ATG Article of the Week: What Happens to Powell’s Books When You Can’t Browse the Aisles?

by | Jun 1, 2020 | 0 comments

In the most recent Corner Office column in the NY Times, David Gelles interviews Emily Powell, the chief executive of Powell’s Books, the famous Portland independent bookstore. They discuss how Ms. Powell “is having to rethink the books business” in light of the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Powell’s Books was selling books online before Amazon.com existed. Over the years, its flagship store grew to occupy a full city block in Portland, Ore. And the company, which until recently employed some 500 people, is still family owned.

But when the coronavirus hit, Powell’s — like many businesses around the world — suddenly faced an existential crisis. Its chief executive, Emily Powell, closed the company’s stores in mid March. Without customers browsing the aisles, revenues dried up immediately, and the company’s head count was slashed by some 90 percent in a matter of days.

As word of the layoffs spread, online orders spiked, allowing Powell’s to rehire many workers. Yet with its stores still closed and the virus still spreading, Ms. Powell — who took over the business from her father and grandfather — says it remains unclear how a sprawling used bookstore will be able to safely reopen to the public.

This conversation, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was part of a series of new live Corner Office calls discussing the crisis. Visit timesevents.nytimes.com to join upcoming calls.

How was Powell’s able to succeed in the era of Amazon?

Most of the credit goes to my father and grandfather. My grandfather never limited his vision of what the bookstore could be. He was one of the first to put used books and new books together on the shelf, so you could afford to take a chance on a book you might not feel like splurging on a hardcover copy of. That synergy has been everything for our business. And my father brought to the table a willingness to say, “If customers are buying this many books and there are more books out there, why not make it bigger? Could we take over the next part of this block?” Those two pieces I think were really the foundation of what has made us what we are.

Amazon came along relatively late into our story. We went online ourselves in 1994, which was just slightly before Amazon, but we were already very well established as a very large independent bookseller with very large inventory and selection.

When did the virus first start to disrupt the business?

I remember a Friday, the 13th of March, coming around and feeling a very clear sense at that point we were going to have to close. We are just too big of a space and we did not feel like we could stay open and potentially participate in a spread of a virus. And our employees were feeling increasingly uncomfortable about coming to work. We are a big public space, lots of people in and out, lots of travelers visiting. It was feeling increasingly uncomfortable to them and we could not stay open and potentially risk infecting them as well. So on Sunday the 15th, we just decided we have to shut right now.

If you are interested in reading the entire interview, please click here.

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