Because you’re a Portland Mercury reader, I assume you care about the vibrancy and charm that make Portland the only place of its kind on Earth. Every small business, every artist, every meal, every event is part of a rich tapestry that’s always growing and changing. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise you that for our SHOP LOCAL issue, we decided to highlight the individuals and unique businesses that shape the contours of our districts, and cast light on the ways that supporting these businesses is a deeply political act on behalf of consumers.
We often hear the phrase, “Vote with your dollar.” To unpack this statement fully is a lofty task that reveals how many layers of impact a single consumer dollar has on the world around us. In the study of what’s called “resilient economics,” we know that at the core of our region’s economic strength—what makes a city and its population more stable—is an emphasis on local spending and local production. Holistically speaking, this is a matter of economics, sociology, nutrition, politics, and morality.
That’s why our SHOP LOCAL guide touches on a specific consumer sector in our city: independent boutiques. These are the little brick-and-mortars that elevate our business districts, home values, economy, and most of all, our personal taste.
How exactly do our boutiques do so much with their mighty efforts? Let me count the ways.
When you shop small, a larger percentage of the money you spend stays within the immediate economy. The Andersonville Study of Retail Economics shows that for every $100 you spend at locally owned businesses, $68 stays in the community. Conversely, when you spend that same $100 at a national chain, only $43 stays in the community. Here are some top tier shops that make a huge impact by keeping money circulating in our economy in myriad ways.
First Place: North of West
The North of West flagship store features three major lines: Make It Good, Nell & Mary, and Pigeon Toe Ceramics, ALL of which manufacture and create jobs here in Portland. Plus, their shop carries a beautifully curated array of independently made and locally crafted items. This company gets an A+ for doing everything the way it should be done—right down to American-milled textiles for their fabrics. 203 SW 9th
Second Place: Tender Loving Empire
This much-beloved company supports hundreds of independent designers and musicians as a boutique and record label. Their multiple locations have created dozens of jobs in our city, and most of all, they receive high marks for the culture they create within their company. 525 NW 23rd, 412 SW 10th, 3541 SE Hawthorne
Third Place: Betsy & Iya
Located in Northwest Portland, Betsy & Iya is the brick and mortar store for its architectural jewelry line that has been trendsetting for nearly a decade. After its expansion last year, this company added more manufacturing jobs to its team in addition to their knowledgeable and engaged sales staff. Items in this boutique are independently manufactured and exceptionally curated. 2403 NW Thurman
A store like IKEA can be great for essential furnishings, but if you’re looking for more unique pieces, seek out art and decor curated from an independent store that has taste level. It’s perfectly lovely to trust a well-seasoned shop owner with the styling of your living space and you’ll learn so much more about the products that interest you and where they’re from.
First Place: Frances May
The beloved Frances May has spent nearly a decade in the business of precise curation, timeless styles for men and women, and a stunning balance between hard-to-find brands and lesser-known independent designers. 1003 SW Washington
Second Place: Cargo
This is a remarkable treasure trove of home goods and lifestyle pieces that imbue the home and wearer with a textile-driven worldliness. One strolls into this store and imagines their entire home aesthetic blessed with the beautiful sensibilities that belong exclusively to this shop. Go there and see what I mean. It’s breathtaking. 81 SE Yamhill
Third Place: Palace
A long-standing favorite of mine in the taste level department, Palace brings a curated mix of vintage apparel into the conversation with cutting edge independent design. Owner Charlotte Wenzel is clearly always style forecasting and has a knack for the exceptionally effortless, special pieces. 2205 E Burnside
Less emissions. Less waste. It’s fundamental. Small shops operating on smaller scales can employ more careful sourcing and mark each and every footprint of their business with a fine-toothed comb. I’m taking a deep breath to express this run-on sentence, but: It shouldn’t surprise anyone that independently manufactured and ethically sourced goods are less likely to be produced in treacherous conditions using toxic materials which are then packed onto emission-heavy freights and carted en masse to consumers who rip off a superfluous amount of packaging to reveal a commodified piece of carelessly constructed junk. (Phew.) In a good-faith effort to raise awareness about the American consumer condition, our city has a stunning fleet of small shops that take pride in specialty items that are organic, domestically manufactured, cruelty-free, BPA-free, and biodegradable—while keeping our homes, bodies, and the Earth at the foreground of their businesses’ impact.
