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It’s the Best, Worst of Times at Powell’s City of Books

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were the child care subsidies, true. The tuition assistance and profit sharing. A median wage of $8.42 an hour, not bad for a bookstore, in an industry whose here-today, gone-tomorrow work force hovers perpetually at the minimum wage.

The booksellers at Powell’s wanted something more. More money, to be sure, but just as important, recognition that there is not so marvelous a salesperson on Earth as the one who can take a reader’s halting, fumbling inquiry, walk confidently through the stacks, climb a stepladder and produce just the volume needed--plus a couple of recommended alternatives.

The sales staff at Powell’s City of Books--the nation’s largest independent bookstore, an American literary institution and, in an age of chain superstores and Internet giants like Amazon.com, an independent bookstore that’s making money--think that’s worth something.

So it is that Powell’s 408-strong sales and warehouse staff finds itself locked in an unusual labor battle with an employer widely seen as one of the most progressive in the industry. Powell’s employees walked off the job again Saturday, climaxing a week of job actions and street demonstrations that produced the surreal specter of riot-geared police guarding the cash registers of the venerable old establishment.

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The push for a labor contract at Powell’s is part of a growing move to unionize the nation’s struggling independent booksellers. Half a dozen bookshops across the country already have union labor. Here in Portland, a new generation of bottom-rung service industry workers is bringing to the table not only issues like higher wages but also a voice in management that will allow them to maintain professional pride in their work.

“What we have is a group of young workers in the new economy, the service economy, organizing themselves and taking a stand for their jobs, and not only their wages but for their creativity in their jobs,” said Marcy Rein, spokeswoman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which won an organizing election of Powell’s workers last fall in a closely contested election that turned on a scant six votes.

The result has been beefy dockworkers picketing alongside Powell’s staff of sales clerks, muscling shut the doors of the shipping department in a recent job action that halted all mail shipments. A walkout last week, when May Day activists from throughout Portland marched toward the front door, resulted in the only non-weather-related early closure in the store’s history, save for the funeral of founder Walter Powell.

“It was scary as hell: 25 people wearing gas masks, hard hats, all dressed in black and walking toward my store,” admitted store owner Michael Powell, the founder’s 59-year-old son and one of the region’s best-known businessmen, with a reputation for progressive activism and charitable largess.

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To say that Powell’s is an institution in Portland is almost to underestimate it. An estimated 3,000 visitors a day, some who have come from around the world, drop into the main City of Books and nearby specialty shops.

Recent renovations expanded the floor space to 68,000 square feet (this after Barnes and Noble put in a 43,000-square-foot superstore west of Portland; “We had to be bigger,” Powell says).

Negotiating Powell’s requires a map, available at the door. There are dozens of sections, ranging from film to etiquette to railroads. Subcategories abound. Theology, for example, ranges from prayer, angels and Christian fiction to inspirational, denominations, Mariology, mysticism, feminist theology, religious education, liberation theology, church history, New Testament, Christology, Old Testament, Bible interpretation and an entire row of Bibles. There are 150 shelves of Chinese history, with titles dating to the 1920s.

Used books sit side-by-side with new books, and there lies some of the peculiar marketing genius that has made Powell’s the only big independent bookstore left in Portland, and one of the few successful ones left in America. Used books can be bought at a pittance and marked up, then sold on the Internet to buyers around the world.

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Indeed, Amazon.com, 180 miles up the highway in Seattle, has become one of Powell’s biggest used-book customers. And unlike Amazon, Powell’s is showing a profit on its Internet operations, part of a healthy $36.18 million in gross sales last year. In addition to the used-book markups, Powell’s has the advantage of not needing a warehouse. Its bookstore already is a warehouse, providing walk-in customers and online shoppers multiple shots at the same books.

But it was the computerization of the inventory and the move to Internet sales a few years ago that launched the first salvo in what would become a pitched battle with the sales force, which historically has prided itself on its personal, hands-on relationship with the inventory. No one needed a computer to tell them what books were on the shelves; they already knew. They ordered them, stacked them, wrote personal recommendation display cards for their favorites.

