It’s Sunday afternoon and the sound of the Hare Krishna brigade urging us to praise Lord Ram is oddly reminiscent of Oxford Street. But this is the northwestern US coast and the city of Portland, Oregon, has an altogether different pace from the retail frenzy that, despite the present downturn, characterises central London shopping.
Perhaps the reason for this is that, like that other northwestern metropolis Seattle, there are a lot of reasons to slow down – not least of which is the sheer abundance of coffee shops offering a multitude of different ways to enjoy a mild caffeine stimulant. Even the trains that run between the two cities adopt a leisurely attitude to timekeeping. There is a sense that you have time to spare, whether you like it or not.
All of which is hardly surprising when it is considered that Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks and the more relaxed tempo seems to have spilled out of the coffee shops and into the shops proper. The result is that, in both locations, there are some real retail one-offs.
Columbia Sportswear, Portland
A Portland institution and one that has exported well – its branded products are sold in more than 13,000 retailers worldwide.
The interior of this flagship (above) is an exercise in the use of massive stripped timbers to create a store that seems green, has a West Coast pioneering look and feels a bit like being in an outsize log cabin. The ambiance is entirely in keeping with Portland’s left-of-centre politics and if you’re heading off into the wilderness, this is one of the places where you are most likely to start.
Portland has Columbia and Seattle has REI, both of which have offers that target sporty types. Both cities have an above average number of stores that imitate this kind of format. The curious point is that, despite this, there are also an above average number of obviously overweight citizens.
This is the other landmark for Portland visitors. Powell’s is an enormous bookshop that sprawls over a large site in the city’s downtown district. At the weekend, Portlanders visit this store en masse, with many arriving by bicycle.
There are few fripperies about the shop, but that is a large part of its charm. Large wooden bookcases seem to stretch away endlessly, creating aisles that would make a Wal-Mart devotee feel at home. Shoppers arrive with carts filled with second-hand books that they sell back to the store before buying others. Dwell times are of a level that other retailers can only dream of, principally because this is a store that defines the word destination. And for the scientifically minded, two blocks away is Powell’s Technical Books, where shoppers sit at tables in the store window surfing the net wirelessly while checking out the stock.
Cal Skate, Portland
Nowadays, skateboarding in the UK is the preserve of lanky male adolescents who practise their art in fairly unpleasant locations such as beneath a major flyover or in the unused parts of the concrete jungle that is London’s National Theatre.
Not so in Portland, where skateboarders are everywhere, wearing the cool gear that we in Europe tend to find in retailers such as Quiksilver and Fat Face. And when it’s time to buy a new board or customise an old one, Cal Skate has everything the serious boarder could wish for. Its owner, a skinny, greying, pony-tailed dude, claims that, at 32, this is the world’s oldest skateboarding shop. This is open to dispute, but you’d be hard-pushed to find a bigger wall of boards, and unique touches such as the in-store benches, made from old boards and home-made graphics, complete a rough and ready picture. The name may be Cal Skate, but this is Portland, Oregon.
“For guys who want to be cool and chicks who want some severely awesome pockets,” said the kilt-clad member of staff in Utilikilts, just ahead of opening time. This store, which is eight years old, really is a Seattle one-off, offering kilts for men and women that have more in common with combat trousers than that article of clothing beloved of tourists visiting Scotland.
Seattle is the home of grunge music – this is where Kurt Cobain hailed from – and Utilikilts, which has a “We sell freedom” strapline, is part of that ethos. The store’s black interior is used as a setting for the white counter-culture-looking mannequins, all of which have been dressed in khaki or camouflage-style kilts. The retailer claims that its products sell to all ages, political persuasions and to both genders. The fact that it survives must stand as some kind of testimony to its curious appeal.
Recreational Equipment Inc (REI) is Seattle’s outsize riposte to Portland’s Columbia Sportswear store and, as with that shop, the Seattle branch is the chain’s flagship. The two-floor, open-plan structure that forms the bulk of the store invites visitors to look through the entire space, despite the considerable amount of bulky, view-inhibiting stock on display. The notion of the great outdoors is added to by wooden sculptures of eagles, bears and suchlike dotted around each floor. And for those wishing to test-drive merchandise, there is everything from a rocky road to see how footwear performs, to a 60ft high boulder with handholds for climbing enthusiasts. Outside, there is even a forest track where visitors can try out one of many mountain bikes on offer.
REI may be a shed next to an interstate, but it does what Decathlon in Europe does not – it offers an interior in keeping with the merchandise it sells.
Pike Place Market, Seattle
There is a very strong environmental lobby in this part of the US and Pike Place Market seems to embody much of what this is about.
This is a narrow strip of turn-of-the-century, two-storey, metal-framed buildings sandwiched between the central business district and the waters of Puget Sound. It has always been a fish market, but now it has been extended to include a host of organic products, ranging from peaches that look so large you wonder how they can have avoided being genetically modified, to flowers and Bavarian meats.
Like many markets of this kind, it has gone from being a destination for restaurateurs and tradesmen to a place frequented predominantly by tourists. With this has come strong visual merchandising and high prices. Nonetheless, on a sunny afternoon, there was hardly room to move.