Treasure hunting in Portland

By Richard White, October 13, 2013

This blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's Travel Section, October 11, 2013.  This is the original text and I have added photos that specifically relate to our " Portland treasure hunt." 

Unlike many tourists, finding a souvenir is never the last thing we do on a holiday; in fact we make it an integral activity of every holiday. Everywhere we go, our challenge is to find an artwork or artifact for under $50, to add to our growing “unknown artists” collection.  The thrill-of-the-hunt (TOTH) takes us to some pretty interesting places - from warehouse districts to weekend garage sales in upscale neighbourhoods. As a result, we see the cities we visit from many unexpected and often unusual perspectives.

Portland may well be the TOTH capital of North America.  It seemed almost every block we visited had someplace nerdy, quirky or funky shop to explore. And a bonus for TOTH seekers is that Oregon has no sales tax; what you see is what you pay.

Fall is a great time to explore Portland, with its thriving arts scene in full swing and stores well stocked for Christmas.  While it might be a bit cooler, the upside is that there are fewer tourists, meaning you get a better feel for the real Portland and its charming bobo (bohemian/bourgeois) culture.

This photo documents The Good Mod's expansive space and fun installation of its vintage pieces. 

Best Portland “TOTH” Hot Spots

The Good Mod (1313 W Burnside St.), located on the top floor of a four-story, almost empty warehouse in the middle of downtown is full of amazing salvaged items creatively displayed - including chairs hanging from the walls and ceiling. Not an easy place to find, but an intriguing adventure just to getting there. A sandwich board on the sidewalk directed us down a barren hallway to an old elevator (remember the ones with the manual metal sliding doors) and handwritten sign saying Good Mod was on the fourth four. It looked a bit sketchy.  But once those creaky elevator doors opened, our eyes bugged out at the 17,000 square foot warehouse space. We scored some funky lettering and a vintage piece of photographic equipment. We really needed a truck! 

Just one of the many vintage clothing shops along Hawthorne.  There are also great vintage furniture and home accessory stores. 

Then there’s Hawthorne Boulevard, a 15-block mecca of vintage clothing, accessories, home décor, art and furniture shops. Our first stop was the House of Vintage (3315 SE Hawthorne Blvd), a flea market-like shop with dozens of rooms full of vintage artifacts from erotica to exotica.  The Goodwill (3557 SE Hawthorne Blvd) is a must-visit. It’s the most upscale thrift store we have found in our 15 years of thrifting, including Hong Kong and Paris. Hawthorne is also home to Powell’s Books Home & Garden shop (3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd) for those with green thumbs.

Alberta Street is like Hawthorne’s twin sister, but with a more “art gallery” bent.  Little Axe Records (5012 NE 28th Ave) is in a cottage house just off of Alberta, where I picked up a Howlin’ Wolf Chess Masters 24-track double album.  Nearby is Monograph Bookwerks (5005 NE 27th Ave), a delightful very tiny, well-organized shop full of art, architecture and interior design books and artifacts. Thought we didn’t pick up souvenir here, but we were oh so tempted.  Gardino Gallery & Gift Shop (2939 NE Alberta) was our favourite gallery with its eclectic selection of contemporary artwork at surprisingly modest prices.  If you can, plan to take in Alberta Street’s  “Last Thursday” art celebration. 

Bookwerks is tucked away on a side street so you could easily miss it. But it had many treasures for those interested in art, architecture and artifacts. 

Downtown’s Powell’s Books (1005 W Burnside St.) is THE place to hunt down that out-of-print book you have been desperately seeking.  I found a 50th anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Grab a map when you go in as this is the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world – 68,000 square feet! I could have spent all day there - the blues section alone was a good hour of browsing.

“Lodekka Double Decker Dress Shop,” a vintage (1965) Lodekka double-decker bus (nicknamed “Ginny”) that operated in Liverpool from 1965 to 1982 has its second life as a vintage shop jam-packed with retro clothes, jewelry and accessories.  Lodekka is located on a plaza next to Lompoc’s Sidebar and Hopworks Bike Bar on Portland’s newest hip street – N Williams Ave. 

