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The independent book business has been battered in recent decades, as locally owned sellers strained to compete with the online-giant Amazon. But the COVID-19 crisis has forced many to close their doors, depriving both readers and writers the spaces they thrive on. NewsHour Weekend’s Tom Casciato reports on one landmark bookstore in Portland, Oregon that is struggling to survive.
There aren't so many independent bookshops anymore. They've been closing ever since Amazon.com opened, the few remaining ones have been a refuge for readers and writers. But now, with the COVID-19 crisis, many have had to close their doors, at least temporarily. NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato has the story of his hometown independent, a store with an outsized reputation that is struggling to hang on.
Portland has always been a city of readers. Growing up there, I attributed that to the weather. It rained. And we read. For decades, the center of Portland's reading life has been Powell's bookstore. It takes up a whole city block, and houses over a million volumes, new and used. It's even a tourist destination.
When people come to visit Portland, visiting Powells is at the top of the list. You know, when you go to a city, you know, you go to Paris. You want to see the Eiffel Tower. You go to Portland. You want to go to Powell's bookstore.
Samiya Bashir, a poet, and a professor at Portland's Reed College, says Powell's is special for readers, and for writers.
They read the books. They know who the authors are. They curate their sections carefully, lovingly, smartly.
Andrew Proctor, director of the Portland nonprofit, Literary Arts, collaborates with Powell's to bring authors to Portland.
Powell's Books is one of the most important institutions in American literary life.
Off the top of your head, can you tick off some of the notable writers who have read at Powell's.
I mean, everyone. I don't even like it would be too easy that, I mean, you know. If you think about Salman Rushdie, if you think about Toni Morrison, if you think about, you know, Ursula K. Leguin. The list just goes on and on and on. Everybody, I think who we've ever really valued as a writer has come through those doors.
Each year Powell's 500-or-so readings draw an estimated thirty six thousand people, big numbers in the bookstore world. The bestselling author Rick Moody says there's nothing in the country like reading there.
The first time I read there, I knew a tiny bit about it by reputation. And then I had that amazing experience of coming up Burnside and seeing the marquee.
There's something about Powell's and that big marquee right in the middle of downtown that gives a bit of a kind of a Radio City Music Hall vibe to the authors that come through.
And how often does a poet get to see her name on a marquee?
That's a great question.
But authors seem to thrive most at Powell's not as star attractions, but as browsers.
My wife's family is from Portland so we go every year and I plot my trip to Powell's from the instant that I land. I can't wait to go in there.
Is the size daunting at all? When I was a kid in Portland, the building that now houses Powell's was a car dealership.
For me, there's not really a too big, I can't imagine the too big. Because if you think about, you know, an obscure Russian writer in translation and you never know if this writer is gonna be in any store period anywhere, there's only one store where you're where you're absolutely sure to have every book by this particular Russian writer. And a lot of them will only cost a dollar ninety nine.
And what goes on in those stacks is significant in its through the way it binds people together. When you're in that store, you are with a group of people who love and care about this thing that you love and care about.
Those stacks are reader-less for now, the store's been closed since March 15th. Closed like so many other independents: the Tattered Cover in Denver, Books and Books in Miami, City Lights in San Francisco, The Strand in New York, and many more. Each has laid people off. In light of the economic damage, in light of the country's health crisis, the site literary hub recently asked a good question, "in a pandemic, how do you make the case for an art emergency?"
You know, it's interesting when you ask people about literature, especially, a lot of people will say, why? You know, I don't really read that much. Then you'll say things like, well, did you read a poem at your wedding? Well, yeah. Oh, did you? Were there poems at the funeral you were at last? Yeah, there was, and you go through this list. It's like, oh, well, literature's actually everywhere in your life. And actually it's that the most, the very most important junctures of your life.
After Powell's shut down, a surge in online orders caused it to re-open its web business, at least for now. I asked owner Emily Powell about that.
Do you think there was a surge in your online business because people wanted to step up for Powell's, and order something from Powell's to keep you going?
I'd certainly like to think so. I also think books are a special product and this time they provide some comfort, they provide some knowledge, they provide some escape. We've shipped a lot of workbooks for kids who are stuck at home without their usual school environment. We're shipping a lot of classic literature. You know, people need some way to divert themselves from what's happening outside their houses right now.
Those of us who grew up in Portland with Powell's can't imagine a world without Powell's. I'm wondering if you could imagine a world without Powell's.
Not even. No. I mean, I'm tearing up, just thinking about it. Not even close.
I mean, I great that possibility with sort of abject shock. And in view of the fact that it does really celebrate writing and care about writing. I feel like it serves as sort of, um, a kind of as a metaphorical flagship for the idea of bookselling in America.
If Powell's closes, that means so many other things have closed as well. Powell's is not going to just close as the tree falling on its own. It's one of those things that is supported and supports a larger community. So if I saw Powell's go down, that means I saw so many suppliers go down and that means I saw so many restaurants go down that means I saw so much of the central part of the city that has collapsed. And so I honestly don't even want to think about Powell's closing because it's actually much larger than itself.
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Tom Casciato is an Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and television executive who has created critically acclaimed nonfiction projects that have appeared on PBS, ABC, NBC, TBS, Showtime and more. He recently directed and produced two stories within episodes of the second season of the Emmy Award-winning climate-change series, "Years Of Living Dangerously." His 2013 film with Kathleen Hughes and Bill Moyers for Frontline series, "Two American Families," was called by Salon “... one of the best and most heartbreaking documentaries” of the year. Tom previously worked at WNET from 2006 until 2012, serving variously as director of News & Current Affairs and executive producer of two PBS series, "Wide Angle" and "Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports."
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