Iconic Portland bookstore Powell's says it won't sell directly on Amazon anymore: 'We must take a stand'

Key Points
  • Portland's iconic bookstore, Powell's, will no longer sell books on Amazon, the company announced Thursday.
  • CEO Emily Powell said the pandemic was the final push the company needed to abandon Amazon as a sales channel.
  • "When it comes to our local community and the community of independent bookstores around the U.S., we must take a stand," Powell wrote in a letter to customers.

In this article

Emily Powell of Powell's City of Books.
Courtesy Powell's

Powell's Books, an iconic bookstore in Portland, Oregon, is pulling its books from Amazon's shelves.

Emily Powell, the company's chief executive, said Thursday in a letter to customers that Powell's would no longer sell books on Amazon, citing the "detrimental impact" of the e-commerce giant's business on independent booksellers and local communities. 

"We understand that in many communities, Amazon — and big box retail chains — have become the only option," Powell wrote. "And yet when it comes to our local community and the community of independent bookstores around the U.S., we must take a stand."

Founded in 1971, Powell's describes itself as the world's largest new and used independent bookseller, with its flagship store occupying a full city block in downtown Portland. It sells books on its own website and, up until Thursday, had a storefront on Amazon's marketplace.

The decision to move off of Amazon was a long time coming, Powell said in an interview.

Amazon has served as a "big sales generator" for Powell's in the past, but maintaining a business on the platform had become labor intensive and expensive, due to the costs associated with advertising and ensuring free, two-day delivery, among other things.

"It was hard to give up, sort of like smoking," Powell said. "We knew we shouldn't be doing it, but, you know, we sort of needed it from a sales perspective to keep going. We couldn't face the possibility of not having that sales channel."

The coronavirus pandemic was the "final push" that Powell's needed to leave the platform, Powell said. In March, Amazon prioritized shipments of essential goods like hand sanitizer and paper towels in its warehouses after it saw a swell of consumer demand. As a result, non-essential goods like books took a backseat at Amazon's warehouses. 

Facing diminished sales on Amazon, Powell's shifted its focus to customers on its own website. "We just decided to make that a permanent business choice," Powell said.

The pandemic has forced many retailers, both offline and online, to reckon with Amazon's size and power over commerce. A slew of brick-and-mortar retailers, including Powell's, briefly, have been hobbled by the pandemic, which brought store closures, reduced consumer spending and a rapid shift to online spending. Meanwhile, Amazon, Walmart, Target and other major retailers have reported sales at record levels, fueled by online orders. 

Meanwhile, Amazon faces growing scrutiny from regulators in the U.S. and overseas, who are examining its market power and treatment of sellers on its platform.

Earlier this month, industry groups representing authors, publishers and booksellers wrote a letter to House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., who is spearheading a closely watched antitrust investigation into Amazon and other tech giants. In it, the groups raised concerns that Amazon's scale has allowed it to "own and manipulate the playing field" of book distribution and called for lawmakers to prohibit the company from using "loss-leader pricing to harm competition."

Powell said she isn't waiting for regulators to rein in Amazon.

"I'm going to do my best to find a way to compete and hope that at the end of the day the value to our community is enough to keep us going," she said. "If in the meantime our political systems realize that this business is having a detrimental impact on our economy, even though it looks the opposite, i'll be pleasantly surprised."

Representatives from Amazon didn't respond to requests for comment. 

Here's a recap of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' congressional testimony
Here's a recap of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' congressional testimony