Rain or shine in Portland, Ore., it seems Powell's is the refuge of choice for book lovers. Just ask the store manager, Miriam Sontz.
"You can see them when they walk in the front door," she says. "There's this 'Oh, wow, I found it' kind of look in their eye."
Sontz sees it every day. "They walk in the door, and they feel like they are surrounded not only by a million volumes that potentially they are interested in reading, but by a culture and by staff that are in love with the same thing they areÂ—which is that feeling when you open a book, and you read the first sentence, and you fall into a different world."
An exotic world, says long-time clerk Chris Faatz. "Romanian. Books in Romanian. We have books in Celt. We've got books in Icelandic. Used books from all over the place, all over the world. We've got books in languages we don't even know what they are."
It is a gentle giant of a bookstoreÂ—the biggest in AmericaÂ—occupying one full city block. The many departments are color-coded, and first-time visitors need a map to find their way around.
It was Michael Powell's late father who opened the store in 1970.
"It's been fabulously successful," says Powell. "People like that mix, new and used."
In fact, there are a few million books at Powell's, he says. "Somebody says, 'How come you have so many books?' And I say, 'Well, you know, you buy two, sell one; after a while, you own a lot of books'."
And the philosophy of selling used, hard-to-find books along with new ones has made it successfulÂ—and huge. This sprawling independent bookseller, a dinosaur in today's retail world, just keeps growing.
There's every subject thereÂ—from acupuncture to 'zines [limited print magazines], tattoos to teachers to televisionÂ—displayed, in a comfortable atmosphere so revered by customers that it's been the site of two weddings, and almost one funeral. [A patron has asked that his ashes be spread among the book stacks.]
At Powell's, customers are encouraged to browse to excess. Powell says, "I had someone call me at two in the morning once and said, 'Damnedest thing. I can't find any way out or anybody else in the store.' I had to come down and unlock the building and let him out. He had found a nice quiet corner and ignored the fact that the store had closed. It's a big store. There's room for that."
And there's room enough for a sense of perspective. At Powell's, there is just one shelf for books about Princess Diana. But, Powell will tell you, "Over here, behind you, we have four shelves on the works and life of Winston Churchill."
He adds, "It's finding a way to do something with books that excites people and excites me. And I think t shows respect for the books. And that's what I think makes the difference between an independent bookseller and others that might be in the business."
So if everything is so good there, what's the problem? It's the big chainsÂ—Borders to Barnes and NobleÂ—and the expanding Internet threat led by Amazon.com. They're knocking at the gate, and cutting into Powell's market share. Barnes and Noble is even moving to take over the industry's main distributor, the same book distributor Powell's relies on.
For Powell, "It's guerrilla warfare, but guerrilla warfare sometimes is terribly effective. You can't meet them army to army. You're going to get clobbered. I can't go out and match them resource for resource. We just have to be more nimble. We have to be smarter, and we have to move quicker."
For starters, Powell's has opened branch stores to protect its Portland turf: Six in all, including one at the airport and another devoted entirely to technical books.
And, like the big chains, Powell's has gone online. In fact, it has been on the Internet since 1993, carving out a niche in used and out-of-print books. That part of the business is growing 20 percent a year. Even giant Amazon.com comes to Powell's to fill its orders for old volumes.
"In the old days we had toÂ—I said the old days, last yearÂ—we had to think of what would sell in Portland, Ore., and do our parameters around that universe," Powell says. But now he adds, "What we're discovering is that for authors long thought irrelevant, someone in the world thinks they are still a wonderful read, and so it's broadened our perspective on what the world wants in the way of books."
Old books. Powell's buys an average of 3,000 every day at the front counter. Rare books too. At Powell's, these books are also weapons in the war against the big chains.
There is one book that Powell will tell you has a price tag of:
"$12,000...this one's in very good condition for... Moby Dick. And we're, you know, thrilled to have it. We probably won't have it very long." Powell says there's a 1676 translation of Thucydides for $500, and for $1,200:
"The Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave written by himself, published by the anti-slavery office in Boston in 1845."
Mike Powell's staff are foot soldiers in his guerrilla war against the chain stores. Clerk Faatz has been in the trenches for 20 years. Faatz says he could not imagine doing anything else:
"There's stuff hereÂ—tell me you can go into one of our competitors and pick this upÂ—was published in Calcutta in 1975, a two volume history of modern Nepal." And Faatz adds:
"Thoreau once said that the life of the man who spends all of his time sitting in a library, or in a book shop, by inference, can be as rich, as exciting , as stimulating and as hair-raising as that of the man who climbs every mountain in the world and explores every jungle, and I'll tell you right now fro the very bottom of my feet to the very top of my head that I couldn't agree with him more."
Even a poetry reading by visiting poet Sam Hamill is part of Powell's survival strategyÂ—a strategy that gives the public what they can get no where else. Hamill says:
"The independent bookseller has been forever the life blood of the American writer. And Powell's is one of the great institutions on the west coast."
So, how goes the book war, you ask? Apparently, very well. Mike Powell is at it again. His dinosaur of a book store is still growing:
"We're going to take out this handsome but limited building which is one story high and put up a four story building which will add 25,000 square feet of space." And that, says Pwell, "will at least give us bragging rights for being the biggest physical bookstore in America. I have always believed we're the biggest for number of books. We have close to a million volumes."
But Powell is realistic, too:
"Anybody can put a million books in a building. The question is: Are they a million good books? And that's always our challenge."
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