|Powell's CEO Miriam Sontz
"I'm proud of the connection between Powell's and the Portland community," said Miriam Sontz, CEO of Powell's Books in Portland, Ore. On January 2, Sontz will officially retire from a 34-year career at Powell's and more than 40 years in the book industry at large. "I'm proud of our national reputation," Sontz continued. "And being part of something that is pretty unique and is so appreciated."
Sontz started working at Powell's in August 1984, following an "incredibly rich background and education from some amazing people in the book business," that included working at B. Dalton Bookseller, J.K. Gill Company and as a volunteer at A Woman's Place, the city's first feminist bookstore. She was a remainders buyer at Powell's for only a few months before becoming manager of the company's first additional location, which opened in Beaverton, Ore., around Thanksgiving of 1984.
She was there for two years before becoming manager of Powell's Burnside store, which at the time was "only" about 20,000 square feet. As the store grew, Sontz took on more and more responsibilities, including director of Powells.com, and in 2013 CEO.
Reflecting on how the industry has changed since she started her career, Sontz noted that while there have been some "amazing transformations," some things have remained constant. The general business of running things, of looking at budgets and sales per FTE and all sorts of other metrics, is largely the same. And competition has always been a factor, though the competitors have changed: years ago it was Crown Books and other early deep discounters, followed by superstores and big-box retailers, and then Amazon and e-books.
"I'm reminded of the song 'I'm Still Standing,' " Sontz remarked. "After all these years we're still standing--not only standing but thriving."
Powell's began as a 100% used bookstore, and Sontz recalled that the "single biggest change for us as a business" was grappling with the sort of used bookstore customer service that was often stereotyped as "curmudgeonly, unfriendly, dusty." Nowadays, she said, "everybody knows that every customer is a gift to the company." But back in the late 1980s, it was a struggle to convince people that customer service was an important sales tool.
Through it all, though, the content has remained king. "One of the things I find truly amazing is that people's passion for paper between boards largely remains the same," she said. And despite whatever else is going on in the book world at large, when she visits the store's children's section, she feels "pretty confident about the future of the print industry."
When asked for how long she's been considering retirement, Sontz laughed and answered: "Since I was 35." But it was only in the past two years or so that Sontz began to think seriously about it, and in that time she's been working with company owner and president Emily Powell, chief operating officer John Kingsbury and others in the organization to ensure a smooth transition. That includes things like taking some "oral traditions" and turning them into official documentation, as well as writing down things that Sontz does that will need to be delegated. "We've just been thoughtfully going through a process," Sontz said.
Once she's no longer with Powell's, Sontz said she's going to miss "being surrounded by an ocean of books" and the "constant tide" of new stories that she discovers every day. One thing she's always loved about the business, she continued, is that there's always something new on the horizon, whether it's the next big mystery writer or the next breakout bestseller.
Sontz will also miss the "many dear friends" she's made during her time in the book business and already has plans to visit several of them after she retires. Reflecting on her time in the industry, she said: "One of the amazing benefits of the book business is how many wonderful people there are." She noted, too, that in her more than 40 years of experience, she's "only met two a--holes." Everyone else "has been delightful."
On the subject of specific plans for her retirement, Sontz commented that, "all of my life, I've always been very responsible. I'm looking forward to being irresponsible for a certain length of time. I'm looking forward to discovering my definition of irresponsible."
"I just feel so grateful and blessed that in my 20s I found some outlets for this passion that I have for books," Sontz said. "I still get goosebumps when I connect a reader to an author." It's that feeling, she explained, that has kept her going all these years. "Sometimes when you're working, there are parts that are difficult. But I could always go out on the floor and help a customer and get in touch with that passion again." --Alex Mutter