The closure of The Real Mother Goose spotlights changing environment for artists and galleries.
It’s a Monday before Thanksgiving at The Real Mother Goose gallery in downtown Portland, and there is an air of festivity as customers line up at the register, clutching glass-blown ornaments and thick wooden children’s toys.
Other shoppers gather at the jewelry case, joking with owner Judy Gillis as they try on rings. Still others mill through the 900 art glass works and one of the West coast’s largest collection of fine wood furniture.
On closer scrutiny, however, the festivities are less about the holiday season and more about nostalgia. After 46 years, The Real Mother Goose will close its 8,000-square-foot gallery and retail store on December 24. Tenants will vacate the building by mid-January to make room for a year-long renovation project by the Portland Bureau of Transportation and city development agency Prosper Portland.
It’s a quintessential Portland story. An iconic small business — an arts business no less – is sacrificed in the name of urban progress. But inexorable development is not solely to blame, and, the owners, who will not relocate the store, have posted a sign from The Real Mother Goose reading: “We’re grateful, downtown Portland.” (A petition against gentrification sits next to the sign.)
“Others tried to get us onto the negativity bandwagon, but we wanted to adopt an attitude of gratitude,” says Stan Gillis, who along with wife, Judy and friend Steve Stout, opened their first store in 1971 in Vancouver. They also opened a location in Washington Square Mall, which closed in 2005, and the Portland Airport, which they still own. (The Gillises bought out Stout’s partnership early on.)
“We don’t have anything to be angry about, because the City of Portland has been good to us over the years,” Stan continues. “They’ve helped us keep the building during the recession when we were really struggling.”
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The Gillises know thing or two about struggling. “Our sales dropped by about a third during the recession, and we never regained those lost sales, which was a common story in our industry,” says Stan, who calculates sales at over $5 million per year before the economy tanked.
Judy ticks off several reasons why they decided not to relocate.
Internet sales are cannibalizing brick and mortar. Customer demographics and interior design trends are changing.
“Our customers are primarily baby boomers, most of whom are downsizing” she says. “Normally there would be a transition to a new customer base, but the reality is, the younger generations are not as into nesting as our generation was. A lot of them are minimalists. So it’s definitely wiped out our customer base, and it’s not going to come back.”
Another issue is craftspeople themselves are getting out of the business — and a new generation is not replacing them.
“There’s a resurgence of crafts these days, but it’s the type of work that you don’t need a lot of equipment for, like knitting, macrame, crystalling — that kind of thing,” says Judy. “It’s simply more difficult for young artists to get into this industry than it was in the ‘70s.”
Back then, budding artists could take a glass-blowing class, and grow organically over the years. “But most young kids can’t afford to set up a studio,” says Judy. “I know three or four glassblowers who can’t sell their studios, for example, because no one can afford to buy or operate them.”
The Internet is changing the game for gallery spaces, says Kelli MacConnell, a spokesperson for Art in the Pearl, Portland’s annual arts and crafts festival. Customers demand more personal connection with artists, which a traditional brick-and-mortar can’t always offer.
“Artists are making themselves more accessible these days, whether with an online presence where people can buy directly from them, or through events where customers can meet the artists in person,” MacConnell says. "I do wonder what effect it’s having on galleries as a whole.”
Artists say the store closing will have a financial impact.
“It will be a hit,” says jewelry maker Ashley May Heitzman, who estimates several thousand annually in lost revenue.
Oregon coast glassblower Don Carlson calculates a loss of up to $10,000 annually. “The way I look at it, though, is that we’ve had a good run while it lasted,” says Carlson, 73, who still blows glass daily. “All industries have a beginning and end, it’s just the way it is.”
Washington-based woodworker Rick Swanson, who counts on The Real Mother Goose for one-third of his business, agrees. “I feel fortunate to have lived through the heyday of the era, and if it weren’t for Stan and Judy, I may not have ever survived in the first place. I have no complaints.”
The loss goes deeper than the pocketbook. Artists consider Stan and Judy to be stewards of the community ever since they started collecting artwork from street fairs along Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue.
“I can’t stress enough that Stan and Judy are the type of people who made the business what it is,” says Swanson, who met them at a Seattle street-fair in the 70s and who still counts them as close friends.
“They are much more than salespeople, they really care about their artists.”
Fellow galleries are also going to feel the absence. “Downtown is going to miss them,” says Anne Bocci, owner of Anne Bocci Boutique & Gallery. “They’ve truly been pioneers in this field, and while it’s a tough time for retailers, particularly with some issues going on in downtown Portland, it makes us more determined to continue to carry the torch on their behalf.”
The new Real Mother Goose headquarters will now be housed at the Portland Airport location, where back-end employees and many longtime sales staff will relocate. Although the Gillises are taking the store closing as an opportunity to “semi-retire, we’ll still be managing the PDX location but won’t have as much in-person presence,” says Stan.
"We won’t carry bigger items like furniture, but we certainly have the resources to connect you with artists," sayd PDX store manager Jayette Pettit. “We’re still as dedicated as ever to connecting people with beautiful things.”