by Pat Holt

Tuesday, March 23, 1999


Part I: Powell's of Portland

Things are popping in the Pacific Northwest, and as the plane descends into Portland, Ore., one feels a kinship to Mt. St. Helens in the distance - reaching for the stars and blowing its top at the same time.

Barnes & Noble and can fight all they want about which cyberstore has more books, but the largest physical bookstore in the country, if not the world, is right here: Powell’s, with its present 43,000-square-foot store in downtown Portland, will soon expand to a whopping 68,000 square feet, not counting six branch stores in the area and a cyberstore that does rival Amazon and Barnes & Noble in used books.

You need a map to get around this huge and funky palace of 500,000 titles because the place has already expanded so many times, adding on and bursting through so many different areas that paint jobs tell you more than categories: The Gold Room, for example, has everything from Children's Books to Nautical Fiction. The Rose Room has nonfiction Nautical, Railroad, Pets, Judaica and Automotive sections. The fun for international visitors lies in the Purple Room, with its many books ABOUT foreign languages and its many books IN foreign languages (Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Italian, French, German, African and others).

Powell’s, of course, is not a streamlined store with wide aisles, clear sightlines or logical organization. It is a giant, catacombed book jungle with huge pine shelves jammed tightly with used and new hardcovers and paperbacks. At just about any of its 550 sections (Dinosaurs! Insects! Typing! Weddings! Grief! Guns!) the eye leaps upward shelf by crowded shelf to near-the-ceiling books that only EMPLOYEE ONLY ladders can reach. The lights are bare, and so are the concrete floors, and nobody seems to notice.

The range and depth of inventory is astonishing. Hunt for the thousands of titles on Dogs and you find a wall of books on Civil Aviation. Find the area for author events (Purple Room) and shoehorn yourself into dense crowds that permit only a reverse-telescope vision of the day’s author nearly a block away.

Store manager Miriam Sontz moves around the place with the ease of someone who's shepherded thousands of books to their chosen homes for 20 years. She points to books you'd swear have no market and explains the problems of running out of titles "when there's such a heavy demand."

She gestures to people standing in line with boxes of books to sell and explains that Powell's buys 2-3000 used books a day. She talks about the current "inhaling mode" of the store, which is in the midst of replacing its Orange Room with the four-story building underway outside, and the "exhalation mode" that will follow when the new building opens in November to accommodate hundreds of thousands more titles.

At the Internet order-processing stations, Miriam explains that Powell's, one of the first bookselling sites to hit the web, now does about 10 percent of its $35 million annual income online (soon to be 20 percent, we hear). Separate sales to of used books accounts for about 25 percent, but the line is drawn there; Powell's, says Miriam, does not sell to the voracious Barnes & Noble, whose incursion in the used book field is "a definite threat."

All of it, says Miriam and owner Michael Powell in their offices at the technical annex across the street, has been and continues to be the kind of "huge gamble" you can only hedge for so long. Earlier expansions were protected by renting half the space until the store was financially ready to move in. Others appear to have been of the hit-or-miss, never-mind-we're-doing-it variety.

But the point seems clear: When facing not just a couple of chain stores but at least "12 of the killer Bs," as Miriam refers to Barnes & Noble and Borders, which ring the Portland area, independent booksellers often face two choices only: Specialize and stay small, or generalize and get big. Powell's, growing from 20,000 square feet (actually 1,000 if you count Michael's first store in Chicago in 1970), bypassed big years ago and exploded in all directions.

Powell's seems to have led the movement among booksellers from stocking new books exclusively to carrying a mix of new and used books. "Selling only new books is a chump's game," says Michael, "because all you can compete on is price, and we'll all lose that fight. So you have to compete with something else. We're fortunate to have this confidence in used books."

One quirky surprise: "The fact that people sell us their books makes them relate to the store differently," says Miriam. "They sell us their books and they come back to visit their books. They just want to keep track of them. Recently a customer pulled me aside who was upset because the books he sold us were beginning to sell. I said, 'This is good. They’re finding happy homes.' It's what we do – we take books that are unwanted in some way and make them into wanted books."

"So you see," says Michael, "the people of Portland built this store – they came with their books and still come. That’s the most amazing part of it."

And yet, just as Powell's seems to be on its way, wouldn't you know it - there's trouble in Paradise.

See Part II next Tuesday.


It's been evident for some time now that American journalism is in a sorry state, but what can be done about it?

Well, the audience can go on a "news fast," says Dr. Andrew Weil ("8 Weeks to Optimum Health," "Spontaneous Healing") in the latest Yahoo magazine.

His words are both edifying and deliberately ignorant. People who follow the news, says Weil, can get addicted "to the feelings of anger and outrage and feeling powerless" that news stories so often create. Try going on a "news fast," he advises, and pay no attention to the news at all.

