Excellent piece in the New York Times "Corner Office" column, featuring an interview with Powell’s Books CEO Emily Powell, in which she discussed the Portland,Oregon-based business's prospects as it deals with the repercussions of the pandemic.
Powell says that "in many ways the book business hasn’t changed in a very long time and that’s certainly no different for Powell’s. When we opened, all we needed were wooden bookshelves, a rotary phone, a cash register and cash. Now we, like many other retailers, need social media. We need dev ops engineers to build an automated website. We need a database that lives in the cloud that’s searchable in a very nuanced way. There are far more costs to doing business. So we have these expenses that have been going up for a very long time, and now we have very few of the sales, and we anticipate when we open the sales will be quite low even as folks come back.
"So how do you make that work? Especially as we add the additional expense of creating a very safe environment for our employees and for our customers. You have to be comfortable touching a book, pulling it off a shelf and putting it back and lingering in an aisle. And that’s going to take quite a bit of work on our part, which we’re happy to do, but we have to be able to pay our bills at the same time. So that’s the essential struggle: How do you exist in this modern business retail environment at a time when your sales have returned to a level you maybe haven’t seen in 20 or 30 years? We will figure it out, but it will be a very different business and it’s going to take us some time."
Powell notes that "Amazon came along relatively late into our story. We went online ourselves in 1994, which was just slightly before Amazon, but we were already very well established as a very large independent bookseller with very large inventory and selection."
But, she says, "I think the threat of Amazon in some ways has only really arrived at our doorsteps. We are all becoming more and more accustomed over time to placing just one more order on Amazon. 'Oh, I just ran out of this thing. It’s too much trouble to go to that store or to find it somewhere else.' Little by little, that’s eroded all of our shopping behavior."
- KC's View:
Fascinating interview … and I should note that Powell's is one of my favorite retailers.
I do love her answer to the question, "What would you tell someone considering opening an independent bookstore of their own right now?"
Powell responds, "Don’t do it. Um, that’s not good advice. I don’t mean that. It is really a lovely line of work. My only advice is that it will always be challenging. You know, don’t get into the business thinking that if you sort of get a few things right in the beginning that then it will just work and I don’t have to think about it again. The work of book selling is always challenging. There’s always something new, whether it was the big box stores in the ’90s, and then Amazon and now this. There’s always something."
Those words ought to be emblazoned on the wall of every retailing entity:
"There’s always something."