On any day of the week, you can find Sellwood's commercial district along 13th Avenue alive with a bevy of shoppers, spending their lunch hour at the many restaurants, food carts, and cafés.
Those visiting merchants like Sellwood Cycle Repair, Blue Kangaroo Coffee, Sellwood Flower Company, or Sellwood Antique Collective keep the store owners busy. Beauty salons, real estate agencies, the Multnomah County Branch Library, SMILE (the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League neighborhood association), and an increasing number of mixed-use apartment buildings offer a variety of services to residents, as well as to those who are just there for the day.
After brief cityhood in the late 1800s, Sellwood was just a small rural part of Portland in the early Twentieth Century — far from the hustle and bustle that characterizes the community today. Sellwood's first commercial district was actually established along Umatilla Street, because it connected residents to Portland by way of the Willamette River. What came in by boat and ferries departed the same way — that is, until the east side streetcar line arrived in 1892, built along 13th Avenue.
The streetcars, running on rails embedded in what was then still a dirt street, turned the sleepy hamlet into a growing market town in just a few short years. Small family-owned bungalows and false-front retail shops were sparsely scattered along 13th Avenue. They began to be joined by barber shops, pharmacies, confectionaries, and the Sellwood Fire House. Small grocery stores and meat markets could be found every two to three blocks along the street for the convenience of residents.
By 1910, successful entrepreneurs Alfred Griessen, William Strahlman, and J.P. Zirngieben had built the first of three two-story streetcar commercial buildings at Spokane and Umatilla Streets. The editor of THE BEE, which by then was four years old, decided it was time to move his printing presses over to 13th and Tenino, because that's where all the action was.
A decade later, 13th Avenue was also an entertainment district — as "The Star", "The New Sellwood", and "the Isis" Movie Houses were showing picture shows every evening for those venturing out to 13th and Spokane for the latest movies — which were, before long, to become "talkies".
The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed business, and a few shops closed their doors for good. But an economic resurgence in the 1940s — first from WWII production, and then from the postwar prosperity — brought a new look to 13th Avenue. Now, radio and television shops piqued residents' interest, along with other new businesses along the bustling street.
With the start of the 1950s, independently-owned shops owned by local residents were giving way to storefronts with odd names: Baileys Buffing, L & M Chain Saw Equipment Company; and the Sellwood Metal Finishers. Those could be found south of Tacoma Street, while children on bikes darted by signs advertising services for Panel Craft Electronics and Pacific Plating Works to the north of Tacoma.
For sure, residents still supported their small grocery stores — Sam Wollos, Fairleys, and the Sellwood Market — but they often would also wander over to the Piggly Wiggly market on Tacoma Street, or the new Kienow's in Westmoreland, to check out their weekly specials, too. (What was once Piggly Wiggly, an early national food chain, is today Sellwood's New Seasons Market — and the former Kienow's is now QFC Market.)
Once the 1960s arrived, stores built in the 1900s were starting to look old and run down. New businesses came and went every two to three years, and many buildings sat vacant. The newer community of Westmoreland had become the more appealing commercial district for weekend shopping; the Monarch Pharmacy, the Cornet variety store, and catching a movie at the Moreland Theater were among the draws for neighbors at the time.
Ladies' clothing shops were numerous on Milwaukie Avenue, and every child and father wanted to stop at Graham's Five Ten and Twenty Five Cent Store, then perhaps on to the Pepper Mill Restaurant and Lounge for lunch or dinner. With all this action going on in Westmoreland, the merchants of Thirteenth Avenue in Sellwood were seeking a resurgence — and when it came, it was led by a class of business that not many saw coming.
Barber shops and beauty salons were still in high demand along the Avenue, as were various dry cleaners. The only places that seemed to draw a crowd were its local taverns: The Black Cat, once a cozy little breakfast and café, was now a tavern on the northeast corner of 13th and Umatilla — and there was also the Cozy Tavern at 13th and Tenino. Even the good old sandwich shop and workingmen's favorite afternoon lunch spot — the Lepzig Tavern, at 13th and Spokane — was now a bar. What Sellwood and Westmoreland were in need of, it turned out, was neighborhood antique shops!
In the 1950s, antique shops and secondhand stores were just starting to draw middle class and well-to-do families. Those who could ill afford the pricey items in specialty shops in Portland's downtown business district, or the spendy items at the big department stores, could get now quality furniture and furnishings at bargain prices at any Antique Store.
