OPINION: I own the world’s largest independent bookstore. We’ll only survive if you shop local

by Emily Powell | @Powells | Powell's Books
Thursday, 26 November 2020 09:14 GMT

A view of Powell's bookstore in Portland, Oregon, in an undated handout photo. Powell's via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At Powell’s Books, we stopped doing business with Amazon. This holiday season and for Black Friday, take a stand with us and shop independent

Emily Powell is president and owner of Powell’s Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore based in Portland, Oregon.

Fifteen years ago, I traveled to a midsized city several hours by plane from my weird little hometown of Portland, Oregon. I was on the road with a small group of book buyers from our team at Powell’s Books. Not a bad job: traveling the U.S., and sometimes farther afield, to buy large collections of books to keep our inventory needs satiated.

We were a ragtag group, and for book people this was the height of fun. We landed and drove straight to our destination, a large warehouse with over 100,000 books for us to peruse. I was there to learn from a well-practiced team, and together we (really, they) made quick work of the collection. We found ourselves with extra time on our hands. So, what do book people do in a new town? They look for bookstores.

We found three local bookstores to visit. One turned out to be smaller than most closets, and the other two had permanently closed. Dismayed, we looked for a local restaurant or pub. Nothing like an order of french fries and a decent beer to end the day well. We struck out there too. We could eat in any of a dozen or more national chain restaurants, but we couldn’t find a single local joint. That experience, of being in a small community that had virtually no locally-owned businesses, followed by many more similar experiences, has haunted me to this day.

“Keep Portland Weird” reads the ubiquitous bumper sticker. By now, most of America is familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Portland — unicycles, naked bike rides, bacon on doughnuts, chickens in our backyards and, this year, protests. If you live here, however, it doesn’t feel weird. It feels lovely.

Every neighborhood overflows with gardens competing for your attention; coffee shops, each with its unique personality, can be found whenever you feel the slightest thirst; remarkable food awaits at hundreds of restaurants and food carts; neighbors debate their favorite pizza place with heated fervor; and booklovers flock to their favorite independent bookstores and local libraries. We are a city of personality, a city of opinions, a city of dedication to community.

I know this to be true because Powell’s, the world’s largest independent book store, has thrived here for nearly 50 years. We will proudly celebrate that milestone birthday in 2021, as we fight our way to survival beyond our shared global pandemic. I firmly believe we would not have survived, or thrived, anywhere else. Portlanders believe in each other, they believe that something better is always possible, they translate their beliefs into actions, and they hold each other to account. Portland is not for the faint of heart; it is weird, and it is magical. When you’re in Portland, you know it.

One of the reasons? We shop local. And we see the impact of our financial choices every day. We’re a city where individuals want to start unique businesses, and they can. Where children see possibility modeled for them on the streets of their neighborhoods. Where local stores support neighborhoods, and vice versa. We have plenty of room for improvement, and steep challenges ahead. But even so, we know that where we spend our money dictates the health of our community.

We know that if we want this to be a place where we want to live and where our community thrives, our local businesses need us to stand up for them. They need us to take a stand and invest in them, to consciously choose to shop or dine with them, for them to continue operating in our community.

Like most cities around the world, Portland has been hit hard in 2020. Many small businesses have closed their doors for good, and many in our community face long-term unemployment. When local businesses suffer, our friends and families suffer, and our communities suffer. This summer, Powell’s took a stand. We stopped doing business with Amazon, and we urged others to do the same. Shop independent, we said.

As shopping online becomes easier and easier, we all find ourselves periodically on some big company’s website clicking the “Buy” button. But as this country tries to find its way to 2021 and beyond, we all know that those big companies will be just fine. The local, independently owned businesses that represent our communities may not.

This holiday season, I hope you will consider taking a stand with us. Please, shop independent. There are wonderful businesses, services and people across this country who need your support and investment. And when they thrive, our communities thrive. Take a stand against Amazon and other large retailers. They’ll be fine. Our communities won’t. They’re depending on you.