Sue Cowing for Mixed-up Files: Today we’re talking with Michal Drannen of Powell’s Books the huge (the main store fills a city block) and famous independent book store in Portland, Oregon that is a mecca for book-lovers, including children’s book lovers.
MUF: Powell’s City of Books in Portland has been called the world’s largest Independent bookstore, and the Rose Room, in the main store, must also be the largest collection of new and used children’s books. I always save up a list of titles and allow at least a day to browse and shop there when I’m in town. How do you choose what books to carry and what titles to emphasize in store displays?
Michal: It’s really a mix of art and science. We use our long term experience and intuition as readers, booksellers and new book buyers to help us with each decision. We also use a variety of databases of sales and trends for many different subjects and keep up to date on national and local interests.The titles on display are determined by booksellers throughout the company, selecting books they are passionate about and what they think the customers at each store location would be interested in seeing.
MUF: The children’s department at your Cedar Hills Crossing store is also well stocked and inviting and hosts some children’s events. Is there a difference in emphasis between the two?
Michal: We work very hard at getting a variety of books in the right place at the right time. There aren’t any differences in inventory strategy between the two stores. We might not have the same books at both locations, but that would result from the buying choices and reading preferences of the customers at each location, not from a purchasing strategy that aims to differentiate the books by location.
MUF: What atmosphere do you aim for in your children’s departments? How does this fit with the general “culture” and philosophy of Powell’s?
Michal: Occupying an entire city block, Powell’s City of Books is made up of nine color coded rooms, with 4 floors and an annex across the street. The bookcases tower to near ceiling height which creates a feeling of deep book canyons down every aisle. Customers comment on the extraordinary feeling of ‘books’ from being in the store. This holds true in our children’s section as well. We are passionate about books. We love the experience of serendipitous discovery, and it’s apparent in the atmosphere of our stores.
MUF:Portland has so many bookstores! It must be great to be in the book business in such a great reading town. Though Powell’s is famous nationwide and a tourist attraction, it also maintains a close connection with the Portland community. Please tell us something about that.
Michal: Powell’s wouldn’t be what it is today without the support of our community. We are incredibly fortunate to have customers and a community that feels deeply connected to us and to the world of books and ideas.
MUF: If an eleven-year-old reader came into your store looking for something new to read, how would he/she find what he/she wanted? Do your booksellers read all those books?
Michal: Sections within the store are divided into subsections, so customers interested in a particular subject (say… activity books, dinosaurs, history, or fairy tales) can quickly find books on a particular topic or area of interest. We also share recommendations through staff picks, displays, and personalized recommendations based on a customer’s reading. With over 1 million books on our shelves and new books arriving daily, it’s not possible for us to read every book on our shelves, but we are avid readers and like sharing with customers the books we have connected with.
MUF: As middle-grade authors, we have to ask. Beyond the obvious bestsellers are there some staff favorites—new or old, fiction or nonfiction—that you are recommending to nine-to-twelve-year-old readers right now?
Michal: For fiction, we are enjoying: Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell, Mister Max The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt, Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, and Oddfellows Orphanage by Portland author Emily Winfield Martin. For nonficiton, we like:The Goods by McSweeneys, Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson,anything in the Basher Science Series, and Stout Hearted Seven Orphaned on the Oregon Trail by Neta Lohnes Frazier.
MUF:Thanks, Michal. I’ve just now ordered two of those titles from your store! What have been your most memorable Middle Grade author events or activities at Powell’s?
Michal: We host over 500 author readings every year, many of which are children’s authors. In just the past few weeks we’ve hosted such authors as Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), Jeff Kinney, Brandon Sanderson, and Simone Elkeles.
MUF: If a family from out of town visits Powell’s on a day or weekend trip, what other unique family activities in Portland should they be sure not to miss while they’re there?
Michal: Portland has a good number of family-friendly attractions and activities including: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry,The Northwest Children’s Theater,Oregon Children’s Theatre,Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre,Oregon Zoo and Portland Children’s Museum.
MUF: Thank you Michal for giving us a look inside your store! Children’s book readers, if you’ve never had the experience of browsing in the children’s books department at Powell’s, put Portland on your itinerary. It’s worth the trip! And if you have, please comment here and tell others what’s unique about the place.
Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda, 2011, Usborne UK 2012)