Inc. is celebrating Small Business Week 2020 with a look at local merchants beloved by customers whose devotion goes beyond loyalty and well into passion.
You cannot find a chastity belt at Hippo Hardware & Trading Company. Someone once offered to sell a box of them to owner Steven Miller. But in a very rare instance, he declined. The belts, it seems, did not come with keys. "I was not going to have someone come over at 3 o'clock in the morning and kill me," says Miller.
That rejection was uncharacteristic for a man who says yes more often than an improv artist. When someone brought him a truckload of coffins found in a warehouse, for example, Miller was all over it. They sold out. Most customers used them as coffee tables, although one guy--a musician--told Miller he slept in his. Miller assumes the coffins had originally been display models. "They didn't look like they had ever been occupied," he says. "But who knows?"
If you want to replace your doorbell with a Victorian model that works with a crank, or stop your sink with a 100-year-old industrial drain basket, or light your room with iron sconces pulled from a Pullman sleeping car, Hippo Hardware in Portland, Oregon, is the home decor partner for you. The business comprises 30,000 square feet of lighting, plumbing, hardware, and architectural elements dating from 1860 to 1960. Much of the inventory was salvaged from the city's homes and its most respectable--and disreputable--public buildings. Hippo has sold pieces of Portland's Central Library, City Hall, and the Paramount and Orpheum Theaters, as well as furnishings from innumerable transient hotels. "I have a sign in the store that says, "Room for Rent. 25 Cents a Night," says Miller. "We did a lot of those."
If Hippo doesn't have what you need, it probably can make it for you. The company works with artists, metal finishers, potters, and blacksmiths to replicate a handle missing from an antique chest of drawers, for example, or to fix an old horse harness. It has transformed a blender into a lamp and doorknobs into coat hooks. Or it can design something completely new, like the spider web lighting the store created for McMenamins, a chain of historically minded brewpubs and hotels based in Portland.
Jody Stahancyk, an attorney, says she first visited Hippo Hardware in the 1970s, when she was restoring a 1917 home. She has bought everything from light fixtures to plumbing supplies to doorknobs--even a vintage toilet paper dispenser--in styles ranging from Victorian to mid-century modern. "Hippo has some of everything. It is like going into your grandfather's tool chest and seeing all the things he has saved over the years," says Stahancyk, who has installed her finds in several homes and five law offices around the state. "Shopping there is a treasure hunt."
A local business like Hippo succeeds on two fronts. First is selection. If Amazon is "the Everything Store" then Hippo is "the everything else store." Miller says a local big-box store occasionally sends employees around to check out his stock so they can refer customers seeking the nostalgic, the historically accurate, or the idiosyncratic.
Second is personality that has been earned, not manufactured. Miller's cheeky sense of humor--and that of his former business partner Stephen Oppenheim--has manifested in pranks, like manhandling a red-white-and-blue Corvair Monza into the window with a sign reading "Buy American" as a good-natured taunt at the Rolls Royce dealer across the street. Virtually all of the 3,000-plus hippos scattered around the building--made of stone, leather, clay, papier-mâché, and even neck ties--were gifts from loyal fans and customers. The hippos on the columns outside the store were painted by Andy Olive, a local artist who once lived under an on-ramp to the interstate.
That last detail comes courtesy of author Chuck Palahniuk, who patronized the store in the 1990s and wrote about it lovingly in his book Portland, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon (Crown, 2003). With its strange inventory and stranger history, Hippo Hardware embodies the story that Portland likes to tell about itself.
One man's junk
Miller couldn't find a job in 1969 when he returned from Vietnam. People called Vietnam veterans, "baby killers and butchers," he says. "No one wanted us around." For a while Miller sold scrap metal he collected on the street. Finally, the owner of a local junk business took him on. Soon Miller was running the place.
One day the owner went on vacation, leaving Miller and another employee--Oppenheim, a recent Portland State grad--in charge. "We made a bet with each other that we could sell the store down to the bones," says Miller. Over the next three weeks, they deployed charm and hustle to practically empty the place. When the owner came back, "he had no inventory and a bank account full of money," says Miller.
Confident in their salesmanship, the pair decided in 1976 to launch their own junk shop, which they would call the Myopic to reflect their "out of focus" approach to business. They found an empty store. But when Miller called the landlord, he rejected them, because junk shops bring down property values. "I waited a week and called him back," says Miller, who pretended he was calling for the first time. "He said, 'What are you going to put in there?' I said, 'A hardware store.'" The space was theirs.
