Portland, Powell discussed on How I Built This


Hey everyone and welcome to how. I built this resilience edition from npr on. These episodes were hearing from entrepreneurs and other business leaders about how they've been building resilience into their businesses during this very challenging time today. We're going to hear. From emily powell. She's the owner and president of powell's books powell's is based in portland oregon and it's one of the largest family owned independent booksellers in the world. Emily is the third generation owner of powell's books and she knew early on that she wanted to take over the business. Her grandfather's started in nineteen seventy. My grandfather used to drive really beat up chevy truck and i thought it was the coolest thing to go riding his pickup truck. It was the first company car had the powell's logo on the side. And i would say you know the age of three or five. When i grow up. I wanna drive the bookie truck. That was my grand aspiration to drive his pickup truck. So yeah i had a pretty good sense from an early age. When you grow up in a place it's magical powell's was big early and fast. I don't know anyone who would have turned that down. I think is an opportunity. It's pretty pretty wonderful. I also read something that you said that you don't think that powell's would have survived or thrived anywhere else except for portland. Why what do you think so. Well a couple of reasons. You know <hes>. My father was always really involved in the city community in our politics and the streetcar that runs through downtown portland. He was a port commissioner. So we talked a lot around the dinner table about what makes a city work. What makes the city and vibrant and portland's on a lot of things right since the seventies they've been very deliberate about how they plan the city and how it might look in your two thousand or in this case twenty twenty. There aren't a lot of cities that have the same makeup that allow for that kind of vibrant downtown pedestrian environment. So we say to be successful. We need nine. Am to nine pm and pedestrian traffic. Not a lot of cities have that they have portions of that but we have it in spades and then we have our weird. You know at this point. Everyone knows portland is is a little weird. It's a little different. We have a very vibrant arts and literary culture here which i think we've helped participate and contribute to grow. I think this is a city that believes it has to support itself in order to keep going and that's allowed us to survive. I think other cities may be missed that point casually so again for anyone who's been portland. You probably have gone to powell's because it's also tourist attraction because it's such a huge well known landmark in the city and i imagine that you know. Starting in march february march april when started to become clear that that this covert thing was real. We can't walk me through what what was going on at at the store. And what you you start to notice. Well it's easy to forget at this point. In the year that oregon actually had one of the first cases in the united states we were tracking the virus pretty early. I remember being in february. And maybe we want to stock up on soup or something you know thinking about it. We were watching it. We were talking about it. And our management team and friday. The thirteenth was when things started to serve grow in the portland area. We were hearing from customers. We were hearing from employees but more importantly we were thinking. Oh would this isn't going in a good direction. So on sunday of that weekend we had been talking as it management team on the phone most of the weekend and the county libraries closed and we are so large and as such a safe interior space in march in oregon that a lot of people look for places for shelter and so the folks who might have spent their afternoons in the library came to powell's which is great except that now we had a lot more people in the store would have and sunday eleven. Am we made the decision. Maybe it was even earlier. We have to close right now. This is starting to feel unsafe no matter what. We cannot participate and spreading this virus in our community. The governor hadn't moved yet to close a stay on. I think a lot of folks thought we were responding to a but no we felt really the compulsion that we need to do what we have to to protect portland and so we shut down in the middle of the day moved everyone out of the store and then unfortunately laid off most of our employees within twenty four hours. Because if people aren't buying books we don't have the ability to keep operating so you shut the store down entirely. I mean because this is totally unprecedented. You probably didn't have a plan for what to do. i mean the answer is just. Let's just shut down but it wasn't like let's shut down a move online right. I mean you didn't. We have ecommerce business. Which is successful. But in the moment we fully expected that the governor was going to require all non essential businesses to shut down and for us that meant our warehouse that operates powells dot com so we laid off <unk>. Quite of number of employees in large part. Because we expected we were going to zero. We expected we were turning all the lights off. We would not be shipping anything out. But i was in touch with her team and they said no. We want you to keep you know your internet business going. We want as many people employed as we possibly can have on health insurance during this time. And i said okay. We can do that so we pivoted as quickly as we could to bring some people back not knowing if we'd have any business to pay them but we had a pretty big spike in orders within the first couple weeks of the shutdown in march and that allowed us to kind of plow through the first month or two before we could get

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