Powell’s City of Books closed in March, and even though some Oregon companies have resumed, 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 difficulties of trying to keep a service — even a world-famous one — afloat in a pandemic.
She sees some factor to hope but also frets about adjusting Powell’s company design 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 whole conversation utilizing the audio gamer at the top of this story.
Dave Miller: How is company right now, midway through July?
Emily Powell: In some ways, it’s tough to say, since our patterns have actually completely vaporized. Before the pandemic, I could have told you, “Oh, the first warm day, and this month will look like this. The second sunny day will appear like that.” But all of those habits have gone away. So today we’re on a fairly steady sales decrease and attempting to do our finest to turn that in a various direction.
Miller: How does it compare to when you initially reopened online sales?
Powell: That was a bizarre and difficult time in its own right. Sales really skyrocketed, to unmatched levels. We have actually never ever seen a spike in our sales volume of that kind in our business’s history. And it definitely assisted get us through the very first number of months of trying to weather this new storm. However we’re not seeing anything remotely like that kind of sales volume now.
Miller: Just how much federal support have you gotten?
Powell: Just the loan that we have actually gotten through the [Income Security Program], which is a considerable assistance, but is a one-time thing. So we’re simply using that to the best of our capabilities to pay for our payroll, medical insurance, a minimal amount of rent for our smaller stores and then the various utility costs where there’s any money left. …
In the very first month or two, we were able to keep going due to the fact that of that sales spikes that we received. We had substantial financial obligation, as we usually do entering this time of year, because we have billings due from the holiday. And we anticipate to sort of have this bump of spring break to assist us with capital, which didn’t get here of course. So that sales spike assisted us, but given that it has evaporated. Since then, we have actually relied rather greatly on that on that loan. Without that assistance, we ‘d be a much smaller company today already.
Miller: What are your different considerations as you think about what it would imply for your physical shops to resume?
Powell: Oh boy, there are a lot of. Obviously, safety is what enters your mind first and foremost for our staff — their safety being in the public spaces every day, the security of our community. The last thing we want is to contribute to the continuous spread of such a deadly and dangerous virus.
On the other hand, I think about the obligation. We have the variety of individuals who depend on us — again, obviously, staff members for their livelihood and their health insurance, however likewise the authors whose books we sell and individuals who concern us simply for a safe area, a roofing over their head on a rainy day or the folks who have nowhere else to enter our neighborhood and can sit on the flooring and check out books, and that assists further their quality of life. We are accountable to all of those individuals. So I have to balance the reality of being here in a physical way with keeping everyone safe. There’s truly no simple straight line that we can toss red in between those two.
Miller: I’m thinking in specific about the flagship on Burnside, which has a lot of long, narrow aisles. Just how much is that in and of itself a concern, and possibly an overwhelming one?
Powell: It is a huge difficulty. Obviously, when individuals think about our store, they do not consider it empty. They think about it complete, and they think about hectic, maybe a dynamic weekend and the kids’s room, checking out books with their kids and meeting family and friends. That is, obviously, difficult in our existing reality and likely will be for some time.
I am positive that if we could discover a method to do it, we could restrict the variety of individuals in our shops and make it a safe environment. I believe there’s a method to keep individuals safe. It would be a various shopping experience. It might appear like the Powell’s Books of, state, 1985, possibly rather than 2020.
Our other shops provide their own variation of that obstacle. Paradoxically, our Beaverton store might be the easiest to resume in that regard. It’s far more open and spread out, whereas our Hawthorne shop or our house and garden store present more difficulties. They’re far more tightly spaced. It’s a real difficulty, and we can’t move those bookshelves and all those books very easily. They’re heavy, and they’re connected to the ground. We have work to do.
Miller: It seems like among the ingredients for resuming would be limiting the variety of people in the shop at any provided time. When we have actually talked to restaurant owners about that specific calculus, a number of them have said it would not work as a company design to have less clients or a smaller sized inventory. Is it the exact same for a book shop? Is it possible to have less people at a provided time?
Powell: Oh no, we’re in precisely the very same boat as dining establishment owners, I’m afraid.
I can discuss security and I can say, “I can see a path to keeping our employees and our clients safe.” I can’t see a path to doing that in a manner that enables us to pay our costs. We exist in the year 2020, and we have to have the level of sales needed to meet 2020 expenses. So to limit the variety of people … and to considerably decrease the amount of sales in our stores is actually an overwhelming difficulty. At this moment in time, I want to believe we are going to be able to find a method to thread that needle as we move along. However I don’t see it at this time.
Miller: The beauty of any book shop, whether it is the size of a city block or a small shop, is wandering around, choosing a book up off the shelf that you have never ever seen before, perhaps putting it back, maybe purchasing it. This is the kind of thing that we didn’t hesitate about pre-pandemic, now look like potentially frightening actions. How can you make the experience of remaining in a shop now anything near 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 clean, sterilizing and spraying out aisles with some sort of disinfectant on a regular basis. They do not do so well in human environments. So yes, the idea of walking through browsing in a very sort of serendipitous fashion, choosing something up, putting it back, unexpectedly ends up being a completely various sort of scenario.
What I can do is develop a space it feels beautiful to stroll through that feels safe and hope and trust that if we put out hand sanitizer and ask our consumers and our workers to act in a safe way, that they can do so and safeguard each other and our neighborhood.
I think there is a bit of a silver lining here. Numerous folks would like the possibility — myself included, or my 5-year-old son — to shop the store when there’s nearly nobody there. It’s its own kind of a magical experience. So if we can determine how to do that, ideally by constructing our online sales existence to keep us going, and after that permitting a restricted variety of people to shop our shops at any given time, we might be able to offer that sort of wonderful book shop shopping experience in a brand-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 pertaining to my home when we require something that we have trouble discovering somewhere else. I believe they serve a purpose and a need. Many of our sellers have actually already disappeared from our, uh, physical environment and marketplace. And if you require something in your house, you can’t find it in other places– we require air filters for a humidifier, and I can’t find them throughout Portland. That’s an easy option, and I do not begrudge anyone that, and I likewise do not resent anyone shopping someplace that’s much easier on their wallet. We are frequently not the most affordable option.
But I do truly stress over what the future looks like. I know a number of us in the retail space think mightily in the items we sell and where they originate 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 actions keep a great deal of people fed and housed and with health insurance. When those disappear, it’s an unpleasant effect. So I don’t mind their presence, however I fret about their impact in the long run.
Miller: What does the data you have state about the books that individuals are buying today? 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 informs me. We are offering a great deal of literary classics about a different time. Nobody wants to check out what’s taking place today. I definitely don’t. We’re selling a lot of baking books or hobby books, things to sort of keep you pleased and amused at home. And then we’re offering escapist fiction or games, anything about another time and another place, or simply deepening your connection to home. That’s where everyone is focused at this minute.