As the president of world-famous Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., Emily Powell is well-versed in the nuances of globalization. “We don’t have aims to be in any other city, yet we’re very successful,” she says. “Going deep and knowing your community can allow you to be even more successful than a business with aspirations to go wide.”
Powell’s grandfather started the business as a used bookstore in 1971, and over the years, the store has grown to offer new books, encompass a city block, and, in 1994—pre-Amazon.com—sell books online.
While bookselling is still about connecting readers and books, Powell has had to confront contemporary challenges: the ascent of Amazon, e-books, and, most recently, a pandemic. Through it all, Powell has made serving Oregon’s readers and writers her top priority while also deftly delivering books to readers nationwide and beyond.
The secret sauce, Powell says, lies in used books: intricately tracking their performance—how quickly they sold, at what price, and in what condition—to aid future merchandise choices and shelving them with new books, which many bookstores don’t do. “By far we sell more of both new and used as a result,” she says.
Equally important is maintaining a presence for Powell’s pilgrims. She remembers one Florida woman who burst into tears upon entering the store and realizing a life dream. “Our loyal customers outside of Portland have all had some physical contact with the store,” she says. “They’ve all either been there or had someone tell them about it. It’s the weight of a physical experience that’s allowed us to become who we are.”