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.