The Dinosaur that Wouldn’t Die

If you’ve ever been to Portland, you know that Powell’s Books is no ordinary bookstore. It sprawls over a block and a half of territory in the city’s Pearl District—which is hardly a low-rent address. It shares streets with cafes, mid to high end retailers, upscale hotels, fine dining restaurants, and, yes, the occasional Rite Aid.

Walk in the door, and you’ll notice that little about it suggests modern thinking. To create the space, the owners knocked down the walls of several adjoining buildings and knitted them together, leaving it a maze of half-staircases, mezzanines, steel columns, and odd-sized rooms. The books are stocked according to a numbering system that no one seems to understand (ask the employees about a number, and they’ll ask you what book you’re looking for). Even the store seems to concede that it’s confusing. Its employees, much like people working at Wal-Mart, wear shirts that ask you to ask them for help. Unlike Wal-Mart, however, Powell’s shirts don’t just say it on the back (think shoulders, for that 360 degree view of customer service).

So you might think Powell’s is just hanging on by a thread. Not only is it in a field that seems to be in an irreversible decline, it would make your average usability expert blanch.

But you’d be dead wrong.

Powell’s happens to be the largest new and used bookstore in the world (or at least that’s what it claims). According to its website, it stocks more than 1,000,000 titles across 60,000 square feet. Every day, 6,000 people browse its shelves, and 3,000 of them buy at least one book. In the marketing biz, we call this a conversion rate of 50%, and, if it’s true, it’s insanely high.

Some members of my team visited it a few weeks ago and found it, not surprisingly, clogged. There were people sitting on the floor, families towing children, young hipsters crowding the cookbook aisle, older folks seriously considering biographies, and scruffy grad students looking for bargains in the literary section. Didn’t anyone tell them about the used books on Amazon?

It didn’t take long for us to figure out where Powell’s excels. As you move from section to section you constantly see all kinds of intriguing stuff. Turkish tapestry books, books about the economics of soccer, spy novels, illustrated bird-watching books, lush histories of photography—everything you could imagine. A bookstore may just be the cheapest entertainment on the planet.

In fact, the bizarre geography of the place actually made it more functional, if you thought about it. It wasn’t a place to find any particular thing—which is what we tend to think a store should do. It was a place to get lost, bump into friends, and find something really cool. If it had made dead simple to find a book, you’d simply run to the section you wanted, grab it, and leave. Instead, by making it hard to do that, it makes it easy to build a community and have fun. And yes, you can always find a book that you absolutely must have.


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