Inc. celebrates Small Business Week 2020 with a look at local salespeople who are loved by customers whose devotion goes beyond loyalty and good passion.
You can not find a chastity belt at Hippo Hardware & Trading Company. Someone once offered to sell a box with them to owner Steven Miller. But in very rare cases, he refused. The belts did not come with keys. "I should not have anyone come over at 3 in the morning and kill me," Miller said.
That rejection was uncharacteristic of a man who says "yes" more often than an improvising artist. When someone brought him a truck with chests found in a warehouse, Miller, for example, was all over the place. They were sold out. Most customers used them as coffee tables, even though a guy ̵
If you want to replace the doorbell with a Victorian model that works with a crank or stop your sink with a 100 year old industrial drain basket or light up your room with iron lamps pulled from a Pullman sleeping car, Hippo Hardware in Portland, Oregon, is the interior design partner for you. The business consists of 30,000 square meters of lighting, plumbing, hardware and architectural elements from 1860 to 1960. Much of the inventory was salvaged from the city's home and its most respectable – and disrespectful – public buildings. Hippo has sold parts of Portland's Central Library, City Hall and the Paramount and Orpheum Theater, as well as furniture from countless passing hotels. "I have a sign in the store that says' Room for rent. 25 cents a night, "says Miller. We did a lot of them. "
If Hippo does not have what you need, it can probably do it for you. The company works with artists, metalworkers, potters and blacksmiths to replicate a handle that is missing in an antique dresser, for example, or to fix one. old horse harness.It has turned a blender into a lamp and door handles into coat hooks.Or it can design something completely new, like the cobweb lighting store created for McMenamins, a chain of historic think breweries and hotels based in Portland.
Jody Stahancyk, lawyer, says she first visited Hippo Hardware in the 1970s, when she restored a home from 1917. She has bought everything from light fixtures to plumbing fixtures to door handles – even a vintage toilet paper dispenser – in styles ranging from Victorian to modern from the middle "It's like going into your grandfather's toolbox and seeing all the things he's saved over the years," said Stahancyk, who has installed his findings in several homes and five law firms around the state. "Shopping there is treasure hunting. "
A local business like Hippo succeeds on two fronts. First is choice. If Amazon is the 'everything store' then Hippo is the 'everything else store.'" Miller says a local big box store occasionally sends employees around for to check out his stock so they can refer clients seeking the nostalgic, the historically accurate, or the idiosyncratic.
Second, earned personality is not produced.Miller's cheeky sense of humor – and his former business partner Stephen Oppenheim – has manifested itself in bounce, like handling a red-white-blue Corvair Monza into the window with the sign "Buy American" as a good-natured mockery of the Rolls Royce dealer across the street, virtually all 3,000 plus hippos scattered around the building – made of stone, leather, clay, papier mache and even neckbands – were gifts from loyal fans and customers.The hippos on the pillars outside the shop were painted by Andy Olive, a local artist who once lived under a collision to the education .
This last detail comes with the permission of the author Chuck Pahlaniak, who protected the store in the 1990s and wrote about it lovingly in his paean to Portland, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon (Crown , 2003). With its quirky inventory and alien history, Hippo Hardware embodies the story that Portland likes to tell about itself.
A man's rubbish
Miller could not find work in 1969 when he returned from Vietnam. People called Vietnam veterans "baby killers and butchers," he says. "Nobody wanted us around." For a while, Miller sold scrap metal he collected on the street. Finally, the owner of a local garbage company took him on. Soon Miller drove the place.
One day the owner went on vacation and left Miller and another employee – Oppenheim, a recent Portland State degree – in charge. "We bet on each other that we could sell the store right down to the bone," says Miller. Over the next three weeks, they used charm and hustle to practically empty the place. When the owner returned, "he had no stock and a bank account full of money," Miller said.
Confident in their sale, the couple decided in 1976 to start their own junk shop, which they would call The Myopic to reflect. their "out of focus" approach to business. They found an empty shop. But when Miller called the landlord, he turned them down because of junk shops. "I waited a week and called him back," said Miller, who pretended to call for the first time. "He said, 'What are you going to put in there?' "I said: & # 39; A hardware store. & # 39; http://www.inc.com/ & # 39; The room was theirs.
