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The City of Books

Febbraio 2007
Non tutto in America è in mano alle grandi catene: Powell’s, la più grande libreria indipendente del mondo, è rimasta un’impresa familiare. A Portland, Oregon.

di Julian Earwaker

File audio:

Emily Powell
Emily Powell

Speaker: Moira Shea (Standard American accent)

There aren’t many bookshops where you need a map to find your way around, but it’s easy to get lost in Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore, which is located in Portland, Oregon. Powell’s main bookshop on Burnside is a vast Aladdin’s cave of books in every shape, size and format. More than one million volumes line the shelves of the different colored rooms, each of which corresponds to different themes. And, if you include the five warehouses and five other store locations around the city, then Powell’s has over four million books.
The responsibility for all this will soon pass to 27-year-old Emily Powell (right), whose father, Michael, currently runs the business. Back in 1979, Michael Powell left his Chicago bookstore to join his father, Walter, in Portland and then bought the store from him two years later. Emily is “Director of Used Books.” Powell’s places new and used books, hardback and paperback, next to each other on the same shelf. As Emily Powell explains, this was her grandfather’s idea:

Emily Powell (Standard American accent):

And, since he wasn’t really a book person, he saw that… he was selling used books and he said, “Well, I see people coming in and they’ve got their new books from another store. You know, this doesn’t make any sense. Why shouldn’t I be selling these, too?” And apparently my dad said, something (like) “Oh, you know, that’s a tough business,” or “margins are bad,” or, you know, whatever, and sort of, on the surface, wasn’t that interested, but my grandfather decided to do it and that was sort of... has been one of our key successes. We were... I don’t know if we were the first, but certainly one of the first to do it. At the time, even if a store had new or used books, they would be in separate sections, so you would go and find your new books, or you would go and look at used. But why not put them together, so that you can have the choice of whichever price you want? Do you want a new copy, or do you want something that’s a little bit cheaper but, you know, maybe not pristine?


It certainly proved to be a successful formula as Powell’s expanded from its humble beginnings in a derelict northwest corner of Portland to become a true “City of Books.” Michael Powell, now 66, knows the value of words in more ways than one: he has always been a strong supporter of freedom of expression and anti-censorship issues. As a family-owned, independent bookseller, Powell’s has also built strong ties with the local community: it regularly donates books, time and money to literacy programs and local organizations. Powell’s Community Giving program has donated 40,000 books in nine years, while its new School Book Challenge program has already donated more than 55,000 books to local students.
Powell’s is certainly moving with the times. Its award-winning website was launched back in 1994 and now accounts for one third of total business. But, says Emily Powell, that isn’t the key reason for its success:

Emily Powell:

I think part of it is the people here who are really book lovers. I mean, you walk into our break room in our internet warehouse here and people are sitting there with a book in their hand. I mean, they’re with books all day and then they’re… on their spare time, you know, they’re off reading. So I think it’s really about… it’s those folks who are making sure we have the best inventory of the books that are really the most interesting and the most unusual – so you have a great experience when you walk in and stumble upon something, but are also sure to find the classics that we just need to have day in and day out.

Powell’s has five stores in Portland:
1005 W Burnside, 33 NW Park Avenue, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 3747 SE
Hawthorne Blvd, 7000 NE Airport Way (Suite 2250), 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd;
and one in nearby Beaverton at
3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd.
For further info, visit: www.powells.com

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to find your way around - per trovare la strada.

Aladdin’s cave - miniera.

line the shelves - riempiono gli scaffali.

warehouses - magazzini.

hardback and paperback - edizioni in brossura e tascabili.

this doesn’t make any sense - non ha alcun senso.

it’s a tough business - è un settore difficile.

pristine - intonso.

humble beginnings - umili origini.

strong ties - legami forti.

literacy programs - programmi di alfabetizzazione.

accounts for - costituisce.

our break room in our internet warehouse - la stanza di ricreazione del magazzino internet.

spare time - tempo libero.

they’re off reading - sono lì che leggono.

folks - gente.

when you walk in ... something - quanto entri e trovi qualcosa (di interessante).

day in and day out - ogni giorno.