As early as 1958 the City of Portland boasted close to 27 Antique Dealers, as listed in the Portland City Directory. None then was located close to the Sellwood and Westmoreland, but individually-owned shops were scattered through various districts in the Rose City. Few merchants could afford to buy business property, so often the cheapest rental spaces were where you would find an Antique Store — and, after a couple of years, when rents had increased, these stores were forced to move to another part of Portland. It was frustrating for both patrons and business owners. But the thought was starting to spread that if such shops could be grouped together in one section of town, that might benefit both sellers and buyers.
It was in Sellwood that Elizabeth Fowler and Earl Taylor conceived the idea of opening a shop hoping to attract other desirable dealers into the area. Some ten to twelve buildings were vacant along 13th Avenue at that time, and houses along 13th could be bought and turned into little shops for relatively low cost — an antique merchant's dream.
In 1964 Elizabeth Fowler opened "The 1874 House" in what was once a section of the Sellwood Movie Theater on the southeast corner of 13th and Spokane. Earl Taylor started his Sellwood Antiques shop not far from the 1874 House, later on changing the name of his store to the Sellwood Antiques and Refinishing Store.
Like most other Antiques businesses in the Portland, the 1874 House offered the same standard items for browsers to choose from — tintype photos, hurricane and kerosene lamps, a fair selection of glassware and fancy perfume bottles. But it was out in the back room where Liz Fowler stored her good stuff!
Contractors and rejuvenators came to the new antique dealers of Sellwood specifically to hunt for hard-to-find hardware — old nails, screws, and tools. Stacks of bannisters, balustrades, decorative mantels, and doors — along with various sizes and shapes of paned windows and marble basins -- leaned against the walls. Most of the architectural items in the 1874 House came from some of Portland's fabulous mansions — Queen Anne and Craftsman style homes that no longer stood on Portland's street corners. Artists and carpenters who refurbished many of the McMenamin Restaurants in the region uncovered some of Liz Fowler's prized finds in her littered back room.
Magazines like Good Housekeeping, Sunset, and Country Living began emphasizing that old heirlooms and old furniture and merchandise which was once owned by our parents and grandparents could today be reused as desirable décor. And the crowds flocking to Sellwood by the hundreds began scouring the neighborhood, searching through antique shops looking for such items to enhance their homes.
Situated between the Eastmoreland neighborhood to the east, and the town of Lake Oswego to the southwest across the Willamette River, Sellwood was becoming a haven for housewives and collectors shopping for pre-owned furniture and other housewares. They no longer had to spend long hours driving from one neighborhood or district to another, in search of a perfect piece to place in the living room or parlor of their home.
It didn't take other store owners long to realize that setting up an antique shop along 13th Avenue in Sellwood could be a bonanza. By 1972, specialty shops like The Corner House, The General Store, The Old Mantel, the Tin Turtle, Toms' Rugs and Furniture, American At Heart, Trula's Junktiques, and "Darwin's Etc. Antiques" had opened their doors in Sellwood — and customers arrived in droves looking for that perfect special item or a complementary piece to complete the interior of their house or garden.
Antique stores had proliferated so fast along 13th Avenue that the owners realized they needed some sort of marketing logo and name, to identify the area to potential buyers. The tag line "Sellwood Antique Row" was chosen — and buyers looking through the newspaper advertisements, trade magazines, and even talking with others to find for a new place to shop, now added Sellwood's Antique Row to their list.
Popularity had arrived so quickly that within just a few years Antique Row in Sellwood boasted more than 30 antique dealers and specialty stores. Christmas was a special time, with the merchants decorating their stores, staying open longer hours, and Christmas Carolers strolled the sidewalks as musicians joined in to play Holiday favorites. And it seemed that, at Christmas time, every store offered coffee and goodies for customers to enjoy.
Artist Austin Meyers, owner of "Austin's Place" in Sellwood, was asked to design and create a banner that could be placed in the store windows along each block to designate the area "Old Sellwood". He came up with a colorful design of a smiling sun with a face, which could be seen in windows along the twelve blocks from Lambert to Clatsop.
The presence of Antique Row may have been what drew Bob and Leslie Goldsmith to buy the house of Dr. Bartholomew in Sellwood in 1974 -- but they certainly found the neighborhood to be the perfect place to raise a family. On the weekends, Leslie began to dabble in antiques herself, purchasing merchandise at estate sales and flea markets, and then reselling them from her living room during the week, while she took care of the couple's two children.
