Other People’s Stuff
Vintage treasures in downtown Portland
By Keith Costello
“You know, at one time there must have been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw.”
— Larry “The Liquidator” Garfield, Other People’s Money
Like Danny DeVito’s character in that 1991 film, I want other people’s money. Who doesn’t? But what I really covet is other people’s stuff, especially those things, like the buggy whip, consigned by the march of progress and the whims of popular taste to the dustbins of history and the vintage shops of today.
Growing up in the ’70s and early ’80s, my house was littered with the wonderful consumables that blossomed during the Golden Age of Capitalism, when middle class Americans had more money to buy more things than any generation before or since. We had a black-and-white floor-model RCA with knob tuning that was on 24 hours a day (broadcasting, in the small hours, just the Indian-head test pattern and a shrill sine-wave tone). Cable stations became available during this period, but my parents would just as soon burn money as pay for TV, even HBO, so we upgraded to a color set and watched movies on Betamax. Food was cooked in an Amana Radar-range and eaten on pop-up stands in front of the tube. Drinks were served in jelly jars. From orange squeezers to potato peelers, mom had a gadget for every imaginable culinary task: “They sliced, they diced, they made thousands of julienne fries!”
I plunked my weekly allowance into a giant astronaut bank that commemorated the moon landing. After supper, chores and homework, I’d bust out the Lincoln Logs or an Erector Set. My folks weren’t poor, just doggedly frugal. They considered anything made of plastic to be junk. I can still hear my father griping about my first gotta have toy: “I’m not spending $189 for some goddamn Guitari game so it can steal your mind!” (This being the Atari 2600.) He grew up during the Great Depression playing with a stick, a rock and a tin can (and he was grateful!), so I didn’t expect him to understand.
But my parents were ultimately no match for the wave of plastic merchandise washing over the country in those days. Star Wars figures and Kiss dolls mingled in my toy box. I used to drown Micronauts in trashcans full of Green Slime, run over the girl-next-door’s Barbie with my General Lee, and drive my Big Wheel into traffic. K-tel eight-tracks were everywhere.
Now they are almost nowhere. So many of the cultural staples of my youth have headed over the horizon, followed by such institutions as the bookstore, the toy store, the video store, the Sears catalog, the arcade, the mom-and-pop (fill in the blank) — even, most recently and shockingly, the Twinkie.
The good news for nostalgic people like me is that vintage is now vogue (again). At least a half dozen new shops peddling old stuff have opened in downtown Portland over the past couple years, joining mainstays like Material Objects, Goodwill and Enterprise Records.
To clarify, I’m not talking about antique shops that carry Baroque writing desks, Royal Doulton vases and Hitchcock chairs with five generations of New Englander ass-prints on them. I’m talking classic vinyl and bitchin’ ashtrays, groovy hats and funky lampshades. I’m talking metal lunchboxes, Radio Flyers and rotary phones, Millennium Falcons, manual typewriters, pinball and pachinko machines.
I recently set out to check out some of the new retro shops in town and find my next gotta have thing. I started my junk-hajj at Pinecone+Chickadee on Free Street. P+C has a great space with high ceilings and plenty of light to show off the couple’s signature line of silkscreen shirts and choice selection of treasures from yesteryear. My heart fluttered when I saw the Sony reel-to-reel player in the window and eight-tracks for a buck apiece. A wall covered with black-velvet prints got me humming Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” The Polaroid cameras flashed me back to a spring break in Jersey circa 1985. There were several other customers milling about, including a guy ogling a nautical-themed string picture. I decided to sail on.
Next on the list was Little Ghost Vintage, on the first floor of the Time and Temp Building at 477 Congress St. The woman “working” the counter could barely lift her eyes from a laptop to acknowledge me with a mumbled “hey.” I felt like I was intruding. Then I ran into an old friend and immediately felt at home. It was Rodney Dangerfield’s 1983 album Rappin’ Rodney, the one with him on the cover in a wife-beater and shades, lit cig in mouth, toting a boombox on his shoulder and flashing a Black Power fist. Talk about campy — pass me the marshmallows! The albums at Little Ghost are for décor, not for sale — both covers and records are stapled to the wall, rendered worthless. The shop is short on collectibles but long on apparel, mostly for women or cross-dressers with a bag-lady fetish. I still hadn’t found that elusive item I couldn’t live without, so I pressed onward.
