Powell’s City of Books closed in March, and even though some Oregon businesses have reopened, it’s still not clear when the Portland landmark will be able to welcome readers again.
Emily Powell, the third-generation leader of this privately held company, talked to OPB's "Think Out Loud®" Friday about the challenges of trying to keep a business — even a world-famous one — afloat in a pandemic.
She sees some reason to hope but also worries about adjusting Powell's business model to a new, socially distanced reality.
Here are the highlights of her conversation with "Think Out Loud®" host Dave Miller. You can listen to the entire conversation using the audio player at the top of this story.
Dave Miller: How is business right now, halfway through July?
Emily Powell: In some ways, it's hard to say, because our trends have completely evaporated. Before the pandemic, I could have told you, "Oh, the first sunny day, and this month will look like this. The second sunny day will look like that." But all of those behaviors have gone away. So right now we're on a relatively steady sales decline and trying to do our best to turn that in a different direction.
Miller: How does it compare to when you first reopened online sales?
Powell: That was a bizarre and challenging time in its own right. Sales really went through the roof, to unprecedented levels. We've never seen a spike in our sales volume of that kind in our company's history. And it certainly helped get us through the first couple of months of trying to weather this new storm. But we're not seeing anything remotely like that kind of sales volume now.
Miller: How much federal support have you gotten?
Powell: Just the loan that we've received through the [Paycheck Protection Program], which is a substantial help, but is a one-time thing. So we're just using that to the best of our abilities to pay for our payroll, health insurance, a limited amount of rent for our smaller stores and then the miscellaneous utility expenses where there's any money left. ...
In the first month or two, we were able to keep going because of that sales spikes that we received. We had substantial debt, as we typically do coming into this time of year, because we have invoices due from the holiday season. And we expect to sort of have this bump of spring break to help us with cash flow, and that didn't arrive of course. So that sales spike helped us, but since it has evaporated. Since then, we've relied quite heavily on that on that loan. Without that support, we'd be a much smaller company today already.
Miller: What are your various considerations as you think about what it would mean for your physical stores to reopen?
Powell: Oh boy, there are so many. Of course, safety is what comes to mind first and foremost for our staff — their safety being in the public spaces every day, the safety of our community. The last thing we want is to contribute to the ongoing spread of such a deadly and dangerous virus.
On the other hand, I think about the responsibility. We have the number of people who depend on us — again, of course, employees for their livelihood and their health insurance, but also the authors whose books we sell and the people who come to us just for a safe space, a roof over their head on a rainy day or the folks who have nowhere else to go in our community and can sit on the floor and read books, and that helps further their quality of life. We are responsible to all of those people. So I have to balance the reality of being here in a physical way with keeping everyone safe. There's really no easy straight line that we can throw red between those two.
Miller: I'm thinking in particular about the flagship on Burnside, which has a lot of long, narrow aisles. How much is that in and of itself an issue, and maybe an insurmountable one?
Powell: It is a huge challenge. Of course, when people think about our store, they don't think about it empty. They think about it full, and they think about busy, maybe a bustling weekend and the children's room, reading books with their kids and meeting up with friends and family. That is, of course, impossible in our current reality and likely will be for some time.
I am optimistic that if we could find a way to do it, we could limit the number of people in our stores and make it a safe environment. I think there's a way to keep people safe. It would be a different shopping experience. It might look like the Powell’s Books of, say, 1985, maybe as opposed to 2020.
Our other stores present their own variation of that challenge. Ironically, our Beaverton store might be the easiest to reopen in that regard. It's much more open and spread out, whereas our Hawthorne store or our home and garden store present more challenges. They're much more tightly spaced. It's a real challenge, and we can't move those bookshelves and all those books very easily. They're heavy, and they're tied to the ground. We have work to do.
Miller: It seems like one of the ingredients for reopening would be limiting the number of people in the store at any given time. When we've talked to restaurant owners about that exact calculus, many of them have said it wouldn’t work as a business model to have fewer customers or a smaller inventory. Is it the same for a bookstore? Is it possible to have fewer people at a given time?
Powell: Oh no, we're in exactly the same boat as restaurant owners, I'm afraid.
I can speak about safety and I can say, "I can see a path to keeping our employees and our customers safe." I can't see a path to doing that in a way that allows us to pay our bills. We exist in the year 2020, and we have to have the level of sales necessary to meet 2020 expenses. So to limit the number of people ... and to substantially lower the amount of sales in our stores is really an insurmountable hurdle. At this point in time, I'd like to think we are going to be able to find a way to thread that needle as we move along. But I don't see it at this time.
Miller: The beauty of any bookstore, whether it is the size of a city block or a small storefront, is wandering around, picking a book up off the shelf that you have never seen before, maybe putting it back, maybe buying it. This is the kind of thing that we didn't think twice about pre-pandemic, but now seem like potentially scary actions. How can you make the experience of being in a store now anything close to what we love about bookstores?
Powell: We sort of joke about this with our inventory books: They're not so water repellent. We can't be wiping down every book with a bleach wipe, sanitizing and spraying out aisles with some sort of disinfectant on a regular basis. They don't do so well in human environments. So yes, the notion of walking through browsing in a very sort of serendipitous fashion, picking something up, putting it back, suddenly becomes an entirely different sort of scenario.
What I can do is create a space it feels lovely to walk through that feels safe and hope and trust that if we put out hand sanitizer and ask our customers and our employees to behave in a safe manner, that they can do so and protect each other and our community.
I think there is a little bit of a silver lining here. Many folks would love the possibility — myself included, or my 5-year-old son — to shop the store when there's almost no one there. It's its own own kind of a magical experience. So if we can figure out how to do that, hopefully by building our online sales presence to keep us going, and then allowing a limited number of people to shop our stores at any given time, we might be able to offer that sort of magical bookstore shopping experience in a new way.
Miller: What goes through your mind when you see an Amazon delivery truck?
Powell: I see them all over. I see them in our neighborhood. I see them coming to my house when we need something that we have difficulty finding somewhere else. I think they serve a purpose and a need. Many of our retailers have already vanished from our, uh, physical environment and marketplace. And if you need something in your home, you can't find it elsewhere — we need air filters for a humidifier, and I can't find them anywhere in Portland. That's an easy choice, and I don't begrudge anyone that, and I also don't begrudge anyone shopping someplace that's easier on their pocketbook. We are often not the cheapest choice.
But I do really worry about what the future looks like. I know many of us in the retail space believe mightily in the goods we sell and where they come from and who produces them and in the chain of supply that got them from point a to our stores and into customer's hands.Each of those steps keep a lot of people fed and housed and with health insurance. When those go away, it's a painful impact. So I don't mind their presence, but I worry about their impact in the long run.
Miller: What does the data you have say about the books that people are buying right now? And what does that tell you about the lives we're living right now?
Powell: We're all trying to escape our current reality. That's what it tells me. We are selling a lot of literary classics about a different time. No one wants to read about what's happening right now. I certainly don't. We're selling a lot of baking books or hobby books, things to sort of keep you happy and entertained at home. And then we're selling escapist fiction or games, anything about another time and another place, or just deepening your connection to home. That's where everyone is focused at this moment.