Finding the landlord would remember the name Myopic, Miller and Oppenheim called the company Hippo Hardware for the alliteration. Also, someone had given Miller a large metal sculpture of a hippopotamus, which they moved into the store.
Hippo Hardware & # 39 ;s earliest products fell somewhere between rubbish and hardware. First, the founders bought old shovels, rakes and axes at garage sales. In the evening, they replaced the handles – the worn parts – with new ones. They invested $ 1,000 of their $ 5,000 saved startup capital in nuts, bolts and screws. "I swear to God, if you go back to the corners of Hippo "Today, you will still find some of the nuts, bolts and screws we have never been able to sell," said Miller.
Three nights a week they attended auctions in Dundee, Oregon, an hour away, to bid. old furniture and boxes full of plates, pots and pans. "We will stack everything in the collection spring like the Beverly Hillbillies, says Miller. "The police stopped us regularly. They shook the truck to make sure nothing fell off."
Antique shops were also good hunting grounds. Not the fronts – the back rooms. Customers looking for a wheel or drawer to match any furniture had started to get around. Miller and Oppenheim visited antique shops and bought all the other hardware and supplies.
For a while they sold women's clothes. "It was a great way to meet women," says Miller.
Submit the Clowns
The hippopotamus operated on the outskirts of Buckman, a neighborhood with many homes from the beginning of the 20th century. The people who fixed the homes were the store's most important customers. People who tore them down became the main suppliers. Miller and Oppenheim began to do salvage work: to strip homes that were intended for the demolition of windows, doors, stairs, moldings, decorations and lighting and plumbing fixtures. "We wanted to haul out everything we could get our hands on, like an anthill," Miller said.
The partners recruited homeless and veterans to do the job. They dressed them in clown costumes. "We wanted people to notice us," Miller said. "You remember it if you look out of a window and see your neighbor's house being torn down by 10 people in clown costumes."
From the salvaged parts, Hippo built its overview of distinctive, architectural offerings. One summer alone, the company dismantled 72 houses. As the city's affluent section expanded, temporary hotels came down. Hippopotamus bought all the contents and stripped them room by room. Such a hotel produced 50 bathroom codes, which did not fit in the store. "We piled them up on the sidewalk next to the building," Miller said. "They sat there all summer."
In 1990, city officials told Miller and Oppenheim that their building was not set aside for a business like Hippo. The partners found another place four blocks away and hired street people to transport Hippo's contents in shopping carts. "It was the only Gallo [wine] -drive parade in Portland's history," says Miller. It took a year and a half to transport everything to the new store.
Hippo has actually supported the homeless throughout its history. Like many veterans in Vietnam, Miller felt rejected by society. His empathy for Portlands rejected and ignored ladders from that affiliation. So does his gravity on the garbage industry. "When you sell something used or dilapidated, it gives it credibility," he says.
Hippo Hardware provides food for the homeless, who are also welcome to use the bathrooms. Ten to 15 people sleep every night on a covered sidewalk outside the store. Miller has installed a camera, "and they know if anyone is trying to harass or harm them, I will prosecute," he says.
The street people in turn support the hippopotamus. When the business did more salvage, "they would come and tell us when a building was going to come down and when the crew was going to get there," Miller says. He remembers a call he received from the police five or six years ago, in which he reported that some street people had reported that the store's door was unlocked. "I found three guys sitting there and let no one go through," he says.
Props for it
Although Hippo retained his anarchic sense of humor, over the years it became more respectable. In the early 1990s, Miller was elected mayor of River Grove, a small town 15 miles outside of Portland. "They told me I had to grow up," he says.
The store became a source of props: first for schools and for the Portland (now closed) Civic Theater, later for TV shows and movies filmed in the area. For seven years, the NBC series Grimm was a regular customer. "They want to say we're looking for a door that looks like it's been kicked in," Miller said. "We wanted to replace the panels with cardboard, so when they took the shot, they could break the door again."
Miller – who bought out Oppenheim seven years ago – has played it safe under Covid. The store is open only five hours a day, by appointment. Smoke from wildfires has sometimes reduced it a little more. Sales are down a bit, but not as much as Miller had expected. "In some cases, we run as much dollars in four hours as we did seven or eight," he says. With online sales up around 25 percent, the business will have sales of just under $ 1 million this year, compared to just over before the pandemic.
"I have never been interested in making millions of dollars," says Miller. "My goal is to meet my producer without being terrified."
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