Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Trouble in Portlandia

ONE of our favorite places, here at The Misread City, is Portland, Ore., and as much as we love the walkable neighborhoods, the groovy coffee shops, and the excellent local cuisine and Oregon Pinots, we find ourselves trapped helplessly in Powell’s bookstore every time we’re up there. (You may also have heard about the show Portlandia starring a member of one or favorite bands.)

So the troubles at the four-decades-old Portland institution, which has both a strong Internet presence and several locations in and around the city, saddens us. The company recently announced 31 layoffs due to the economy and new technology.

When I went to visit Powell’s a few years ago for an LA Times story, I was struck by a contrast: Every morning, at least a dozen people seemed to be waiting outside the main 68,000 sq. ft. store for its 9 am opening, and even on week days the place was full of people buying books.

But Michael Powell, the company founder, glowered through out interview, worried about the book market, changes in the Internet, and passing over power to his daughter Emily.

"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.

To the naked eye, things did not seem nearly as dark as Powell described them, and Emily was charming, smart and optimistic. Still, maybe he was onto something.

HERE is my full story, which describes much of what Powell's -- both like and unlike other American independent bookstores -- is up against.

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