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Portland Press |  The bookstore that resists Amazon

Portland Press | The bookstore that resists Amazon

Throughout the year, Richard Hito and Yves Boisvert keep us up to date on US election news in a newsletter sent every Tuesday. Their texts are then included in JournalismWednesday.


(Portland, Oregon) Dan Horowitz comes to see the bookseller in the “Golden” section. This is where we find thriller, horror and science fiction books.

“I'm looking for books by Simenon… Wait, no, Simenon. I'm having trouble with that name, there was a detox program called Synanon…

– First Name ? »

seek. I whisper to him: “Girgis.”

Photo: Yves Boisvert, Press

Dan Horowitz, Books in Hand

A bookseller enters a department and returns with five used books. The reader examines it, rejects the $30 piece, and takes two for $10. happy.

You can find it all at Powell's “City of Books,” which prides itself on being the largest independent bookstore in the world. Including the spirit of independence and indomitable resistance.

The place, housed in a 53-year-old former car dealership, is an incredible, labyrinthine temple to bookish glory. Here we do not differentiate between new and used: rather, we classify them according to type. The plywood shelves are lined up in sections of colors – pearl, purple, red, pink…

Without a plan, we will be lost. Better then not to follow the plan, and to get lost among booksellers' recommendations on cards, bestseller lists, and readers' written recommendations… I clenched my fist. Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America (Practical Guide to the Stupid Birds of North America), No. 1 in the “Nature” section, and a history of the beaver, “the strange rodent that conquered America.”

here here Orange groveWritten by Larry Tremblay…

The history of this library is no less strange than the history of the beaver. It started in 1970, when a student at the University of Chicago decided to open a used bookstore in that city. Michael Powell may be emotional, but he's not full of energy. His friends, including Nobel Prize winner for Literature Saul Bellow, gave him $3,000. After two months, he paid it back because he is so successful.

Across the country, here in Portland, his father thinks this book business seems to be paying off. He founded Powell's City of Books, which was also an immediate success. Now Michael's daughter, Emily, is president.

Photo: Yves Boisvert, Press

(Well stocked) shelves in Powell's library

And it was she, in 2020, who decided to send Amazon packing. She has nothing against online sales – although nothing replaces the sensuality of browsing in a bookstore. But she decided to stop selling her books through Amazon, as the bookstore had done before, and as many independents are forced to do. Which means losing a big slice of the revenue pie.

Powell has his own website. There we find the section Amazon resistance : “Browse Powell's book guide to learn how to stop using Amazon and support healthy, ethical businesses.”

Amazon was barely two years old, in 1996, when Jeff Bezos tried to convince the Bowles family to become his used book supplier. They refused.

In 2016, Amazon opened its own bookstore in Portland. It didn't sit well with many Portlanders, for whom Powell's is the most important business downtown.

There was the pandemic that led to temporary closures and mass layoffs. At the time, when it came to online sales, Powell felt he had no choice: Amazon was so dominant that it was better to join rather than perish.

But in August 2020, Emily Powell forcefully cut ties. “It's as hard as quitting smoking,” Emily Powell told media at the time. “We know we shouldn't do it, but we feel like we can't do without it, for fear of declining sales. We can't imagine losing this sales channel.”

For too long we have passively watched the destruction of neighborhoods and small businesses. We decided to take a stand. »

In 2022, Amazon announced the closure of all its bookstores and other physical businesses in the United States.

Powell Library, with its millions of books stored in 3,500 subdivisions, is itself uniquely positioned to take on this behemoth. It has not been immune to criticism: a long-running labor dispute was resolved in December.

But the company wasn't content to rely on book lovers' emotional connection. In this cultural institution, open 365 days a year, we also offer entertainment. There are meetings with the authors every day, and two or three meetings on the weekend. The two I attended were full houses – a hundred people.

“Have you ever found yourself unable to find a book, Madam Bookseller?

“Never,” she told me with a mixture of pride and ill will. »

The independent bookstore has not said its last word in this country.


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Photo by Michael Noble Jr., New York Times

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