LAST WEEK, the Mercury broke the news that beloved Powell's Books was laying off 31 workers, effective immediately, due to a market downturn brought on by the "unprecedented, rapidly changing nature of the book industry." What do workers who are the casualties of new reading habits think about the future of books?
Cedar Hills Crossing store
Employee since 2009
I was one of the people that probably saw it coming. The new book market is going to get a lot different, it's probably going to get a lot smaller and more specialized and turn more toward small press and personal works. Smaller press can take more risks on what kind of material they print—it doesn't have to be the next Nicholas Sparks book or have publishers think, "This will be a great movie." People are attracted to books that are a little more personal, they're out for what's different and what not everyone can have. It's just like CDs. You walk into Best Buy and there are, like, four CDs because people will either buy vinyl or they'll buy it online. I'm not worried about the future of books, I'm excited about it.
City of Books, Gold Room
Employee off and on since 1997 (laid off on his 40th birthday!)
When I first got the news, it was really difficult to cope with. Then that night I went to have some drinks with friends and someone in the bar was reading a Kindle by the bar light. Lots of employees say that changes in the industry aren't going to touch us, ebook readers and all that, but lots of my friends have those devices.
I think people still feel like Powell's is kind of a bastion of Western thought and ideas, that it's kind of a special place and they don't think of Powell's as being tied to the market like other places. It's big—everyone knows Powell's. The truth is, there are also customers who would come in and look around the section, but then say, "Oh, I'm just browsing, I'm going to go download this." I've heard that conversation at least three or four times in the past six months. Usually they give you kind of a sheepish look. Why do people still come in? You can browse better on a bookshelf than you can online and we do spend a lot of time marketing and we have a culture of readers who are working at Powell's. And also you can physically bump into things you weren't looking for. Websites are more bestseller oriented, too; wandering around in a bookstore there's more chance involved.
The market is going to have to give way to disposability. Like those "read-one-a-day" romance novels; maybe those should be just on ereaders.
City of Books, Orange Room
Employee since 2008
I don't necessarily think that ebooks will destroy the book industry by any stretch of the imagination, because people will always want to have something in their hands, especially when it comes to cookbooks and craft books. You can pretty much find any recipe online, but you know, I think with certain cookbooks and craft books, there's an experience you get out of looking through them. I'm a fan of Edna Lewis and the whole Southern cooking thing, and I love flipping through her books just for the asides that she has, and you can get that online sometimes, but not really. I think Powell's is doing everything they can to survive right now and they still have their heads above water. It seems like they still have some sort of plan—I'm just not in it. I liked the close interaction employees had with their sections, an intimate knowledge of the books that's less prevalent in national chain bookstores, but I think that's changing—it feels like it's going a bit by the wayside. I can't say what their vision is, it seems like it's in a transition period right now.
The future of mainstream media definitely scares me; terrifies me, actually. It seems to be a sensational monster right now. But with books, I'm a little more optimistic. I feel like a lot of really great books have come out recently. The internet's hard for me, anyway, I'm an extremely ADD person. But when I have a book in my hand, I have that. It's there in front of me. I feel like there will always be a place for books, even though I stare at screens all day long.
City of Books, cashier
Employee since 2008
It was not a big surprise, they'd been sending out warnings to us for a little while. As the company said, they've been pretty open about the fact that transactions are not down. Foot traffic is the same, it's often incredibly busy in there, but people are buying less new books. I don't think ebooks are going to have the type of dramatic impact on books sales that Powell's seems to be saying they will. They just don't have the sensuality of regular books. Among people who read, there's a resistance to ebooks. I don't have a Kindle, but I'm not resistant to the idea. I'm more interested in content. However, I see a lot of people attached to the concept of a book. People have a hard time curling up in bed with a piece of metal and a monitor. I just don't see people going en masse to ebooks. Maybe in 10 years, Kindles will be a little more prevalent, but Powell's will still be downtown selling lots and lots of books. I'm excited to see what's going to happen. I think these kinds of changes are natural processes.