The changing of the guard at Powell's Books, Portland's venerated six-store empire, is under way, and worried murmuring is coming from all sorts of business experts, according to a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times. We Powell's worshipers can't imagine life without the place, so we're hoping that it continues to be blessedly out of step with its industry.
The article by staff writer Scott Timberg quotes the reasonable doubts of outside experts, as well as those of founder Michael Powell, 67, who is turning over this remarkable independent bookselling operation to his 29-year-old daughter, Emily. One suspects that Michael Powell's opining about his heir apparent, or rather, heir unavoidable, was somewhat less harsh-sounding in larger context:"Businesses don't transition very well," Powell said. "Most of them fail." But he didn't think twice when his daughter, Emily, told him she wanted to come back to Portland and take over. "I didn't have another option," he said.
Michael Powell founded the place in 1971 and has weathered the rise of chain and internet bookstores; a labor strike in 2003 and the baffling popularity of reality TV, which has probably done more to dampen recreational reading than all the book burnings throughout history put together.
The success of Powell's is precisely because of what it isn't: a homogenized, corporate-hobbled cookie cutter retailer stocking only what is sure to sell in huge numbers. Instead it has a fabulously literary website backed up by live, smart humans; it carries used and new titles, both obscure and pop hits. Most importantly: Powell's has a small army of well-read employees in charge of the various topic sections who have unusual latitude in choosing and organizing their offerings.
But the worries are valid. Just because Powell's has so far fought off the trend that's shoved so many indie stories out of the game doesn't mean it isn't vulnerable. I'm hoping someone is right now making up buttons that say I BUY EMILY'S BOOKS. And, just to be on the safe side, let's all take a page from the almond-grower commercials. You know: Just buy two books a week from Powell's, that's all we ask.