Closure of furniture store Sparks memories

Landmark store prepares to close after 132 years in downtown Vancouver

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

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• From about 1910 until 1950, the telephone number for Sparks was 141. It became 4-2563 in 1950.

• Below Fifth Street (1882).

o Main Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets (1890s).

o 607 Main St. (1900s to 1951).

o 1001 Broadway (1951-2014).

Business names included M.R. Sparks; Sparks Hardware; Sparks Company; and Sparks Home Furnishings.

• Building purchaser Ryan Hurley plans to transform Sparks Home Furnishings into a multi-tenant space that includes a coffee shop for Torque Coffee Roasters and a new headquarters for Olson Engineering, which now operates out of two offices.

• From about 1910 until 1950, the telephone number for Sparks was 141. It became 4-2563 in 1950.

• Below Fifth Street (1882).

o Main Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets (1890s).

o 607 Main St. (1900s to 1951).

o 1001 Broadway (1951-2014).

Business names included M.R. Sparks; Sparks Hardware; Sparks Company; and Sparks Home Furnishings.

• Building purchaser Ryan Hurley plans to transform Sparks Home Furnishings into a multi-tenant space that includes a coffee shop for Torque Coffee Roasters and a new headquarters for Olson Engineering, which now operates out of two offices.

More than 120 years ago, before their names were on local streets and parks, they shopped at Sparks.

Folks named Leverich and Hidden and Caples walked into Marshall Sparks’ store to buy calico cloth or coffee or a manure fork.

The transactions are neatly penned in 1890s ledgers that are part of a history display at Sparks Home Furnishings.

Now the Sparks name is about to become history. The family-owned operation in downtown Vancouver is preparing to close after 132 years.

It’s a concept that some people have trouble processing, company president Tom Craig said.

Craig, who owns Sparks along with other family members, said he was telling someone how the business had been around since 1882. The woman nodded and — missing the whole notion by a century — commented that staying in business since 1982 is a pretty good run these days.

“No,” Craig had to correct her. “Eighteen-eighty-two.”

That was when Marshall Rowe Sparks — Craig’s great-grandfather — came here from Iowa.

It’s hard to say just where 132 years of family ownership ranks in terms of business longevity in the Northwest.

“I’ve heard, anecdotally, that we’re one of the longest continuously run family businesses on the West Coast,” Craig said.

Sherri Noxel, who directs a family business center at Oregon State University, does say that “132 years is rare.”

Microfilm of a 1902 Columbian shows advertising for only three businesses that are still around today: The Oregonian and The Columbian newspapers, and M.R. Sparks, who was advertising a line of stoves and ranges.

There have been some adjustments over four generations. There’s not a lot of demand downtown for a manure fork these days, after all.

The final transition is slated for June. New owner Ryan Hurley will convert the furniture store at 1001 Broadway into a multi-use development.

Family factors as well as marketing forces led to the decision. Craig, who took over in 1984, is 60; his children have chosen other careers.

A big family-owned store in downtown Vancouver no longer is a profitable business model, even though the operation has been pretty nimble since Marshall Sparks arrived.

Even sold Dodges

“He started as a tinsmith. We sold things like washtubs and horse watering troughs,” Craig said.

It evolved into a store that sold, as Craig put it, “‘Little House on the Prairie’ goods.”

Some of the family members even sold cars.

“Marshall’s sons had the first Dodge dealership in Vancouver in 1930,” Craig said.

Marshall’s daughter, Norma Sparks, married Harry Craig and they brought the business into the second generation with new wrinkles such as a gift shop. (Their son, Jim Craig, bought the business in 1958.)

During World War II, Sparks benefited from Vancouver’s population explosion; that was linked to an industrial boom, when 245 acres of riverfront property became the Kaiser Shipyard.

“The hardware business boomed during the war years,” Craig said. “My dad said they couldn’t keep inventory in the store. We sold everything we could get our hands on.”

Then came another demographic upheaval: World War II veterans got married, bought homes and started raising baby-boom families. Sparks sold boxcar-loads of appliances.

That response to changing markets typifies a successful family business, said Noxel, director of OSU’s Austin Family Business Program.

“For family businesses that make it to three generations, 90 percent have operated at least two different enterprises,” Noxel said. “The average is 5.9 businesses. It is very fluid and very dynamic.”

Artifacts in the Sparks history display echo several eras, including the ledger with general-store transactions. Another ledger lists plumbing jobs. Vintage photographs and clippings of old newspaper ads show company milestones like the 1951 ribbon-cutting at 1001 Broadway.

“They gave puppies away when they opened this building,” Craig observed.

An 1890s cash register was recently added to the display. It was discovered behind a panel in a stairway wall during an inspection of the building. The cash drawer contained some old papers, but no money.

A changing business climate gradually left Sparks behind, Craig said. It included retailers such as Fred Meyer, which followed population growth to the suburbs, as well as the 1978 opening of what then was Vancouver Mall. State sales tax, and Oregon’s lack thereof, has been an issue, he said.

These days, their home furnishings business has an even finer focus: high-end patio furniture.

Hiddens still shop

And the Hiddens — one of the families in the old ledgers — are still customers.

“I just bought a new patio umbrella from Sparks,” Monte Hidden said.

Hidden has a different perspective on Vancouver business dynasties, by the way. Hidden would contend that his family has been in business here even longer: It just hasn’t been in stop-and-shop retailing.

“Lowell M. Hidden came here in 1859,” he said, and the Hiddens have been in the land business ever since.

The family name is linked with a brick company that operated from 1871 to 1990. It helped build much of downtown Vancouver, including The Academy building across the street from Sparks.

But that was a sideline, Hidden said.

“The brick was seasonal work,” Hidden said. As far as the focus of the business goes, “It’s always been property.”

The 245-acre site for that WWII Kaiser Shipyard land? It came from the Hiddens.

There is more to a multigeneration Vancouver family than business history, of course. Tom Craig cherishes family memories that go beyond the store.

When his mother and father were kids, they went to Shumway Junior High, now the campus of Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. They were in the Shumway band together.

Two generations later, Tom Craig was in the band room with his son Jimmy, who was a middle-school trumpet player.

“I told him, this is where your grandparents met.”