The previous owner, Dr. Bartholomew, had operated his optometrist and oculist business out of a small structure on the front of the property. Apparently believing that he had sold only his property — but not his business — to the Goldsmiths, the good doctor to their surprise continued making appointments and serving patients from the small doctor's office in their front yard.
It took a lot of persuasion on Leslie's part to eventually convince the good doctor that he had sold his property including his appointment room, and eventually he left — but, for the next few years, the Goldsmiths had to contend with insistent customers who visited what was now called "Den of Antiquity" to get an eye exam, or to demand that Leslie fix their glasses.
The "Den of Antiquity" was so successful that the couple themselves decided to add a storefront onto the front of their house. For the next thirty years the Goldsmiths would be among the few antique dealers who survived and prospered on 13th Avenue after the peak of the antiques demand there came and went. But they weren't the only ones.
When he became exasperated as an art teacher in The Dalles, Darwin Otto left his position in education and decided to put his artistic skills to work, dealing with antiques and home décor. He began setting up estate sales for people who were too overwhelmed to want to price and list their items in the local newspapers. And, it wasn't long before Darwin moved to Portland and opened his own Specialty Shop, "Etc. Antiques", at the corner of S.E. 13th Avenue and Lexington.
This small, box shaped one-story store, with two large display windows and a canopy awning, was built around 1906 — in which Faith Henderson opened her "Bonnette Shop". It stayed a Millinery Shop for the next fifteen years, run by Martha Richards — next known as the "Bonnie Millinery Shop" -- until the late 1920's. A succession of beauty salons occupied the space the following years until the 1930s, when it became Rhoads Fur Storage for thirteen years.
Darwin occupied the Fur Storage structure and opened his shop "Etc. Antiques" in 1972, competing with all the other antique dealers located along 13th Avenue. Unlike other traditional stores selling heirlooms and revitalized treasures, Darwin began staging and categorizing his wares so that buyers had a sense of what to buy, and where their purchase might go in their homes. Customers entering most antique shops in the 1960s and 70s were overwhelmed with goodies and furniture stacked on top of each other, while glass display cases were filled to the brim with jewelry, pins, fabrics, and mantel pieces. It was definitely a hunt and search game for devoted buyers on the lookout for specific items.
Often Darwin would decorate his store as he would the house he lived in. A local reporter for The Oregonian wrote about her visit to Darwin's home, noting the toothbrushes he kept in his bathroom were held in a test tube holder from a child's chemistry set — and that his clothes, instead of being stored in a closet, were neatly arranged on the shelves of a large rolling cart once used to store bottles in a science laboratory.
Darwin and Ann O'Keefe, together also operated "The Found Object" in Sellwood, and were admired by other antique vendors for their creativity in repurposing old furniture into fresh new modern pieces that became one-of-a-kind items for buyers. Brent Heeb, co-owner of "Stars Antiques Malls", first met Darwin while shopping at "Etc. Antiques" and says he was simply enthralled by Darwin's artistic displays. They became fast friends, and decided to work together.
Brent and Darwin were asked to perform décor arrangements for three Portland houses that were featured in Country Living magazine, and together started "the Magic of Oregon" — an antique showcase that offered country-style antiques for sale. They later became lifetime partners for 35 years, and lived in a farmhouse at S.E. Clatsop and 13th Avenue in Sellwood. It was to there that Darwin moved his Antique Store.
After he moved to his house on Clatsop Street, co-owners Pat Jaffuel and Marcee Melton operated their "Unique Antique Shop" in Darwin's former location for the next thirteen years.
Marcee concentrated on making and selling old mercantile goods, just like the previous proprietors did a century earlier — when Bonnette Millinery occupied the space. And Pat happily retired from his early morning "4 a.m. to noon" shift as a lumber broker, and joined Marcee in showcasing their vintage goods to potential buyers.
Longtime Westmoreland resident Donna Merseth, who worked part time at a few of the antique shops in Sellwood, remembers one owner — Ann O'Keefe — as one of the most energetic and vivacious people she's met. At one time, her store, "The Found Object", was situated in a two-story craftsman house across the street from SMILE Station. "Ann took old foundry pieces and glass, and made them into unique coffee tables or beautiful wall pieces," recalls Donna.
Using the art degree she received from the University of Washington, Ann searched the country high and low, looking for odd pieces on which to put her art talents to work. As Donna remarks, "She was the only person I knew who could turn a wooden crate into a work of art that was sought after by many of her customers."