I popped into Moody Lords, which recently relocated to street level at 578 Congress, for some playable vinyl and maybe a bustier (I gained 18 pounds since my last Rocky Horror). I was confronted by a bleak selection of wardrobe apparently cast-off by the Golden Girls and a paltry collection of local jewelry, but records are really their forte. You could spend a good chunk of an afternoon peeling through the bins here. My copy of The Clash’s London Calling is getting worn out, so I’ll be heading back soon.
I continued west to Coast City Comics/Monster Emporium (634 Congress St.). They’ve been around for a few years now, but I still can’t walk by this place without getting sucked inside. Like Pinecone+Chickadee, Coast City has its own line of silkscreen t-shirts, but these are more punk rock than pastel. They also carry a bevy of awesome toys from back in the day, including lots of action figures. On this visit I rediscovered a foot-tall G.I. Joe and saw Evil-Lyn, the saucy, evil witch from Masters of the Universe, still safely imprisoned in the original packaging. I usually head to the mini-arcade of classic pinball machines in back to shed some stress and a few quarters, but this time I got sidetracked by a box of old Star Wars toys. Proprietor Tristan Gallagher was visibly jazzed as he told me about a big die-cast metal Voltron who’d just arrived, which got me daydreaming about a Voltron vs. Megatron death match, with He-Man refereeing.
(On a side note, times were simpler and more peaceful when I was a kid. The recent spate of psychotic rampages have drawn attention to the phenomenal success of first-person shooter games. I have no memory of anyone getting their brains beat in by a guy dressed like a plumber wielding a huge mallet. Just say’n…)
Even further west you have The Merchant Company, at 656 Congress. Their twist on nostalgia is a bit different, a mix of “handmade arts,” crafts and vintage goods from over 100 vendors. I hesitate to use the term “folk art,” as it connotes a somewhat “hillbilly” sensibility, but the merchandise here is well made, eye-catching and fun. They sell a lot of stuff that’s the junker equivalent to a mash-up recording — different mediums put together to create a groovy new thing, like blank notebooks with old album sleeves as covers and vinyl molded into ashtrays. One of the coolest things I spied there was an animal bed made from an old suitcase, but even that didn’t scratch my itch just right.
Crossing the street and doubling back, I walked into Decades, at 613 Congress, one of the newest additions to the trade in old stuff. The shop features high-end handmade gemstone jewelry by one of the owners, Melissa Evans, and one of the finest assortments of tchotchke I’ve seen outside my own house in quite some time. Frank Frederico was talking up a sweet grey Formica four-top with matching vinyl chairs that could have belonged to any of my aunts growing up.
Then, at last, came the ah-ha moment that makes junk junkets so fun. Hanging at eye level was a gnarly old window-box wall shrine of a post-crucifixion scene, with Mary holding up a lifeless Jesus. It had a secret compartment where I found a bottle of holy water and a spoon (for what, I wondered — to cook the holy heroin?). That was it. It was odd, even demented, and I had to have it.
I asked Frank what they were asking for it. “That’s really cool, huh? I don’t think it’s for sale … I might keep that for the shop.” I was deeply bummed, but not being one to take no for an answer, I tried to find out what he’d be willing to trade it for. I started with two of my treasures: an old tabletop Federal radio from the ’40s and an electric Miller High Life bar sign from the ’70s. Frank was interested, but not ready to seal the deal. I left Decades resolved to return and get my mitts on that wonderful item, soaked in yesterday’s dust and imbued with unmatched nostalgia for a recovering Catholic boy like myself.
In the meantime, I discovered Found, an even newer vintage shop at 142 High St., around the corner from the State Theatre. The proprietor, Flick, has 40 years of collecting under his belt. He describes Found’s style as “historical stuff” from the 1840s through the 1950s. He’s got a copious collection of higher-end items that includes some really nice mid-20th century clock radios, delicate Deco mirrors, dress mannequins and vintage doorknobs. He’s also got two storage units filled with collectables that haven’t seen daylight since 1983. I’ll bet he could rustle me up a buggy whip or two in a pinch.
After a month, I was able to score the wall shrine at Decades. It took some hickering, some dickering, and maybe a little finagling, but I finally became the proud owner of the piece — which I then decided to pass on to a friend of mine’s devout Catholic mother (it’s soo her!). I’m not sad to be rid of it. Now I have a good excuse to keep searching for the next gotta have thing.