PORTLAND — Lynn Medoff was inspired to design silk fashions during a Peace Corps assignment in Guatemala. Rebecca Pearcy began creating wallets and handbags in her Olympia bedroom. Stacy Maiano built her dream around a crimson-colored jib that she viewed on the horizon from a Caribbean beach. Jake France and Richard Rolfe, meanwhile, just wanted to rekindle the passions of their youth.
These Portland shopkeepers took different paths to retail success. But they share a devotion to high quality, reasonable prices and locally produced merchandise — all things that make a Christmas-season trip to Oregon’s largest city so appealing to Central Oregon shoppers.
From downtown Portland to the Pearl District and “Trendy Third" Street — from funky Alberta Street and North Mississippi Avenue to the older shopping precinct along Hawthorne Boulevard — the Northwest metropolis abounds with wonderful, small, privately owned shops that beckon consumers with everything from clothing to jewelry to fun knickknacks.
Over three days preceding Thanksgiving, together with photographer and shrewd shopper Barb Gonzalez, I explored many Portland neighborhoods in search of intriguing buys. The following discoveries are organized geographically.
Several of the finest independent stores in the city’s heart are clustered within a couple of blocks of one another in the West End.
Near the corner of Northwest 10th Avenue and Washington Street, a variety of shops sell everything from fashion (Radish Underground co-proprietor Celeste Sipes owns the Aster Park clothing line) to botanicals (Flora has a selection of teas as well as ecologically sensitive soaps and makeup) to household goods (Woonwinkel’s stock includes a $5,000 dollhouse/storage case and a line of unglazed Pigeon Toe ceramics).
Jared and Brianne Mees started Tender Loving Empire as a record label in 2006. The company has expanded into a store that not only markets its own music but also retails the work of local artists and performs screen-printing.
Locally popular bands like Brainstorm, Finn Riggins, Loch Lomond, Radiation City, Typhoon and Y La Bamba are featured on the store’s annual two-CD compilation, “Friends and Friends of Friends."
Canoe is an upscale home-decor store that features work from a variety of Northwest and West Coast artists. Beautiful hand-turned bowls by Yamhill County woodworker Jake Rockwood — of white oak, black walnut, maple, elm or black cherry — are simply crafted using the woods’ natural variations in grain and color.
The Peter Pan in me — the little boy who never grew up — loves Boys’ Fort, a “pop-up" shop that has been planted just off the lobby of the Governor Hotel for the rest of 2012. Four years ago, Portland’s Downtown Retail Strategy Task Force established a program to fill vacant retail spaces during the holiday period. France and Rolfe’s Boys’ Fort is one of four in 2012.
“It’s all the stuff that we love," said Rolfe of the eclectic collection, which he calls “nostalgic with tongue-in-cheek." Merchandise ranges from wallets to furniture fit for a man cave. The best-selling item is a $2.50 postcard; the most expensive is a $2,200 motorcycle sculpture by Randell Swan, who assembled it mostly from copper plumbing and bicycle parts. But my favorites were the “Tin Bones" robots made from voltage meters and antique tin containers by Portlander Dean Freiman.
These shops are located about halfway between the Hotel DeLuxe on 15th Avenue, where we slept, and my favorite new Portland restaurant — Imperial, the latest endeavor of chef Vitaly Paley. Seventeen years after establishing his acclaimed fine-dining restaurant Paley’s Place in northwest Portland, the Russian-born Paley has taken over the old Typhoon space in the Hotel Lucia and installed a comfort-food restaurant with a rotisserie grill.
Pearl District and Northwest
One of my favorite stores in all of Portland is Oblation Papers & Press, which uses 19th-century printing technology in creating hand-crafted cards and papers for special occasions such as wedding invitations. Located in a nondescript building in the heart of the Pearl District, it is a joy for anyone who has yet to completely embrace a paperless society.
On a similar note — and a nearby corner — Thea Villaseñor displays bracelets and other jewelry that she has made from the keys of antique typewriters. Her store, Thea’s Interiors, also offers a wide range of other art and antiques from around the world.
The tony Nob Hill district along 23rd Avenue in northwest Portland — sometimes called “Trendy Third" by locals — is home to many fine shops, including the Lena Medoyeff Studio.
Fashion designer Lynn Medoff named her store in homage to her grandfather, who immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. But that’s only part of the international flair in the merchandise of this 15-year-old studio.
While serving in the Peace Corps in rural Guatemala, Medoff learned to make dresses from locally available textiles. Upon returning home, she continued in the fashion field, buying only fair-trade fabrics — in particular, silk from one small village in north India. Today a team of local seamstresses creates the dresses from Medoff’s designs. Marked by simple elegance, I found them priced from $172 for simple cocktail dresses to $1,722 for elaborate wedding gowns.
Also in the neighborhood, Tibetan Fox Clothing sells original, custom-made T-shirts and exhibits avant-garde artwork by Eilish Connor. Dog lovers go crazy at the Hip Hound, where you can find not only a dazzling selection of collars, leashes and canine cuddlies, but also what every winter-loving dog wants and needs: a parka with a faux fur-lined collar. The much-loved Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe adds to the holiday spirit by decorating its truffles with snowmen, Christmas trees and — together or individually — Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.