Much like a scene out of a Nancy Drew mystery book, Donna explained that one time the pair spent the better part of the day stumbling around in the hay loft of a farmer's barn looking for wooden crates to take back to Ann's art studio. "After we collected a carload of berry crates, we found they were filled with straw and owl droppings, so we took them down to the outdoor car wash on 17th and S.E. Tacoma and washed them down." The next day, Ann was exhilarated and told her co-worker that she had been too excited to go to sleep, and spent much of the night creating a new design for her berry crates.
In the 1980s, Sellwood's Antique Row remained popular; new vendors and new store names replaced the pioneers of Thirteenth Avenue who were ready for retirement and were willing to pass the reins to somebody younger. Banners, brown signs giving the history of buildings, and a day-long street festival entitled "Celebrate Sellwood Days", were many of the ideas by shopkeepers and the Sellwood Antiques Dealers Association intended to draw customers into their shops.
Promotional activities by the antique dealers through the years included pancake breakfasts, flea markets, sidewalk sales, puppeteers, children's theater performances, and singers, as well as automotive occasions in which visitors could view old jalopies and muscle cars parked along the street. Some evenings, people were invited to attend street dances with live music, and even enjoy a sausage dinner.
"The Sellwood Peddler" opened in 1974. Pat Young, and his partner Gayle Ryan, offered young buyers everything from comic books and baseball cards to advertising mementos like Coca Cola glasses, Roy Rogers cowboy outfits, and James Bond spy toys — while the older shoppers were on the lookout for depression glass, groovy lampshades, and handmade old-fashioned sideboards. This shop was in an old farmhouse on Clatsop Street at 13th, where customers could go shopping for historic pieces in one of Sellwood's historic homes.
Gayle's son Joe McDonald — who, during our interview, was standing by on the telephone to help reminisce about the hectic days at The Peddler — recalled, "She was always getting calls from people every morning wanting to sell some of their items; so then she would rush over to someone's house to make the purchase before the store even opened." Pat and Gayle placed buying and selling ads in The Oregonian and, as Joe pointed out, "Sometimes people would put away the phone number they'd ripped out of the newspaper, and pull it out two years later to tell her they wanted to sell her their items."
After eight years in the neighborhood, Pat and Gayle bought a wholesale and retail ceramic pottery-making building of over 5,000 square feet, just north of the Sellwood Bank Building (today's OnPoint Credit Union) at Tacoma Street, where the Sellwood Peddler shop became a mainstay in the community..
Most lifetime antique dealers will admit that their buying and selling acumen was inherited at an early age from relatives. Gayle's aunt owned an antiques business in Depoe Bay, and when she came to Portland to visit, Gayle would be invited out on buying sprees that ended up back in her aunt's store on the Oregon Coast. It wasn't uncommon to find Gayle traipsing around the Sellwood neighborhood in the early morning hours, hauling big furniture pieces into the back door of The Sellwood Trader, or carrying a wooden box filled with knick-knacks and other items that would soon be on display in their store.
When I asked how the name "The Sellwood Peddler" had been arrived at, Joe McDonald replied, "A group of friends were sitting around at a table in a pizza parlor thinking of names for the new store. Mom just wrote that particular suggestion down on a napkin, and the name stuck."
Sellwood resident and successful real estate agent Molly Starr worked at the Peddler on Saturdays, and then later bought what was by then called the "Sellwood Peddler Attic Goodies" in 2001. As online trading and buying became more popular, with the success of eBay, vintage stores began to struggle to draw the in-person crowds they'd once commanded, and the Peddler became just another a part of Antique Rows' past.
When the Twenty-First Century arrived, the old Sellwood antique district began to give way to different sorts of stories, as well as new luxury homes and apartment complexes. Young people in their twenties and thirties now search for "specialty vintage items", as they are now called, and today's merchants have to closely follow the rapidly changing trends and styles just to stay in business. Antique Malls have largely replaced individual antique stores.
Gayle Tweed, Darwin Otto, and Brent Heeb started the first such mall in Westmoreland — "Stars Antiques Malls" on Milwaukie Avenue, in 1990, soon followed by their second store, Splendid Antiques Mall.
Some may wonder, after so many years, why Brent Heeb still maintains his busy schedule at Stars Antiques — but, as he is quick to reply, "I have a grandfather who loved to shop for carpets, and I spent a lot of time with him. You inherit their desire; it's in your blood."
When Liz Fowler and Earl Taylor first opened their shops back in the late 1960s, they didn't plan on becoming rich. But they both probably envisioned bringing back 13th Avenue to those spirited and carefree days of the early 1900s. And for a while, they did.