Interview with Michael Powell

What started as a quaint textbook retailer on the campus of the University of Chicago has been Portland’s leading bookstore for the past thirty years. Born and raised in Oregon, Michael Powell – founder and owner of Powell’s Books – developed a retail offering that bears the nickname “City of Books.” The book selling business is difficult and complex but its mission is simple.

“We buy and sell books new and used. We try to provide a space in our stores that people feel comfortable in. We have a selection of books that’s the best of the new and the old [right next to each other]. We work hard to make sure they are good books that are priced right and organized well,” Powell tells us.

Powell is now 75 years old and has gone through every stage in a business. He started out selling textbooks at a small bookstore on the campus of the University of Chicago. After he graduated, he opened a small bookstore of his own near campus. He was the only employee and owned a small but selective library of books. Shortly thereafter Powell’s dad expressed interest in bringing Powell’s Books to their hometown of Portland. The same store that once took up a corner in the Pearl District now owns a whole city block as well as five other locations in Portland and two more in Chicago (the Chicago stores are now owned by Powell’s business partner).

“We never had an ambition to own a big store but what we did have was ambition to own a store that met the needs of the readers. People demonstrated by their presence and purchase that they were pushing the limit of what we had so we continued to expand. [However,] I think we are done now.”

Although Powell has been in the book business for roughly fifty years, these days he takes a less hands-on approach. Still a family owned bookstore, the day in day out operations are being run by Michael Powell’s daughter Emily Powell.

“I gave the store to my daughter and I told her if it’s the same store in five years I’m taking it back. I want her to be innovative and creative and I think she has been.”

Not only does a family business mean keeping the leadership in the family, but it also provides a unique approach of selling books. For example, Powell’s hosts weekly authors and book clubs. Powell’s is also a gathering place in the community where people come to meet work and buy books. As of a few months ago, independent authors can now print their books in the Powell’s printing press. Powell tells us the family owned aspect of the bookstore is one of the main reasons some people choose to buy books at Powell’s instead of Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

“It depends on whether you’re looking for the atmosphere and the environment of locally owned. It’s not getting sold to Barnes and Noble. I like to think that it’s not only a store but also a force in the community” explains Powell.

Although Powell’s moves around four and a half million books a year (plus a million or so non book items) things haven’t always been this stable. In 2009 to about 2012 there was the E Reader phenomenon. Book sales were down and the sale of e books such as the Kindle were at an all time high. Powell’s Books was no stranger to this shift in the industry. In fact, in the middle of this craze, Powell’s reluctantly jumped on the bandwagon by selling the Kobo e-reader with Powell’s books to purchase.

“Conventional wisdom is seldom wisdom. People were making assumptions that proved short sighted that somehow electronic would be the answer. It seemed logical in some ways. We were a little concerned and thought about it for a while. But now we’ve seen it plateau and even decline in many ways. There will still be demand for them but not enough to drive out bookstores.”

And all numbers seem to point to increased purchase of books and a decline in e reader sales.

“I was on a plane last night and I walked the length of the plane and I counted the number of books to e -readers and there were three e -readers and at least 25 books.”

The Business of Books

The business of books has two sides to it. For book buyers like you and me, a bookstore is quite simple. We go in, look at books, find the book we want, buy the book and we are done. But the back end of bookstores is a complicated mixture of luck, logistics, and science. Here is how it works:

Get the book: Powell’s buys the book from the national wholesaler the supplies much of the Nation’s books. Powell’s must decide how many books to get. Get too many and they lose money, get too few and their customers buy on Amazon. Between guessing and looking at the author’s past performance, Powell’s settles upon the desired size of purchase. Powell tells me of times where they have bought five copies of a book that turns into a bestseller and hundreds of a book that turns into a dud.

Transfer the book: After the book comes in from the publisher, Powell’s must count the book, label the book, scan the book into their internal software that tracks the book, store the book, then ship the book to one of the stores or hold it in the warehouse on standby for either online sale or future retail sale. In the case of online sale, Powell’s sells books overseas to China, the Phillipines, and Vietnam.

Sell the book: Powell’s now markets the book, prices the book, scans the book before purchase, and finally sells the book to you and me.

For the Planet

Although many express worry in the toll books take on trees in our planet, Powell says that the resale of used books solves a part of the issue.

“We recycle trees. We are giving the book a second life and the author a second voice. So that’s all good.”

Closing Remarks

“We are always challenging ourselves to think of new ways to improve our system whether that is our monthly book club or our online services or our stores. We are always trying something different.” – Michael Powell.
About Michael
Age: 75

Where did you grow up?: Oregon

Fun Fact: 1. Michael was a commercial fisher before entering the book business

2. Powell’s Books was the first store to legally sell books to Vietnam.
The Powell’s wood shop where they make all of their shelving and cases for their books (Powell’s Books Warehouse) 

Rows and rows of books waiting to be shipped off for sale (Powell’s Books Warehouse) 

Michael Powell walking me through the Warehouse (Powell’s Books Warehouse)

2 thoughts on “Interview with Michael Powell

  1. I’m glad you got a chance to pace on the plane as you took written or mental notes. Your writing and style are getting better every month. Powell’s is such an interesting story and quite a phenomena. Keep it up–and thanks for the up-to-date report on Greece. GS


  2. This was a great piece, giving an insight into an ever-changing industry and a nice, personal touch of one of the leaders in the field. Thanks for your articles!


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