during the lockdown.

“We are replacing the nervous system and the brain of the organization at the same time,” said Powell chief executive Patrick Bassett. “We are starting to think about what we want to be after the pandemic. “

But the base has grievances over how Powell handled the shutdown. The company has laid off more than 90 percent of its workforce. When operations resumed, it forced employees to reapply for their old jobs.

Ms Powell says her company was only following the terms of its contract with the union, which states that dismissed workers forfeit their seniority if recalled after 180 days.

“Not to follow the language of the contract would be to break that contract,” Ms. Powell said.

The union scoffs at this characterization.

“’Oh, the contract says, I must be mean,’ said union president Ryan Van Winkle as he hovered over a ring of fire on a chilly night in his backyard. “The contract just says I have to do the wrong thing. I guess I must be doing the wrong thing. This is no way to live your life.

Carole Reichstein nodded bitterly. A 51-year-old single mother, she has worked at Powell’s for 25 years.

“A lot of older workers, including myself, we don’t work there for the money,” Ms. Reichstein said. “We are working on it because we are passionate about books. We love the culture of Powell’s. We love to help clients with books.

She and her colleagues understood the need to close stores in March 2020, resulting in the layoff of nearly 400 people, although they were baffled by how they received the news – via mass email.

The biggest shock came seven months later, when Ms Reichstein was finally recalled. She was to be treated like a new employee, with her seniority wiped out, eliminating two of her six weeks vacation.

She guessed in her treatment an attack on workers’ solidarity. “They want to break the union,” she said.

Ms Powell said she was preparing her for a crisis. Initially, the company expected that every part of its business would have to be shut down, but quickly realized that it could continue to operate the warehouse, she said.

Powell’s is centered on its original store on Burnside Street. At 70,000 square feet, the retail space is larger than the warehouse that powers it. Inside its expansive halls, the usual bestsellers share an exhibition space with collections of ancient Greek novels, meditations on the ultimate frisbee, and guides on how to overhaul a Volkswagen engine – used and new titles. shelved.

In a world increasingly ruled by algorithms, with tastes shaped by the forces of companies using data, Powell’s beckons like a random sanctuary.

“I’m not interested in being Amazon,” Ms. Powell said. “I believe in the power to walk down an aisle and find something you didn’t anticipate.”

But that power was extinguished by the first wave of the pandemic. With Portlandians stranded at home and the city emptied of tourists, sales fell by two-thirds during the summer and fall of 2020. The only channel for business was online.

So began a frantic effort to reorganize Powell’s.

Before Covid-19, the company’s warehouse supplied its stores. The pandemic has reversed the relationship, relegating stores to storage space for inventory while making the warehouse the distribution center for online sales.

The warehouse floor quickly became crowded with carts full of books trucked from stores, waiting to be shipped to customers across the country. Management struggled to bring back enough workers.

Between March and May 2020, online sales more than increased tenfold, according to the company, boosting hopes the company will return to its pre-pandemic sales level next year.

But the boom in web business overwhelmed the warehouse infrastructure, resulting in backlogs that took months to clear.

“We had to do everything on the fly,” said Laura Ziegler, director of the retail distribution center. “We are attracting people, trying to train them on how to train people.”

A handwritten sign stuck on a concrete block wall attests to the spirit of the company. “BOOKS MUST SEARCH. “

Work on an updated website – still in its early stages – aims to inject personality into online shopping, adding book recommendations by real people. Powell’s is positioning itself as a local bookstore, run by people who cater to idiosyncratic tastes, now accessible online.

Yet even by its most optimistic projections, the company expects online sales to reach no more than a third of its total business.

For better or for worse, her fate is tied to Portland.

Caryn and Mike Nelson are counting on better. They are building the new cafe inside the expanding Burnside store from their popular coffee roasting business, Guilder.

“We couldn’t turn down the opportunity at Powell’s,” said Nelson. “We see downtown as a very active part of our city, where the community will continue to come together. “

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