First Place: EcoVibe Apparel
EcoVibe is a boutique with a singular focus on “eco” and “sustainable” fashion. While they acknowledge those phrases have different meanings to different consumers, their effort is directed toward sourcing products based on how and where they’re made, who made them, and with what materials. Unpacking those details can be a lofty and often ignored exercise for many shops, but EcoVibe takes special care to tell the story of their products with clarity and conscience. 904 NW 23rd
Second Place:Worn Path
Here’s a shop that clearly makes its lifestyle connection to the outdoors part of its central narrative. Nearly everything here is meant to inspire a deeper connection with the natural world. Very often we see this company featuring campaigns that directly support charities and nonprofits, particularly those with a focus on leaving this planet a better place. Worn Path proudly uses its platform for great causes and, even within the humble little walls of a brick-and-mortar, shows us how mighty that can be. 4007 N Mississippi
Third Place: Backtalk
Backtalk is a trend-forward boutique with an emphasis on the reuse of apparel and beautifully curated independent design. The perfect marriage of these two concepts has a remarkable impact on the environment, and the high-design sensibility of the owner brings new life to vintage garments that are palpably on the fashion map. Go to this shop for rad design aesthetic, and quality, timeless pieces. 421 SW 10th
Watching Portland change has been a bitter journey for many of us as we’ve seen the demolition of beloved businesses in nearly every district. These are places where memories were made and people identified with their own version of Portland. There are some major political and moral issues our city must face as we continue on this path, but in the meantime, let’s be sure to vote with our dollar for those businesses with a long-standing, venerable role in their business districts.
First Place: Xtabay
This vintage store is a keystone element in Portland’s Clinton neighborhood; it’s also a destination for aficionados who are looking for the highest quality of vintage clothing that’s been cared for, restored, and studied. It’s no surprise Xtabay also boasts one of the best bridal boutiques (as a satellite above its retail store), because the experience you have in both/either is like an education in the history of fashion. You’ll find the crème de la crème in this shop, every time you go. 2515 SE Clinton
Second Place: Folly
Those of us with a hole in our hearts the shape of Slabtown give special credit to the mighty boutique that’s just a block away and provides vibrancy, customer service, and a beautifully made-in-house line. Folly has been with us for nearly a decade, and is one of Portland’s truest treasures, with a focus on quality and elegance. It’s also revered as one of the best dress shops in the entire city. 1005 NW 16th
Third Place: Red Light Clothing Exchange
Red Light is iconic, both for Hawthorne and the city at large. Many from outlying cities make a special trek to visit this bustling vintage shop in hopes of scooping up a diamond in the rough that still somehow feels like the Portland foundations of fashion, circa 1990s. 3590 SE Hawthorne
BREAKING THE MOLD
Independent boutiques are often defined by their emphasis on social awareness, which is often absent from mainstream retail marketing. In response, there is a league of shops in Portland that set a new standard for beauty: fierce individuality. These shops garner national attention in fashion because the hyper-normative campaigns of national chains are (hopefully) in their dying days.
First Place: Wildfang
This cherished Portland company focuses on “tomboy” clothing for women who wish to dress in apparel that’s commonly used to style men. For example, Wildfang offers items such as tailored three-piece suits in women’s sizes, and button-down shirts that are fitted through the sleeve to accommodate a woman’s shoulder width—all with masculine-inspired lines. The overall outcome of sheer sexiness is a proud vision of individuality. 1230 SE Grand
Second Place: Fat Fancy
Fat Fancy caters apparel for plus sizes with a focus on rad trends (new and used), quality clothing, and most awesome of all: rejecting the gender binary. There are “masculine” and “feminine” items, but everything is open to anyone and fit is embraced in all its beautiful shapes and sizes. This shop also produces a zine to promote and engage the conversation in body positivity. 3626 NE Sandy
Third Place: Machus
We often hear people say that masculine-focused stores are underrepresented in the boutique realm—that so much of fashion and retail is geared towards feminine offerings. Machus on Burnside steps up to this particular plate by providing a trend-forward, urban aesthetic with quality, top-notch taste level, and independent design. 542 E Burnside
In closing, I have to acknowledge that my opinions were written through a lens focusing on fashion-based boutiques, and there’s not nearly enough room to mention all small businesses in each neighborhood that champion the spirit of Portland in so many ways. Our city boasts restaurants, bars, markets, corner stores, record stores, salons, galleries, flower shops, and everything in between with each of these criteria, independently owned by bright-minded people who dare to live out their hopes and dreams for all of us to enjoy. I implore you to explore your neighborhood districts and check out a place you’ve never walked into before. Look for a tireless owner, a loving staff, and a quintessentially unique dream.
Then support it.