Figuring the landlord would remember the name Myopic, Miller and Oppenheim called the business Hippo Hardware for the alliteration. Also, someone had given Miller a large metal sculpture of a hippo, which they moved into the store.
Hippo Hardware's earliest products fell somewhere between junk and hardware. At first the founders bought old shovels, rakes, and axes at garage sales. At night they replaced the handles--the worn-looking parts--with new ones. They invested $1,000 of their $5,000 of saved startup capital in nuts, bolts, and screws. "I swear to god, if you go back into the corners of Hippo today, you will still find some of those nuts, bolts, and screws we were never able to sell," says Miller.
Three nights a week they attended auctions in Dundee, Oregon, an hour away, to bid on old furniture and boxes full of dishes, pots, and pans. "We would stack it all up in our pickup like the Beverly Hillbillies," says Miller. "The cops stopped us regularly. They would shake the truck to make sure nothing was going to fall off."
Antique stores were also good hunting grounds. Not the fronts--the back rooms. Customers looking for a caster or drawer pull to match some piece of old furniture had started coming around. Miller and Oppenheim would visit antique stores and buy all their miscellaneous hardware and supplies.
For a while, they sold women's clothing. "It was a great way to meet women," says Miller.
Send in the clowns
Hippo operated on the edge of Buckman, a neighborhood with many early-20th-century homes. People fixing up those homes were the store's chief customers. People tearing them down became its chief suppliers. Miller and Oppenheim started doing salvage work, stripping homes slated for demolition of their windows, doors, stairways, moldings, trim, and light and plumbing fixtures. "We would haul off anything we could get our hands on, like a troop of ants," says Miller.
The partners recruited the homeless and veterans to do the work. They dressed them in clown suits. "We wanted people to notice us," says Miller. "You remember it if you look out a window and see your neighbor's house being torn apart by 10 people in clown suits."
From those salvaged parts, Hippo built its inventory of distinctive architectural offerings. One summer alone, the company dismantled 72 houses. As the city's affluent section expanded, transient hotels came down. Hippo bought their entire contents and stripped them room by room. One such hotel produced 50 bathroom commodes, which didn't fit in the store. "We stacked them up on the sidewalk alongside of the building," says Miller. "They sat there all summer."
In 1990, city officials told Miller and Oppenheim that their building was not zoned for a business like Hippo. The partners found another location four blocks away and hired street people to transport Hippo's contents in shopping carts. "It was the only Gallo [wine]-powered parade in Portland's history," says Miller. It took a year and a half to transport everything to the new store.
In fact, Hippo has supported the homeless throughout its history. Like many Vietnam veterans, Miller felt discarded by society. His empathy for Portland's rejected and ignored rises from that affinity. So does his gravitation toward the junk business. "When you sell something used or dilapidated, it gives it credibility," he says.
Hippo Hardware provides food for the homeless, who are also welcome to use its bathrooms. Ten to 15 people sleep each night on a covered area of sidewalk outside the store. Miller has installed a camera. "They know if anyone tries to bother or hurt them, I will prosecute," he says.
The street people, in turn, support Hippo. When the business did more salvage, "they would come and tell us when a building was coming down and when the crew would get there," says Miller. He remembers a call he received from the police five or six years ago: Some street people had reported that the store's door was unlocked. "I found three guys sitting there, not letting anybody pass through," he says.
Props for that
Although Hippo retained its anarchic sense of humor, over the years it became more respectable. In the early 1990s, Miller had been elected mayor of River Grove, a small town 15 miles outside of Portland. "They told me I had to grow up," he says.
The store became a source for props: first for schools and for Portland's (now closed) Civic Theatre, later for TV shows and films shooting in the area. For seven years, the NBC series Grimm was a regular customer. "They would say, 'We are looking for a door that looks like it has been kicked in,'" says Miller. "We would replace the panels with cardboard so when they did the shoot, they could re-break the door."
Miller, who bought out Oppenheim seven years ago, has been playing it safe during Covid-19. The store is open just five hours a day, by appointment. Smoke from the wildfires has occasionally reduced that a bit more. Sales are down slightly, although not as much as Miller had expected. "In some cases, we are doing as much business dollar-wise in four hours as we were doing in seven or eight," he says. With web sales up around 25 percent, Hippo this year will have sales slightly under $1 million, compared with slightly above before the pandemic.
"I have never been interested in making millions of dollars," says Miller. "My goal is to meet my maker without being terrified."