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San Francisco used to be the catch-all for everything edgy on the west coast. No longer so. Now the City by the Bay is the home to pricey hipster restaurants, the financial center of Silicon Valley, and real estate values so high that residents get nosebleeds when they pay the mortgage. 

All that’s edgy has migrated 600 miles north to Portland, Oregon. Any visit to Bridgetown includes a visit to Voodoo Doughnuts, home of the maple iced doughnut with two strips of bacon on it (and racier delicacies whose shapes and colors we can’t mention on these pages, but you get the point). Once you get through the 45-minute line to get your sin food, you can eat them within view of the sign on the side of Music Millennium that reads “Keep Portland Weird.”

From Voodoo, it is an eight-minute walk to the corner of Burnside and 10th Avenue. Make sure your last will and testament is updated, however, because once you enter Powell’s City of Books, with its almost one million volumes, your loved ones may never see you again.  

Since its beginnings in 1971, Powell’s has grown to occupy the four buildings on its corner, filling an entire city block. Two of the buildings are one-story, another is three stories, and a fourth rises four floors. There are seven color-coded rooms, 75,000 square feet of retail space, and 35 different sections. Powell’s has four locations and more than 500 employees in the Portland area, but the Burnside store is by far the largest.  In 2014, this location was voted one of the Ten Coolest Book Stores in the World by CNN.

Powell’s started in 1971 in the most improbable of ways—as a second-hand book store. A year earlier, founder Walter Powell loaned his son $3,000 to buy a used-book store in Chicago. After spending a summer working with his son, who paid back the loan in six months, Walter saw the potential and returned to Portland. Within a decade, Powell’s was offering new books side-by-side with the used ones.

What has turned out to be true,” says Powell’s CEO Miriam Sontz, “is that used books spur the sale of new books. New books spur the sales of used books. The two do not seem to have a negative impact on each other.”

So how do they do it. How, did Powell’s expand to legendary status, with a weird mix of new and old, and how have they stayed relevant in what has been a tumultuous time in the retail book industry, in the face of internet retailers, and in the wake of megastores like Barnes & Noble and Borders (remember those guys?)?

“Online retailers have not figured out a logarithm that creates the experience of a real store,” says Sontz. “That’s what we sell.” 

Next to the classics at Powell’s, you’ll find a selection of manga and graphic novels. And guess what? Readers like to touch and handle these genres before they decide on a purchase. 

Powell’s capitalizes on the realization that not every reader knows what their next book will be. Powell’s allows them to kick the tires. Rather than going to the large retailers, where the book table gets smaller every day, today’s reader wants a wider selection. 

Powell’s reportedly takes in 3,000 used books a day, guaranteeing an inventory that’s as diverse as the city it calls home. Taking in all four stores and the mail-order business, Powell’s reportedly controls an inventory of 4 million volumes. Powell’s also seeks out the smaller, independent presses, knowing that readers want more than what the New York publishers are dictating we should read. Programming is part of the mix, too. As many as 500 authors each year give readings, answer questions, and spend time with readers. 

Before Sontz became the CEO, the Powell family was into its third generation of family members running the store. Founder Walter was followed by son Michael, and then granddaughter Emily. The Powell family stepped aside in 2013 to focus on long-term planning, and Sontz was brought on. She has a good handle on the retail book business, including the specter of e-books. 

“Screens are good for lots of things,” she said, ‘but they are not the death knell of the printed book. A lot of people, at the end of their work day, do not want to look at a screen anymore. They want the tactile experience of a printed book.” 

But some customers will sacrifice community for the sake of convenience, and sometimes you have to go where your competition is. Twenty-five percent of Powell’s revenue comes from online sales. But even then, the online experience at Powell’s focuses on books. 

“We are passionate about books,” said Sontz. “That’s what we sell. I don’t know what Amazon is passionate about. They sell things, but not necessarily books.”

Powell’s also realizes that with books comes community. People want to talk about what they are reading and get referrals from other people. That’s why 4,000 square feet of the first floor at Powell’s is set aside as a coffee shop called World Cup. It’s part of what keeps folks in Powell’s for hours, and the longer they are in the store, the more they are likely to buy. 

So, the next time you are in Portland, take any one of eleven bridges across the Willamette River (that’s why they call it Bridgetown). Stop and get your Voodoo doughnuts, then take the quick stroll to Powell’s. We hope you have three or four hours set aside. It will take at least that long, and you’ll wish you had more time.  

And … don’t forget to update the last will and testament before you walk in.

 

by Timothy Sunderland  (TopShelf Columnist)

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