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Emily Powell on bookstore’s future: ‘I am doing everything within my power to keep Powell’s alive’

KGW-TV Portland logo KGW-TV Portland 3/18/2020 Mike Rogoway, The Oregonian/OregonLive
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Powell’s Books, closed since Sunday, has laid off the “vast majority” of its employees and is facing an existential threat from the coronavirus outbreak.

“I am doing everything within my power to keep Powell’s alive for the next generation of readers and writers, for the next generation of Portland and Oregon,” CEO and owner Emily Powell wrote to employees Tuesday’s note.

Hundreds of people lost their jobs when the bookstores closed Sunday – Powell’s hasn’t said just how many but the company employed 580 altogether.

In Tuesday’s, note Powell said the landmark bookstore will be closed for at least eight weeks, and possibly much longer. She suggested the closure threatens the bookstore’s future and said workers will not be paid during their layoff.

“We are simply not that kind of business,” wrote Powell, who took over the business from her father, company founder Michael Powell. “We run on duct tape and twine on a daily basis, every day trading funds from one pocket to patch the hole in another.”

Founded in 1971, Powell’s is among Portland’s most popular tourism attractions and a core piece of the city’s identity. Its closure is another signal of the economic catastrophe facing Oregon, which has already cost tens of thousands of jobs and now threatens some of the state’s key institutions.

An an age where Americans increasingly prefer to buy their products online, and have them delivered right to their door, Powell’s remained a destination where people love to shop in person, roaming the aisles and discovering obscure books and new favorites. The company boasts 2 million volumes -- half of them at its flagship City of Books store, which occupies an entire city block downtown.

On Monday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered all restaurants and bars to close to prevent spread of the coronavirus, except for those that choose to offer takeout or delivery service. That threw many – perhaps most – of the 155,000 Oregonians employed by those businesses out of work.

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On Tuesday, whimsical restaurant and hotel chain McMenamins said it will lay off “almost everyone” – 3,000 employees altogether – and shut down nearly all operations in Oregon and Washington.

“Our economy has already been hit, and hard,” Elana Pirtle-Guiney, Brown’s legislative director, said at a hearing in Salem Wednesday. The governor and legislature are considering an array of steps to aid businesses and workers; Oregon business associations want tax breaks and postponement of new taxes to help them weather the outbreak.

Powell’s continues to sell books online through its website. ILWU Local 5, which represents about 400 Powell’s workers, said it is “gravely disappointed” by the company’s response to the crisis.

“Over the last 49 years, Powell’s and the Powell family have made millions of dollars through the hard work of booksellers and the good will of the community,” the union said in a statement Wednesday. “To not go above and beyond for those who made Powell’s successful is an injury of the greatest degree.”

The union has established a Powell’s worker relief fund on its webpage.

In Tuesday’s note, Emily Powell said the path ahead for her company “is dark and scary.”

“I have always described Powell’s as resilient: lumbering sometimes, full of quirks and personality, but always resilient,” she wrote. “We are having that resilience tested as never before.”

-- Mike Rogoway | mrogoway@oregonian.com | twitter: @rogoway | 503-294-7699

This article was originally published by The Oregonian, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving heath issue.

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