"The things you need to know about you'll find out about, and the rest of it I don't think matters that much. If [the news] is producing states of mental disquiet, why should you be putting that in as a regular input? I don't know if you need to know the details of a brutal murder in a distant city. What good does that do you?"

This out-and-out rejection of the news as a kind of toxin in itself has become so prevalent that one breathes a huge sigh of relief reading "COMPASSION FATIGUE" by Susan D. Moeller (Routledge; 390 pages; $27.50). (Here is one of those perfect and awful titles - it makes sense when you read the book but seems to push you away beforehand. Stick with it, though; the insights inside are worth it.)

Moeller takes the opposite tack to Weil's, but comes to a similar conclusion. People want to care about that distant murder or that horrible war, that famine or genocide or cyclone or earthquake or cholera in foreign countries, but news coverage of one catastrophe after another only makes the reader "overstimulated and bored all at once."

It's one reason Americans suffer from short attention spans, Moeller says: "Staccato bursts of news [are] hyped and wired to feed your addiction" and suck the compassion right out, while lengthier coverage is considered too expensive and "rarely shows enough bang for the buck."

Such concerns have been discussed before, but if you've been frightened by recent talk about merging the three TV networks' coverage of foreign news into a CNN "pool feed" (thanks, apparently to the originator of "60 Minutes," of all people, for starting this), Moeller's blistering indictment offers some fresh answers.

First she shows how journalists have "Americanized (once called the 'Coca-Colonization')" coverage of pestilence, famine, death and war in foreign countries. Their aim, she indicates, is not so much to report the news truthfully but to keep people interested.

Thus an awful pragmatism emerges: "The problem with famines," she writes, "is that they just aren't considered newsworthy until the dying begins." We suffer from compassion fatigue when journalists concentrate only on foreign catastrophes and neglect stories about the daily life or political issues or heartwarming incidents affecting people in foreign countries.

What the public most tires of: stereotyping of crises ("How many starving orphans are you going to have?" one media analyst asks), using the simplistic good guy-bad guy dichotomy (Saddam Hussein, etc.), "flitting around the world" without finding the "good stories" and repeating the "official spin on stories - like the Bush administration's contention that Bosnia was another Vietnam."

What the press can do: Instead of pooling resources through CNN to cover the obvious hot spots, broadcast media (and print as well) "could stagger their own people more around the world. They could worry less about each placing a major bureau in London, Paris, Tel Aviv and Tokyo and be concerned more with bringing a broader swath of the news home."

That's one of many answers that can help the media steer American journalism away from frenzied dependence on the death of Princess Diana for foreign news and toward new standards that will win a beleagured audience back.

"It may be a myth that we need to be informed about every small crime and world event, since nothing really changes," Andrew Weil concludes to Yahoo magazine. Oh, but that's the myth itself, dear Doctor! Change is everywhere; it's just waiting for a witness.

"Compassion Fatigue" has been out for a few months and is listed on the websites of the following independent bookstores:


That giant exhaling sound you might have heard last Friday probably came from the independent bookselling community of Capitola, California. "The fight is finally over," said Gwen Marcum of the Capitola Book Cafe yesterday, "we think."

A startling irony emerged from the much-celebrated City Council decision February 18 (see Holt Uncensored #38) to allow Borders to build a store only half the size (12,500 square feet) it wanted: Although Borders was then certain to back out of the deal, the developer threatened to sue on the grounds that the vote itself was illegal.

Capitola, with its beautiful seaside village but tiny population (10,000), did not want a protracted suit, and, since the Council vote was close (3-2) and some city officials were sympathetic to Borders, it seemed that the real fight, moving quickly behind the scenes, might just be beginning.

But as soon as pressure shored up to force Council members help a full-size Borders locate in Capitola after all, another lawsuit, brought against the developers last year by a coalition of environmental groups, unexpectedly won its case last Friday in Superior Court.

Because this lawsuit was thought to have had little chance of winning, the judge's decision "has left project proponents speechless," the San Jose Mercury reported.

"Everybody had to take part in this fight for independent booksellers to win," Gwen said. "It took a the whole community hacking away - people counting parking spaces, using their own tape measures, reading RDAs (redevelopment fund reports), intermpreting environmental impact studies - until finally two decisions saved the day."

In the meantime, she said, "we have all learned a great deal about our customers from this. Feelings against megabookstores and big-box chains were there all along. But the big thing was watching people realize what's happening in the book industry - how conglomerates are shaping the industry, the effect on authors, small publishers and independent booksellers. They knew that vaguely before, but now they talk about the way these changes limit their choices in reading books."


So I took my own advice of last week and began sneaking offscreen from time to time to play snippets of the taped author interviews from City Arts and Lectures' onstage events on the web at (This is quicker than the last address I gave you,, which requires another step.)

It's a way to take a break at the keyboard: You just find the author you want to listen to (out of four this week: Jeffrey Toobin, Chitra Divakaruni, Laurie Garrett, Molly Ivins) and click. For an even quicker hit, push the tape marker right into the middle and you'll pop into the middle of the interview.