Two blocks east, Stella’s on 21st is a fun stop for a wide range of quirky gifts, from clothing and jewelry to distinctive art, many of them created by local artists. I was delighted by the wall of colorful and fanciful clocks featuring whimsical animals, flowers and even kitchenware.
At Betsy and Iya, I was impressed by a quartet of brass cuff bracelets with etched designs based upon bridges — Portland’s own St. Johns and Fremont bridges, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. They’re created by jewelers working in full view of shoppers at the back of the shop, and they cost just $69 to $74.
Betsy and Iya is on Thurman Street, a block off 23rd at its north end, past the “trendy" part. Across the street is one of Portland’s best French patisseries, the St. Honoré Boulangerie, where the Tour de France spirit lives 12 months a year. Around the corner is Besaw’s Cafe, one of the city’s choice spots for casual breakfasts and lunches.
North by Northeast
Ignore the rain. Rebecca Pearcy does. The creative queen of Queen Bee Creations rides her bicycle to and from work every day, seven miles each way from southeast Portland to North Williams Avenue, one of Portland’s newly emerging neighborhood shopping districts. Her bicycle is equipped with waterproof faux-leather panniers of her own design, and she ties back her jeans with original Wind Rider pant-leg cuff clips — great stocking stuffers at $28 a pair.
Pearcy launched Queen Bee in 1996 in her Olympia home and six years later relocated to Portland, where the business burgeoned. Three years ago, she moved her shop and studio to its current location, adjoining the Spooltown sewing factory, where many of her designs are completed. She continues to make the billfold wallets, purses and tote bags with which she started, plus many other items. All carry the company’s trademark applique floral and chirping bird designs.
Nearby on North Williams, Ink & Peat, a home and floral-design store, has an intriguing collection of household and garden items. I was enchanted by artist Daria Knowles’ “Hot Skwash" pumpkins, made of richly colored velvet with the cast-off stems of real squash. It’s just down the block from Lincoln, one of Portland’s most highly regarded new gourmet restaurants.
Over on Northeast Alberta Street, one of the city’s most multiethnic precincts, foodies on a budget often start their days at the Tin Shed Garden Cafe. And there are plenty of shops to capture shoppers’ attention. My traveling companion couldn’t say “no" to Frock, a small, 9-year-old boutique where she purchased a perfectly fitted, hooded sweater-blazer of “upcycled" wool made by Portland’s Bella Sisters.
Nearby, Stacy Maiano opened her Red Sail home decor and accessory store only a year ago. With a mission to sell no merchandise for more than $100, Red Sail has already been chosen as the city’s “best gift shop" by Portland Monthly in its May 2012 edition.
Among the local producers featured here are Nell & Mary and Zanna Printed Textiles, both of which make hand-printed tablecloths, napkins and tea towels.
One block away, Local Discoveries offers an eclectic collection of handmade crafts by 65 regional artisans — porcelain yarn bowls, goat’s milk soap, soy candles, illustrated playing cards (by Aaron Trotter, whose studio adjoins).
I was impressed by the classic and elegant designs offered by dressmaker Erica Lurie at Garnish. “I use mostly natural fiber and sustainable fabrics, including cotton, bamboo, soy and hemp," Lurie said. “I also often buy leftover fabrics, such as flocked denim, from bigger designers. And all our production is local."
North Mississippi Avenue revealed numerous quirky and colorful vintage and resale shops, ranging from clothing to hardware. My choice for shopping here is Bridge City Comics, where the work of highly regarded Portland graphic artists and other Pacific Northwest residents is showcased near the front of the store.
East by Southeast
Before dining at Le Pigeon, James Beard Award-winning chef Gabriel Rucker’s tiny French-styled bistro a half-block from the one-of-a-kind Jupiter Hotel, I looked across East Burnside Street to discover the Redux Gallery.
Specializing in new and consignment jewelry, Redux also sells a wide range of unusual gifts. In a city of bicycle commuters, I was struck by the clocks and picture frames fashioned from chain sprockets. Recycling can be a beautiful thing.
A couple of miles south, many of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard’s best shops are concentrated between 35th and 38th avenues. Memento — the exclusive retailer for Queen Bee bags in southeast Portland — and Presents of Mind are both outstanding gift shops. So, too, is Sorel’s on Hawthorne, where amid vintage furniture I found intriguing, Portland-made kinetic earrings by Green Tree Jewelry. Another entry in the bicycle theme, they retail for just $15.95.
Cassidy Jewelry features the work of 81 designers, many of them Oregonians, including Jody Howard, whose Elysium Jewelry is made from sustainably mined semiprecious stones. Down the block, Escential Lotions & Oils is a unique outlet for Liberty Natural essential oils, made in Oregon City. It also offers custom perfume blends of more than 100 scents, priced from $8 per quarter-ounce.
One of Portland’s most “fun" stores for the lover of vintage furnishings is Lounge Lizard, still on Hawthorne but 20 blocks nearer Portland’s urban core. If you like Bend’s Casarama, you’ll love this bright and colorful shop, whose collection extends from armoires and lighting to clothing and old-fashioned toys.