PORTLAND — A bit of old Portland vanished without fanfare earlier this month when Chris Theodore Tsefalas died two months shy of his 94th birthday.
Born and raised in Portland by first generation immigrants from Greece, Tsefalas traveled near and far, but always returned to the city he called home. Aside from his family and wife of 68 years, his true love was the Perfume House, an intimate store tucked away on a floor in an old house at 3328 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.
He opened the store in 1984 when Hawthorne wasn’t hip, but gritty. An adult bookstore up the street did a thriving business. A drug deal in a nearby parking lot was settled with a gunshot that took a man’s life. It was here, in a building that had no off-street parking, that Tsefalas convinced his wife they should roll the dice and open a store that sold nothing but perfume.
He was right. At the time of his June 2 death, the shop still attracted loyal customers from not only the metropolitan area but from across the United States. Tsefalas was old-school, a character in the best meaning of the word. His wife, Christina, said he always left his house in Eastmoreland for work with a sense of purpose, impeccably dressed in a jacket and tie.
A soft touch, he’d reach into his pocket while walking on Hawthorne and pull out a few dollars for someone claiming to be down on their luck. When friends warned it was a scam, Tsefalas said he’d rather lose the money than pass up the chance to help someone who might really need help.
“The first thing he did each morning was read the New York Times,” said his wife, Christina. “He was interested in politics, economics and art. He was interested in everything.”
She met Tsefalas when they were students at Franklin High School. After graduating, he joined the Navy’s Fleet Marine Force. During World War II, he worked with amputees at the Mare Island Naval Hospital in Vallejo, Calif. He later studied at the University of Wisconsin and then at Marquette University. He returned to Portland, married and began importing goods from Europe.
“He had fine soaps and fragrances from Germany,” his wife said. “When the World’s Fair was held in Seattle, he had a booth there, presenting and selling his wares every day of the fair.”
While traveling overseas to look for things to import, he became fascinated with oils used to create fragrances in Europe and the Middle East. He became a student, talking with experts to learn everything he could about perfume.
“He felt these classic names needed attention in Portland,” said Christina Tsefalas. “But the lines were closed for him to import. He got his name on a mailing list out of New York City that provided him with information about reps and distributors. That opened a door for us to bring lines to our shop.”
Opening the Perfume House, his wife said, was risky.
“We did all the prep work ourselves,” she said. “Our two children and our friends helped with all the cleaning and doing whatever was needed. We didn’t want to spend money. We grew up in an era where hardship was a way of life. No one complained.”
She said her husband was “the idea man,” able to get perfumes and colognes from countries around the world, at one time having exclusive rights to sell fragrances from Russia.
News of the shop spread by word of mouth, with customers discovering perfumes they had never heard about. It was never about selling but advising, taking as long as necessary to help a customer.
Tsefalas had the charm and knowledge to make any customer feel they were special. While a businessman, he never was a pushy salesman, instead handing out samples and giving recommendations after learning what impact a customer wanted to create with a fragrance.
In time, the store gained attention in the insular perfume world. Stories about Tsefalas and the Perfume House occasionally appeared in national airline magazines, which brought customers to Portland from across the United States. Clients have included celebrities and regulars who fly in from out-of-state to shop.
“I’m not going to name names,” said Christina Tsefalas.
She said the store features more than 1,000 perfumes.
“There’s romance and magic in the classic fragrance,” she said. “They’re made with rare oils. I don’t want to insult any fragrance, but the modern ones aren’t the same.”
She is now running the store with her daughter, Kathy, an employee and a granddaughter who works part time. In addition to his wife and daughter, Tsefalas is survived by his son, Chris Anthony; and granddaughters, Isabella, Olivia and Alexis; and sister, Jade.
“Chris ran the store as if he was welcoming someone into his own home,” his wife said. “He was the master of that.”