One Day in 1996: Michael Powell tells Jeff Bezos, "Thanks, but no thanks…"

In 1996, Amazon nearly swallowed Powell's Books.

Sometime that year—Michael Powell of the venerable Portland bookstore, doesn't remember so much as which season—Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos called a meeting in Seattle. He had a simple but potentially massive proposition. Amazon, then a 2-year-old company that sold only new books, wanted to expand into the used-books market—and Bezos wanted Powell's to be its sole supplier. He estimated it would translate to $200 million in sales annually.

There was a catch.

"The condition was that we couldn't do it under our name," Powell says. "It had to be under the Amazon name. We would in effect have been a warehouse distribution center for Amazon. We wouldn't be Powell's."

Powell, along with three of his employees, spent about five hours with Bezos that day. But it took a fraction of that time to reject the offer. "We discussed it in the car on the way back, and we all chipped in and said it just didn't feel right," Powell says. "Yes, it was a lot of money, but we're proud of who we are. We did not want to share ourselves as some kind of adjunct to another company in Seattle."

"I don't regret the decision," Powell says. "Amazon has proved to be a big and sometimes rather ruthless company. I'm sure at some point they would have decided they wanted a bigger field to plow than what we could provide them, and we'd wake up to discover we were no longer the sole provider."

Amazon has since swelled into the world's largest Internet company, with $75 billion in total yearly revenue, about 7 percent of that from books. And Powell's now sells some used books through Amazon, under its own name. But more than anything, the past 18 years have cemented Powell's as the model for independent bookselling and as one of this city's most important cultural touchstones.

When Stephen Colbert wanted to protest Amazon’s battle against the publisher Hachette in June, he urged viewers to buy elsewhere, making Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, a best-seller. Colbert’s choice of bookstore? Powell’s.

From the Archives:

1974: Mt. Hood Freeway Killed    

1975: Soccer City, USA  |  A Vet Shuts Down Nuclear Power 

1976: A Home for Refugees  |  Intel Changes the Economy 

1978: Bill Walton Sits Down

1979: Busing Ends in Portland Schools | Oregon Wine Gets Famous

1982: Courts Pave Way for Nudie Bars | The Other Daily Paper Folds

1984: Satyricon's First Show | A Bartender Becomes Mayor | The Air Jordan Saves Nike

1985: First Female Police Chief Ousted | Wieden+Kennedy's Most Important Ad

1986: Dark Horse Comics' First Issue 

1988: Inaugural Oregon Brewers' Fest | Rise of Hate Groups

1989: NW Rowhouses Burn  |  Gus Van Sant's Portland Hits Screen

1990: Our First Great Restaurant  | Oregon's Longest Tax Revolt

1991: Cleaning up the Willamette

1995: Bicyclists Sue Portland

1996: Vera Katz Builds a Wall | March to Save City Nightclub  | Powell's Rebuffs Amazon

1997: Path Cleared for Pearl District

1999: Stumptown Coffee Opens  |  Fight Club Hits DVD

2000: Largest Union Pension Fraud Ever

2003: Fred Meets Carrie  |  Suicide of Elliott Smith

2004: Gay Marriage Legalized (Briefly)  | Goldschmidt Exposed  | Eastside Portland Rises

2006: The Death of James Chasse Jr.

2008: Our Fanciest Restaurant Ever Bombs

2009: Sam Adams Admits Lying

2011: Occupy Portland 

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