PORTLAND, Ore. -- Carrying approximately a million books within its walls, Powell’s is a place where readers can get lost for hours both in the store, and in the pages of words thoughtfully arranged by thousands of authors. Emily Powell is a third-generation owner of the iconic independent bookstore.
“I think the reason we’re so big and so noteworthy 50 years into our history is really the mix of new and used inventory on the shelf together," Powell said. "Very few folks do that in any industry. Certainly, it was unusual in the book industry at the time, and it’s still somewhat unusual still to this day.”
Book lovers travel from all over to explore the so-called "City of Books," thrifting for old books with new ideas.
“This is one of my favorite books,” Powell said.
It could be a rare book, a timely book, or a book you’ve never heard of before.
“It really resonates whether you’re a book lover or just someone with an interest in anything. You just have to find your corner of the store and dive deep into that section.”
Powell’s is the world’s largest independent bookstore. The owners recently decided to pull their books from Amazon’s virtual shelves. Some say the world’s largest online marketplace has become a threat to local bookstore culture.
“They extract a commission but they also ask for certain customer-service treatment and ways of behaving that are not how we would ordinarily run our business,” Powell said.
Powell says business with Amazon became more and more costly, and with the pandemic, she says they needed to find a way forward that is sustainable for Powell’s and the community.
“We need to be a part of an ecosystem that’s healthy and vital, and so we have to be part of building that ecosystem and hence the choice to cut off our Amazon business,” Powell said.
Powell’s isn’t the only independent retailer struggling to compete with a company offering anything and everything at a cheap price with quick and free shipping. Powell’s has been turning to its e-commerce site during the pandemic as online sales have become essential, but not every local bookstore can afford to have its own book-sale website.
“Bookshop is an online bookstore that supports local mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar independent bookstores,” Bookshop founder Andy Hunter said.
Andy Hunter started Bookshop in January. It’s a free way for bookstores to create an online shop to sell to its customers.
“They can just go to our website, scroll down to the footer, there will be a ‘become an affiliate’ link and then they can onboard and they can create a shop in under an hour," Hunter said. "Really maybe half an hour. It’s as easy as setting up a Facebook page.”
We reached out to Amazon for comment on this book-selling trend, but have yet to hear back. Hunter says Bookshop has already captured nearly 2% of Amazon’s market share for books. He’s hoping that percentage will continue to rise.
“If we lose independent bookstores, the importance of books in our culture will be diminished,” Hunter said.
Powell says spending money at a local bookstore instead of Amazon keeps the dollars in the community. She says choosing to stop sales through Amazon was a difficult decision, but a necessary one.
"We’ve contemplated it for years because we know that staying with Amazon was not the best choice for our business, but it’s very hard to give up sales that you really need to keep surviving one way or another,” Powell said.
Her hope for Powell’s Books is that they can connect people to the value of reading while continuing to evolve with the changes of the future.
“We’re so accustomed in our modern age to the idea that the computer is the best way to find anything, but in fact, it’s very difficult to replicate the in-person experience of a bookstore,” Powell said.
She says certain books will always stay relevant.