Quirky, Old-School Enterprise Versus Doom

Powell’s anticipated that every part of its business would need to be closed, but then quickly realized that it could continue operating the warehouse. Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

We have used the word doom in a post title on four previous occasions, most recently this one. Doomsaying is not our goal here, but when it comes to the environment, particularly climate change, sometimes no other word will do.

A customer in Powell’s flagship store downtown. Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

On this fifth occasion I use the word just as seriously, but without reference to environmental challenges.  This book retailer has been on the front lines of one of the other big dangers I have had my eye on, and I am thankful to Peter S. Goodman for this account of their approach to survival:

Powell’s Books Survived Amazon. Can It Reinvent Itself After the Pandemic?

As much as any city, Portland, Ore., has been through hell. Its landmark store, Powell’s Books, must finally build a viable online business while recapturing its downtown success.

Powell’s anchors a once dicey neighborhood now dotted with glass-fronted condos and furniture boutiques. Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. — Over its half-century in the heart of Portland, Powell’s Books has survived an unending array of foundational threats — the oft-anticipated death of reading, the rise of Amazon, the supposedly irretrievable abandonment of the American downtown.

None of that provided preparation for the tumult of the past two years.

The pandemic shut down its stores for several months, and turned downtown into a place best avoided. Black Lives Matter protests drew opportunistic anarchists who brought mayhem, triggering a fierce crackdown from law enforcement. Growing ranks of homeless people erected encampments in front of storefronts blinded by protective sheets of plywood. Forest fires choked the air, pervading a near-biblical sense of doom.

A quirky, old-school enterprise, Powell’s has retained its traditional aura in the digital era, while standing as a hero in a now-familiar tale of American urban rejuvenation. Its flagship store — a grand warren of books filling out a former car dealership — anchors a once dicey neighborhood whose warehouses have been traded in for glass-fronted condos and furniture boutiques.

But the latest plot twist has foreshadowed a potentially unhappy ending. Like the rest of Portland’s urban core — and like downtowns across the United States —Powell’s is contending with staggering uncertainty. How will brick-and-mortar stores fare in a time of continued fear over a deadly, airborne plague? What happens to city life when sidewalks are strewn with the rain-soaked belongings of people who can no longer afford rent?

“People don’t come downtown in the way that they used to prepandemic,” said Emily Powell, 42, owner and president of Powell’s Books, the business founded by her grandfather in 1971…

Read the whole article here.

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