Adam Ash

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Friday, May 26, 2006

Bookplanet: heir apparent to Powell Books, the biggest independent bookseller in US

The future is booked -- by Hal Bernton

Growing up in Powell's City of Books — some 1 million volumes spread across a store that occupies an entire downtown block — Emily Powell might easily have overdosed on the written word. Too many summer days spent shelving new and used books. Too many nights when her father, Michael Powell, took her to another evening talk by an author.

Yet from early on, Emily Powell appeared eager to contemplate a lifetime devoted to this Portland institution ranked by many as one of the finest bookstores in the nation. Her father recalls one Christmas Eve when his 8-year-old daughter, standing on a box next to the register, helped make change for customers.

"My dear, when you grow up, are you going to be a cashier?" said an old lady helped by the young girl.

"When I grow up, I am going to own this place," Emily Powell replied.

This spring, at age 27, Emily Powell's eventual succession to the top spot at Powell's was announced, assuring some 500 employees — and legions of patrons — that this bookstore would remain a family business, and not sold to a chain or other corporate entity.

Emily Powell is a slight woman, and at 5 foot 3 inches still could benefit from a step-up box behind the counter. The only child of Alice and Michael Powell, she had not been ready to settle in without at least sampling life outside of the family business.

She headed to San Francisco to work for several years as a lingerie sales clerk, then as a pastry chef and real-estate analyst. Today, she is acutely aware of the learning curve that lies ahead before she takes over from her father in a transition expected to take four to six years. "It would be incredible hubris for me to say at this point what my vision is for this company," Powell said.

Her 65-year-old father, though, is not shy about his expectations for his daughter in a new century rife with technological change. "It's an iPod world, it's a blogger's world," said Michael Powell. "That's not me. That never will be me. Emily is someone who can delve into this world. And that's what the company needs."

During the past two years, Emily helped Powell's make that transition as she worked in the marketing department, which now relies on the Internet to reach customers around the globe. Some 30 percent of the company's sales are now over the Internet, and the Powell's Web site also includes a parade of blogging authors.

The Powell family first launched into books in 1970, when Michael, then a University of Chicago graduate student, borrowed $3,000 to begin selling used volumes in Chicago. Later in the decade, he returned to his native Portland to join his father, Walter Powell, a painter and paper hanger who in his retirement had started a used bookstore.

In 1980, the family purchased a cavernous American Motors dealership in a Northwest Portland neighborhood that was then largely warehouses and other industrial enterprises. This became the Powells' flagship store, and one of six that would eventually open in the Portland area.

Emily was 2 when they moved into the dealership and her childhood memories are filled with bookstore moments. She recalls the bomb threats when Powell's put Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" on sale in 1989, which outraged militant Muslims.

She remembers getting all dressed up to meet Jimmy Carter on a book tour through Portland, and gaining a kiss on the forehead from the peanut farmer turned president. And she recalls the "bookie truck" — the old white pickup, which her father and grandfather used to haul around books, and how she wanted to drive that thing when she grew up.

She attended Catlin Gabel, a private Portland school, and then headed back east to Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where she graduated in 2000 with a major in urban planning and design.

As Emily came of age, so did Powell's, helping to define Portland's quirky sense of place as the city went through sweeping change and growth.

The bookstore now lies at the edge of the Pearl District, which is full of expensive condos, restaurants and art galleries. Spreading through three floors of the old car dealership, it offers an immense array of new and used books stacked side by side on tall wooden shelves arranged under dozens of topics. There is a special room for rare books, and a corner filled with a collection of several thousand photography books.

At the cafe, you are invited to linger over drinks to savor a new acquisition, or perhaps meet a kindred book-loving soul.

Plenty of romances have started at Powell's, with a few couples opting to get married amid the book aisles. One patron after his demise was even granted a permanent resting place; his ashes are contained in a vessel inside a Tower of Books statue that acts as a pillar near an entryway.

This also is a union shop, one of the few bookstores in the country where the workers have successfully organized in a labor struggle that ended in 1999.

Michael Powell says he always hoped that he could turn the business over to Emily. But such transfers of power in family businesses can be perilous things.

Only 30 percent of businesses survive under family control for two generations, and only 12 percent to a third generation, according to Mark Green, an Oregon State University professor of business, who has consulted the Powell family about their transition.

Michael Powell says he always encouraged Emily to follow her own dreams. But he also admits to never having created an alternative plan for the store should she have walked away from it.

"I didn't want to blackmail her, or bribe her into some sort of decision that she is not going to feel good about, but I always felt like she should at least kick the tires and know what she was walking away from."

"There was never any pressure," Emily Powell said. "He let me know that I could follow my own path."

In fall 2001, Emily Powell did decide to leave the family business to join her boyfriend, Spencer Greve, the son of a prominent Portland jeweler who moved to San Francisco.

Greve had decided against joining his father's own retail business (Carl Greve Jewelers) and instead launched his own California enterprise that located Asian manufacturers of water-sports equipment for U.S. companies.

"We met on a blind date back in Portland," Greve recalled. "All she knew was that my family was in the diamond business."

In making the move to San Francisco, Emily always thought she would return to Portland, and Greve said he understood the strong pull back to their hometown. Powell moved back to Portland in spring 2004, followed by Greve.

"Portland is not San Francisco, and not New York," Greve said. "Though these cities offer some tremendous benefits, at the end of the day ... I don't think her conscience let her have a choice. I think that she knew that Powell's is more than just a bookstore. It's is part of Portland, and it's there that she could have the most impact on her community."

Emily Powell
Heir apparent at Powell's Books
Age: 27
Current job: Director of used books.
College: Haverford College, Pa.
Hobbies: Jogging, hiking, baking.
Lives in: Condo in the nearby Pearl District.
Currently reading: "The Perfectionist: The Life and Death of Haute Cuisine" by Rudolph Chelminski.
Last vacation: Sapporo and Kyoto, Japan.
Quote: "I've always wanted to be in the family business. I love this company, and what it is to the community."

(Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or


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