This is lovely Lodekka with her front lawn / patio.  How cool, quirky and fun is this. 

The historic Heathman Hotel (1001 SW Broadway) is worth a “look see.” Though most famous as the place where many of the antics in “50 Shades of Grey” book took place, for us it was where we discovered Cacao, Portland’s premier “bean to bar” chocolate store in a tiny space just off the lobby.  Cacao sources the best craft chocolate makers in the world (a chocolate maker makes its own chocolate from the coco bean, while chocolatiers use someone else’s chocolate). Sampling at Cacao is encouraged.  On a cool fall day, a hot chocolate from Cacao will warm you up in just one sip! Undoubtedly, chocolate makes a good souvenir, but it unfortunately just doesn’t last too long once you get it home. It will be a tough choice as to what flavor to take home, with 40 to 50 different favours at any given time including Miso, Foie Gras and Olive Oil.

William Temple House of Thrift (2230 NW Glison St.), just a few blocks off the tony NW 23rd Avenue shopping street (where shops like Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn can be found), was where we scored our “Portland” artwork. They had a lot of interesting art, but we settled on a nice M.T. Sharm mixed-media collage for a mere $25. 

One of the display cases of chocolates at Cacao! 

This is the artwork of the unknown artist that we found at the William Temple House of Thrift.  Don't you love that name?

“Just One More Block”

“Just one more block” quickly became the mantra of our Portland trip as it seemed just when we thought there was nothing more to see ahead, one of us would say; “just one more block.” And, lo and behold, there was something of interest everytime!

In one case, we found an old community center closing down. With lots of junk to root through - records, musical equipment, books, dishes and despite no lights (building’s power was off), Brenda was able to sniff out several pieces of a mannequin including an arm she bought to display her bracelet collection. When unpacking her suitcase back in Calgary, she noticed a “your bag has been inspected” sticker. We can only imagine what US security thought when her suitcase went through the X-ray machine.

Want a TOTH Guide?

If you’re short on time, or if you aren’t comfortable exploring on your own, Rose Bonomo offers custom tours that take you to her favourite “off-the-radar” shops. All you do is answer a simple questionnaire. From there, she customizes your tour providing transportation and treasure hunting opportunities along the way. One of her favourite places for mid-century furniture and accessories is Vintage Design Collective located in a historic Masonic Lodge (7126 SE Milwuakie Ave). Or perhaps you’d prefer Maven Collective (7819 SE Stark St.), which is more like an art gallery with its carefully curated vignettes.  And then there is Red Fox Vintage (3014 NE Killingsworth St.) where 20 vintage vendors offer everything from oddities to shabby chic treasures. She has tons of TOTH hot spots to show you. For more information: www.portlanddetours

We have only scratched the surface of TOTH places to check out in Portland.  While our passion is art and artifacts, yours might be local fashion designers or perhaps the over 60 craft breweries or small batch local distilleries. Foodies willlove checking out the 700= food carts.  Indeed, Portland has something for everyone’s taste. 

While not all of the streets of Portland are lined with food carts there are lots of them around.  Technically they are not food trucks as they don't move from location to location, they are set up permanently in parking lots throughout the city centre. 

Where To Stay?

If you want to explore the downtown, Pearl District, Old Town and the Northwest district, Hotel Modera, a hip chic boutique hotel is ideally situated. It is within easy walking distance to these districts, as well as to the Art Museum and other attractions.  

If you want to explore Alberta Avenue, Hawthorne Boulevard, Mississippi/Williams Avenues and other east side spots, the Red Lion Convention Centre Hotel is a great choice. It is right on the LRT and streetcar lines and has commanding view of the Downtown from its rooftop restaurant.

The view of the Portland Convention Center from the Red Lion's Convention Centre Hotel. 

The Hotel Modera's lobby is very inviting with its modern art and furniture.  I could live here.  

The Hotel Modera's lobby is very inviting with its modern art and furniture.  I could live here.