I did this with CA&cL's interview with Molly Ivins, and voila, sounds of the audience cracking up caused me to push the tape marker back a bit to see what the joke was. Here Ivins was talking about former Texas governor Anne Richards.

The real reason "Annie," as Ivins calls her, wasn't reelected was that she vetoed a bill that would have approved concealed handguns in Texas. Backers of this bill tried to win women's support by stating that, as Ivins put it, "We Texas women would have a wonderful sense of safety if we could carry weapons in our purses."

To this, Ivins says in her thickest Texas drawl, Anne Richards replied, "Well, you know that I am not a sexist, but there's not a woman in this state who could FIND a gun in her handbag." Stay tuned for more hits from Molly.


Dear Holt Uncensored,

I have worked in both independent bookstores and chain bookstores (Borders) over the past few years and have kept a close watch on the dynamics of the industry through your column and through my friends who work as booksellers. Currently, I work at the main library on a state university campus.

I agree with your criticism of the big chain bookstores and with One dubious practice of the chains, particularly Barnes and Noble, which you have not mentioned in your articles is the practice of buying up university bookstores and securing exclusive contracts with educational institutions that grant the chains the right to sell all textbooks on campus.

My university is a land-grant institution with an enrollment of 22,000 students. It's located in a small town with three independent bookstores. A significant portion of these independently owned and operated bookstores rely on the business provided by the academic community: students, faculty, and staff. I worked for one year at a downtown bookstore I'll call Jones Book Shop, owned by a former grad student in English I'll call John Jones.

As a result of contacts in the English department - people who were frustrated with the University bookstore's poor service, John began to sell textbooks for his friends and colleagues. The professors are happy to have better service and more flexible deadlines. They are also happy to help out their friend, an independent bookseller. About six or seven years ago, the University's bookstore was bought by Barnes and Noble, which arranged to pay the University $1 million each year for the rights to sell all University textbooks on campus.

Because of this lucrative contract, the University began putting pressure on the individual department heads, reminding them of the exclusive contract with Barnes and Noble that required all classes to sell their books through the University's bookstore. The department heads put pressure on their faculty to follow through with these guidelines. Anyone who taught a class was strongly encouraged to only sell textbooks through Barnes and Noble.

This, of course, caused some problems with John's sale of textbooks for English classes. Faculty were afraid that their violation of the University's policies might affect their standing at the University. Professors eligible for tenure were understandably intimidated by the University's directives. John challenged the manager of the University bookstore on the grounds that this manager was trying to enforce a grossly unfair monopoly. John was told that the University was under contract with Barnes and Noble, granting them exclusive rights to all textbook sales. John was not allowed to examine this contract and left the meeting. No one from the University at that meeting had acknowledged the unfair and possibly illegal nature of these business practices.

Is this a problem in other college communities? As far as I know, the conflict between John and Barnes and Noble has not worsened, but it has certainly not improved. John continues to sell textbooks for faculty who do not wish to support the chains, and the University bookstore continues to demand that all textbooks can only be sold through Barnes and Noble.

I should add that the University bookstore does not flagrantly advertise its association with Barnes and Noble. Direct references to Barnes and Noble are muted or nonexistent. Faculty, students, and alumni who visit the store or their website could easily do business with the bookstore without ever realizing that they are dealing with a member of a much larger entity.

I have not put John's real name here because I am afraid that publicly broadcasting his problems may further jeopardize his ability to sell textbooks. The wrong kind of publicity may encourage Barnes and Noble to take action, which would adversly affect my friend's ability to sell books and make a modest living.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

In the fascinating article in issue #45, one person interviewed gushed the following factoid:

"This is a famous theater because the United Nations was founded here nearly 100 years ago," says Sydney[...]

I know it's off the point of the article but the United Nations (founded October 24, 1945) is not yet 54 years old. The UN was founded shortly after the end of the World War II, a point in our history I dearly hope does not seem like "nearly 100 years ago" to the average citizen.

Ed Dravecky III

Holt shamefacedly responds: Heavens, it was MY mishearing of the factoid that did it! She surely said "over 50 years ago" but I was thinking League of Nations for some reason and threw in several more decades. My apologies to Sydney Goldstein of City Arts and Lectures and to readers.

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Just read your column #46 and was surprised to find a letter endorsing three sites that are associated with I'm pasting the section of the letter here:


UK: and the Weekly Listings

Tangled Web UK.

These are the first 3 URLs that Sophie Jensen suggests as on-line mystewry booksellers. They all lead to Tangled Web UK, which is an associate of UK. Any search results pulled up on this site come directly from Amazon. There are so many mystery booksellers on-line, why direct folks to yet another Amazon associate?? I suggest the following URL: which will give a clickable list of some on-line mystery booksellers, along with a descriptionof their businesses (O.K., I'm listed there too!) Thanks for allowing my venting!

Lester Elisco
Horizon West Books