TITLE HOLDER: As CEO of Powell’s Books, Miriam Sontz ’73 oversees six stores, 500 employees, and roughly 4.5 million books.

TITLE HOLDER: As CEO of Powell’s Books, Miriam Sontz ’73 oversees six stores, 500 employees, and roughly 4.5 million books.

Page Turner

Miriam Sontz ’73 takes over Portland’s flagship bookstore.

By Nadine Fiedler ’89 | September 1, 2013

Portland is a city of bridges, a city of beer, a city of bikes, and a city of books. But Powell’s is the City of Books. 

Filling the downtown store—which inhabits an entire city block—you’ll find mobs of people of all ages, styles, and persuasions, books in hand. They wander the endless rooms filled with plain wood shelves stacked to the ceiling, travel miles on the plain gray cement floors, stumble or leap into the universes contained in all those books.

They sit and read, they stand and read, they read to their children, they carry books home to read. “I remember making my mom read this to me over and over again,” says one woman, brandishing a copy of The Little House. Visitors wander through the maze of categories, including Bonsai, Pre-Raphaelites, Humor, Civil War, Mountaineering, Allergies, Transgender Studies, Masonry, Shamanism, Oceanography. They wander way back into the coffee shop, set their coffee cups next to piles of books. And read.

This gargantuan store occupies a special place in the hearts of Portlanders. And in the center of this readers’ paradise stands a Reedie—Miriam Sontz, Powell’s new CEO and a 29-year member of the team that has made this bookstore so central to its city. 

“Portlanders own Powell’s in a way, not like Nordstrom,” she says. “The very books we sell come from Portland households. They helped it grow into an institution.”

Miriam is uniquely fitted to this role. She grew up on the south side of Chicago, a voracious reader and self-described “bookaholic.”

At Reed, Miriam majored in American studies during a time of great student unrest. “Kent State and Cambodia were going on, and the campus was closed twice for protests,” she says. “But Reed was important to my motivation.” Influential professors included John Tomsich [history 1962–99], John Strawn [history 1970–77], and Roger Porter [English 1961–]. She also learned some important things about herself at Reed: that she was not destined to work in academia, and that she was best cut out for working in business or as an entrepreneur.

Along with generations of Reedies, Miriam first came to know Powell’s as a student. In the early ’70s when the store’s founder Walter Powell was buying books to accumulate inventory for the store, he would camp on the Reed Commons stairs with a sign that said “cash for books.”

Later on, when Powell’s finally opened, she bought stacks of books there on the plantation novel, the subject of her thesis. When she sold them back she was amused by the book buyers’ wonderment about who reads so many plantation novels. Reedies still sell books to Powell’s, with new crops of freshmen happily finding used copies of their Hum 110 books on the shelves, year after year.

“I learned a lot about diversity at Reed. I learned about not underestimating others’ intelligence. Someone at Reed could look like a hobo and be the brightest person in the seminar. It was a very democratic institution,” she says. “And Powell’s is also. All kinds of people feel comfortable there, including young people. My peers are surprised by all the 20-somethings in the aisles. It comes from Powell’s academic, bare-bones feel. It’s not like a dining room or a rich uncle’s fantasy library.”

After graduation, Miriam’s interest in feminism led her to A Woman’s Place bookstore collective, where she discovered that she liked the book business. She cut her teeth working in some of Portland’s most notable bookstores, and decided by age 27 that this would be her lifelong career.

Miriam knew Powell’s co-owner Michael Powell (son of Walter) from Portland’s vibrant and collegial bookstore scene, and came to work for him as a buyer in 1984. Because she had a young son at home, Miriam asked to work part time. That lasted all of two months, until the Powells opened a new store in Beaverton—and asked Miriam to manage it. She took the job and never stopped rising through the ranks. She stayed at Powell’s so long, she says, because she loved having a new role every few years, gaining new skills to keep up with the constant changes in the business and Powell’s enormous growth.

For a decade, Miriam was Powell’s co-CEO with Ann Smith ’81. “I haven’t heard of other co-CEOs, and it takes two women to do that. It takes commitment, respect, and civility,” she says. That ethical underpinning has been a hallmark of Miriam’s leadership at Powell’s.

Miriam was named Powell’s CEO this spring, setting her at the head of its 500 employees, a thriving online presence, and six locations in the Portland area. “What I am mostly responsible for is making sure things move forward, and that we have a vision,” she says. “That vision is to be an exciting, creative, vibrant community of booksellers and readers.”

As she navigates Powell’s towards its future, Miriam is leading the charge to revamp its website and remodel the downtown store. She’s excited about facing challenges that include Amazon and e-reading, and concerns about the value of the printed book. “Retail channels are shifting like a new delta on the Mississippi River,” she says. “But people are not stopping reading or buying books. An independent bookstore survey found that the most frequent readers buy through multiple channels. Our job is to see that you get the book you’re looking for.”

“My challenges as CEO include making a profit in a creative and humane way, and balancing fun and business,” she says. “I always wanted to speak and find my own voice. I do that through my business and organizational structure, and through how we nurture and mentor people. It’s not a system so much as an attitude and heart. Our goal is to create an environment where people can find their own path.”

At Powell’s, it’s easy to stray from your original mission. An errand to buy a Harry Potter book becomes an expedition to the Weddell Sea. Looking for the exit, you stumble on Sartre. It’s a kind of intellectual synergy that Portland cherishes. “Powell’s is an important part of the fabric of this community,” Miriam says. “And everyone at Powell’s feels that.”

Tags: Alumni, Business, Entrepreneurship, Innovation