PORTLAND — A Vancouver couple will end a 46-year retailing adventure today at The Real Mother Goose in downtown Portland.
Stan and Judy Gillis started selling handmade creations in downtown Vancouver in 1971, influenced by the hippie-era handicraft movement.
They opened their flagship gallery in Portland in 1978, where the work of as many as 1,000 artists filled the shelves.
Today, they’re trying to empty the place. After opening at noon to serve their Christmas Eve customers, the Gillises will close the store at 5 p.m.
“To us, the store looks bare. We’re surprised people are still coming in,” Stan said Friday afternoon, although they supplemented the inventory a bit.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
When Stan and Judy Gillis went into business 46 years ago, “All the bands had crazy names. We wanted something distinctive” for their store, he said. “A book, ‘The Real Mother Goose,’ was sitting on the coffee table, and we had no better ideas.”
Even though Stan is 70 and Judy is 72, this move wasn’t part of any retirement plan. Their store at 901 S.W. Yamhill St. is on the ground floor of a parking structure that is scheduled for a yearlong remodeling project.
“We won’t have a building,” he said. “We got to ride the wave for 46 years — 40 at this location.”
They will continue to operate a much smaller store at Portland International Airport, but it won’t have the window-shopping magnetism of their downtown Portland spot.
The couple has been involved in The Real Mother Goose (the name comes from a classic collection of nursery rhymes) for most of their adult lives, since they were in their mid-20s. Back then, Judy was a teacher at Vancouver’s Marshall Elementary School and Stan was wrapping up a business degree at Portland State University.
“I worked part-time at a jewelry store,” he said.
His connection with the owner? “I had mowed his yard.”
As far as his business education went, “I learned more (at the store) than I did at college.”
The opportunity led to the first business of their own, on Evergreen Boulevard in Vancouver. In addition to the downtown Portland location and the airport outlet, they had a fourth store at Washington Square Mall for 32 years.
“The focus was on high-quality, handmade work by American artists: potters, art glass, jewelry, woodwork, furniture,” Stan said.
Their downtown store continued to expand as other ground-floor tenants moved out.
“When the neighbor didn’t want to renew the lease, we cut a hole in the wall and expanded. We did the same thing again, and finally moved into the end space. We still get four power bills.”
As the business grew, so did their family. Daughters Jessica and Nikki grew up in the store, Stan said. “There was a crib in the back, and employees helped keep them out of mischief.”
Eventually, the Gillis girls returned the favor.
“Employees would bring their babies to work with them,” Nikki said while helping out during the holiday rush. “I’d sit in beautiful handmade rocking chairs with their babies.”
Running the business was not in the plans for either daughter, Judy added.
“Either one could have run the stores beautifully, but it was not their thing,” she said.
The Gillises developed a network of local artists that included several from Clark County. The husband-and-wife team of Dave and Boni Deal has a pottery studio outside Camas.
“Stan and Judy and The Real Mother Goose have been an important part of our lives since we met at the old Vancouver Art Fair in 1972,” Boni said.
“They liked our work.” Although her first impression of the two “young, hippie-looking shop owners” wasn’t all that encouraging.
“It’s been wonderful working with them 45-plus years,” Boni said. “We hope they will now be able to slow down their pace a bit and enjoy the grandkids even more.”
“They will be missed,” said Kim Murton, a Vancouver ceramic artist and illustrator. “They’ve been very supportive of local pottery people. The most supportive of anyplace.”
The Real Mother Goose actually gave Murton’s career a bit of a jolt, she said.
“When I first moved here 25 years ago, it was the first place I wanted to get my work shown. I got rejected,” Murton said. “It’s understandable. I was a student. The thing about that rejection, it was a good kick in the pants.”
After today’s finale, the Gillises will transfer most of the remaining stock to their airport store, and a few pieces will go back to the artists.
They won’t be taking any of it home, Stan said.
“It is so full of stuff. And at our age, we don’t need more stuff.”