Many on the sales staff argued that you can’t have all the books you need for walk-in customers if you’re selling them to distant online shoppers. “I’m not talking about ‘Windows 95 for Dummies.’ We have a million copies of that. But what about a study of Hoover Dam from the ‘60s, where there may be only 20 copies?” said Jim Cowing, a seller at the technical specialty shop and a member of the union’s bargaining team. “They got bought by somebody from Louisiana who would have bought it cheaper from Amazon.com if they could have.”

To which store manager Miriam Sontz responds with incredulity: “It’s a fascinating argument that there’s a hierarchy of customers, that you can somehow choose who you want to sell books to. But we had people who quit because of computerization. We had people who said, ‘This is not why I went into the book business, to deal with computers.’ ”

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What employees didn’t realize, Powell said, is that you can’t run a modern inventory system without computers. “Nobody thought it was cute anymore when they’d call in for a title and be told, ‘Sorry, you’ll have to come in and look for it,’ or ‘We’ll get back to you.’ ”

The Internet is what’s keeping the doors open, he said. “That’s called making the company successful, because the walk-in trade won’t float the boat. The handwriting was on the wall.”

Ironically, it was another attempt at better customer service that sparked the controversial restructuring of staffing at the City of Books that provided the single biggest push toward the union.

Historically, each of Powell’s 110 book sections was managed by a single staffer who was responsible for ordering, shelving, making displays and inventorying everything in that section. It was that specialization that allowed Powell’s staffers to develop expertise unparalleled in a major bookstore. It was the thing, they said, that made them willing to take a job at $6.50 to $9 an hour and stay in it for years in an industry that typically sees turnover every six months.

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Powell and Sontz scrapped the section managers and instead set up a series of multidisciplinary teams that would oversee operations over several sections. It made sense, they said. Customers who came in looking for a book on mythology were out of luck if they came in on the mythology section chief’s day off. Moreover, there was no centralized stocking and ordering.

“You had a section chief, and they were science fiction A to F, and they were the masters of science fiction A to F. But they had no interest in learning science fiction G to N,” said Jeff Buck, a 13-year employee, now working as a computer network administrator, who has opposed unionization.

Booksellers Complain of Job ‘Devaluing’

But overwhelmingly, booksellers have used the word “devaluing” when they talk about their jobs since the restructuring, and they vigorously deny it has helped the customer. “We’re in the middle of this whole Elian Gonzalez thing, and in the past six months we’ve ordered exactly no books on Cuba,” said Pat Love, who works on the new Latin history team. “I get the inquiries from people, but I have no access to the buying of the books. I’m not allowed to even look at the range screens” to see what has sold.

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“I now do purchases for law. I don’t know much about law. We really don’t have a resident in that, so the law customer is not well-served,” said Carol Edwards, a pro-union activist. “People now label the books and put them on the shelf. But the depth of information they have about the books is severely limited.”

The union drive commenced when management followed the restructuring with a double hit: an announcement that wage increases, which typically had reached 5% to 6% a year, were being capped at 3%.

After the close union vote, negotiations began last September. Saturday, when an estimated 80% of non-probationary employees stayed off the job, was the third full walkout, and the parties remain split over three basic issues: the size of pay hikes over the next three years (the union wants a “living” wage of $10.36 an hour), whether all employees will be required to pay union dues, and a management clause that would give workers a strong voice in decisions on such issues as the restructuring, or contracting out.

Publicly, Powell says he’s committed to negotiating a contract. But he’s hired one of Portland’s best-known anti-union lawyers as his chief negotiator, and anti-union employees, counting on frustration with the slow pace of negotiations, already are circulating petitions to decertify union representation.

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The booksellers are turning a deaf ear, but there has been strong anti-union sentiment in the ranks of the burgeoning computer staff, many of whom are taking home several orders of magnitude less than their earning potential for a chance to work at a place like Powell’s.

“We’re trying to make bookselling on this scale profitable on the Internet, which has never been done,” said Web producer David Weich. “My job description changes all the time. There is no way to write a job description to last the three-year life of a union contract. A union basically ties our hands.”

The result: Half of Powell’s employees are wearing ILWU buttons. The other half are wearing ILWU buttons with a slash through them. And the repository of Portland civilization remains in a state of unease.

“Nobody wants Powell’s to lose the quirky charm and unique utility that has made it one of the world’s great booksellers,” The Oregonian newspaper said in a recent column. “We who love Powell’s can only watch this family feud and wait with fingers crossed as they try to work things out.”

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