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'A Surprise Around Every Corner' How This Iconic Bookstore's Innovative Mix of New and Used Books Keeps Book Hunters Coming Back for More. Here's how Powell's City of Books used its commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility to create a landmark of literary passion.

By Emily Washcovick

Key Takeaways

  • Portland, Oregon's Powell's City of Books blends traditional and innovative practices to enhance customer choice and promote sustainability.
  • They prove the power of creating an inviting atmosphere to entice regular customers and engaging more deeply with your community to build a loyal base.
  • Commitment to exceptional customer service, facilitated by a knowledgeable staff who enhance the shopping experience, makes each visit memorable and personalized.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Courtesy of Powell's City of Books

Amid the vibrant streets of Portland, Oregon, Powell's City of Books stands out as a monument to the written word. This sprawling shop isn't just a bookstore—it's a cornerstone of culture where new meets old and every shelf tells a story.

Founded in the 1970s, Powell's has expanded into multiple locations, each serving as a haven for book lovers. The store's commitment to combining new, used, and out-of-print books on the same shelves not only challenges the industry's norms but also enables a tangible exploration of literature past and present.

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"Our mission has always been to keep books circulating in the community, giving them a second life with new readers," Bry Hoag, the general manager at Powell's main location, said. This philosophy has nurtured a loyal customer base and reduces the store's environmental impact by reusing books. Listen to the Behind the Review episode below to hear directly from Bry Hoag.

The community around Powell's reflects the diversity and vibrancy of Portland itself. Locals and tourists alike are drawn to the store for its welcoming atmosphere and the promise of discoveries around every corner.

"People come here not just to buy a book but to immerse themselves in an environment that celebrates the joy of reading," Bry said.

Chelsea G., a frequent visitor and Yelp Elite reviewer, brought her passion for exploring local businesses to Powell's. Initially drawn to the store by recommendations, Chelsea quickly fell in love with the expansive and eclectic environment of Powell's.

Reflecting on her visits, Chelsea emphasized the store's unique ability to blend a vast selection with a cozy, intimate atmosphere, making it a compelling draw not just for purchasing books but for experiencing the local culture and community. Her recent review after a return visit in 2024 celebrates the consistency and resilience of Powell's, noting that the bookstore's essence remains untouched even post-pandemic—inviting yet another generation to wander through its stories.

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"I was exploring the city, seeing if it was a place I wanted to start my career, and I was surprised when locals recommended a bookstore. I ended up visiting Powell's twice in one week. It was just as impressive when I returned in 2024 with my fiancé," Chelsea said.

Powell's pioneering philosophy of selling used books with new ones is a cornerstone of its business model. This practice isn't merely a retail strategy but a commitment to sustainability that resonates deeply with Portland's environmentally conscious community.

"From the beginning, our founder, Walter Powell, envisioned a bookstore that not only served as a hub for readers but also as a steward of environmental conservation," Bry said.

By giving books a second life, Powell's ensures they continue to inspire and educate long after their initial release. This approach both reduces waste and provides customers with affordable access to a broader range of literature.

With new and used copies standing side by side, visitors are challenged to make choices that might stretch beyond the latest releases to include previously loved editions. "This setup encourages our customers to discover new interests and appreciate the quality of a well-bound volume, whether it's brand new or has been read before," Bry said.

The inclusive pricing model also ensures that everyone, from students to collectors, can find something within their budget, reinforcing Powell's role as a community resource as much as a retail space.

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Customers like Chelsea are drawn to the extensive collections as well as the dynamic environment that encourages social interactions. "Visiting Powell's isn't just about picking up the latest bestseller," Chelsea said. "It's about being part of a community that celebrates diversity and creativity."

Chelsea's frequent visits to Powell's highlight another key aspect of its appeal: the exceptional customer service. "Every time I'm there, it's clear the staff genuinely cares about our experience," Chelsea said. "They're not just there to point you to the right section. They engage with you, ask what types of books you enjoy, and even make personalized recommendations."

This attention to detail transforms a simple shopping trip into a special journey through literature, making each visit uniquely satisfying.

"We see ourselves as more than just booksellers," Bry said. "We are facilitators of knowledge and joy through books. Our aim is to create memorable, engaging experiences for everyone who walks through our doors. Whether they're a regular or a first-time visitor, we want them to leave with a story to tell about their time at Powell's."

This unique blend of commerce and community keeps patrons like Chelsea coming back to find new treasures and familiar comforts. "Each trip to Powell's brings a new discovery, making it more than just a bookstore—it's a cornerstone of our local culture," she said.

Powell's City of Books has embraced these principles for success:

  • Blend innovation with tradition. Powell's approach of integrating new and used items encourages customers to appreciate both the new and the nostalgic, creating a unique shopping experience. This principle can inspire businesses in any sector to mix traditional methods with innovative ideas to enhance their appeal.
  • Build a community, not just a customer base. By hosting events and fostering a welcoming environment, Powell's has turned its business into a community hub, enhancing customer loyalty and engagement.
  • Prioritize exceptional customer service. Outstanding service is universal in importance to local businesses. Powell's dedication to knowledgeable staff who provide personalized service sets a standard that can increase customer satisfaction and repeat business.
  • Leverage feedback for continuous improvement. Actively seeking and responding to customer feedback has helped Powell's remain relevant and responsive to consumer needs. This principle is vital for any business to stay competitive and continuously improve its products and services.

Subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday. Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora and Soundcloud.

This article is part of our ongoing America's Favorite Mom & Pop Shops™ series highlighting family-owned and operated businesses.

Editorial contributions by Charlotte Che and Kristi Lindahl

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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