Saturday, January 23, 2010

Portland Book Panic

I don’t know if it rises to DSM-worthy status, but one of my great phobias is being stranded someplace without a book. A long bus ride, a line at the post office- just imagining being in these situations without reading material right now makes me anxious.

As I walked through the Portland airport the other morning for my flight home, I felt secure in having two promising novels and a couple magazines in my backpack. Then I passed one of the three Powell’s airport stores and thought- what if I don’t like these books? What if the plane is delayed and I finish them? I needed one more for the road.

So I picked up Kate Atkinson’s newest, When Will There be Good News (an especially apt title given Thursday’s New York Times). And this ended up being the book I finished in the ten hour (why???) trip back to Wisconsin.

Atkinson always delivers, and it was a little extra surprise that one of the major plot twists features the Loeb Classical Library, which, of course, is sold by Harvard University Press, i.e. me. One of the unfortunate characters is a religious fanatic who, oddly, owns “every single Loeb Classic that had ever been published, red for Latin, green for Greek.” (Later, the first volume of the Iliad turns up as a weapon, lobbed “like a grenade.”)

Just the day before, I had admired the nearly complete selection of Loebs on the shelves of the Powell’s Burnside store, and pondered how it is that they do so well here. Granted, many of the sales are by way of the Powell’s website, but they look so commanding in the store that many of the regular reorders I get must be a result of customers stumbling upon them.

This sense of discovery is one of the success secrets of this shrine to books. After visiting the store twice a year for a decade, some jadedness should have set in by now. Yet I head for the place as soon as I can whenever I get into town, and promptly lose all track of time among the stacks.

Since “How does Powell’s do it?” is a longstanding and burning question among all the other independent booksellers I see, I would offer a couple theories.

The artist/photographer Rineke Dijkstra observed that “if you want to give a general impression, you should be very specific.” Whereas inventory comprehensiveness was once a mainstay of serious booksellers, internet retailers have made that business model for bricks and mortar stores all but obsolete. Nobody can compete on the basis of “stocking everything” when online booksellers can give the impression that they really do stock everything.

But somehow, Powell’s has managed to maintain a feeling of scope, depth and breadth. Yes, it’s sheer size, but not only that. It’s not so much that you expect them to have every book you can think of, but there’s a strong sense of possibility (they might have it!) and anticipation (wonder what’s down that aisle?) There’s an old-school, cluttered bookshop aesthetic, but when you look a little closer you notice that sections are incredibly organized, defined, and almost obsessively labeled.

Shrewdly, the Powell’s buyers and section managers also seem aware that having credibly thorough shelves isn’t really enough to make people happy. Within that comprehensiveness, the little outcroppings of quirky, offbeat taste in the form of clever end cap displays and surprising face outs make you feel like you could be in the smallest, most personal bookshop. Its Dijkstra’s specific within the general.

Part of what’s made this possible is Powell’s legendary egalitarian bookselling philosophy. As other new book retailers over the years sniffed at the idea of selling used books, or remainders, or working on a website, Powell’s actually focused on these things as just another way to sell books. Today, they are not afraid to follow eBooks and the digital revolution wherever it’s taking us. For them, a book is a book is a book. When we reach the point where books (or “books”) will be directly applied to the backs of our corneas via satellites from outer space, I suspect Powell’s will retail them as just another format.

Some of this inclusive philosophy extends to the way they buy new books, which in my experience is somewhat unique. There are booksellers with whom buying decisions are arrived at very individually as we go through catalogs book by book. I pitch the merits and try to help them see who would buy the book, while they think about the same. Out of this, a seasonal order is constructed, tailor-made for their store.

At Powell’s, catalogs are circulated throughout the stores in advance of our meeting. Managers and section supervisors all weigh in, and the resulting order quantities are a composite judgment rendered by dozens of sets of eyes. I, the rep, have some input on the end result, but by and large this sprawling committee of the whole has made the main decisions.

In truth, it can be a frustrating way to work. I miss the book by book pitch, and especially miss the immediate feedback. And the order numbers can seem a little eccentric. But it works.

The Powell’s website, which is far and away the most competitive and content-rich in the indie book world, is brimming with author interviews, essays, blog posts and other features. When you look up a title, the on-hand quantities are displayed by store location, which gives you a sense that there’s a physical connection and that the books are not just blips in ether. To an extent I don’t see on other indie websites, there’s an attempt to recreate the sense of serendipity you enjoy in the physical stores when you encounter books you didn’t know you wanted.

One other big ingredient in Powell’s success is that they’ve been able to capitalize on their status as both a local and a national (international!) bookseller with great finesse. People can and do shop the store from all over the world without having set foot in it. Yet the affinity with Portland is stronger than most booksellers enjoy with their hometowns and the loyalty is reciprocated.

I think this works so well because they aren’t faking their roots. They were all about local before local was hip. Michael Powell and his daughter Emily are diehard Portlanders, and the huge staff is a potent mix of very experienced longtime booksellers, and bright younger Gen-whatevers who keep things fresh and lively.

Powell’s is a wonder, no doubt about it. And the amazing thing is that even though there are eight Powell’s stores throughout the city, Portland has a relatively thriving cast of other interesting neighborhood booksellers- Looking Glass Books, Annie Bloom’s, Broadway Books, and several good university shops and specialty stores.

I don’t know whether there’s something unique to Portland that makes it such a book mecca, but it is one place you never have to worry about being stuck bookless.

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