RUSTY AND FLO greet me in their dearly departed parents' garage, each lighting a cigarette and gesturing to the unicorns. Thousands and thousands of unicorns.
The Barrett family unicorn collection fills an entire wall of the garage of their house at SE 72nd and Holgate, plus a dozen cardboard boxes, and a patch of the backyard where a white life-sized unicorn reclines in the mud. But not for much longer. In a few days, all but a few will be gone—auctioned off for charity.
"When it was small, it was a novelty," says Rusty, a middle-aged man wearing a leather vest over a shirt that says, "Tell your mom thanks for breakfast." "Once it got to a certain point, it quit being a novelty. It became badass."
Salle Barrett, Rusty and Flo's mother, began collecting unicorns when the two were in diapers. Things started small: cheap plastic and ceramic unicorns placed on shelves. Unicorn necklaces. For every special occasion, her children and friends gave her unicorns, and Salle also sought them out at thrift stores and yard sales. Over four decades, the collection grew and grew, eventually overwhelming the house. Salle died in 1998, but Jim, her husband of 46 years, kept adding to the collection until his death this past July.
"He loved one woman his entire life," Rusty says of his father. "Her thing was unicorns, so his thing became unicorns."
Rusty picks up a pink glass unicorn dancing around a mirrored pedestal. "This has been around forever. Everywhere you look, through most of my mother's life, you see unicorns," he says. Rooting around in a shoebox—yes, stuffed with unicorns—he pulls out a metal unicorn belt buckle.
"Oh yeah! I'm taking this!" he says, slipping it into his pocket.
Somewhere along the way, one gewgaw at a time, the Barretts arguably became Portland's most fastidious unicorn curators. That's not to say they didn't have any other passions.
The Barretts were also devoted to the revitalization of their ailing Southeast neighborhood. The couple worked with neighborhood development group Southeast Uplift and became founding members of an affordable housing agency, Rose Community Development. Rusty and Flo have decided to auction off their parents' entire blessing of unicorns to raise money for Rose Community Development this October 16 at Lents Commons. The siblings are saving some of the more nostalgic items for themselves, but not too many.
One keepsake: Between the worktables covered in unicorn figurines and a unicorn tapestry draped over a dusty plastic shelf is a three-foot-tall glass unicorn lamp, the horn supporting a single light bulb.
Growing up, the collection never seemed weird to Rusty and Flo. And they say it was never a financial drain; their parents were thrifty to the core.
"We weren't rich people by any means," says Flo.
"And sometimes we treated each other like shit," says Rusty, laughing.
"I believe my mom liked unicorns because they were her way of escaping," says Flo. "It was a fantasy thing." Did she go in for any other fantasy figures? Books? Movies?
"No," says Flo, "Just the Young and the Restless."
Rose Community Development Executive Director Nick Sauvie thinks Jim and Salle would appreciate their life work being auctioned off to support the neighborhood.
"They were really warm people and really involved in the neighborhood. We need more people who are willing to stand up for having decent affordable places for people to live," says Sauvie.
And what did he think of their collecting habit? "It's what makes people unique," says Sauvie.
The unicorn auction will be at Lents Commons (9201 SE Foster) on Saturday, October 16, from 4-7 pm.