In the days leading up to our departure from Portland, we burned through all our unused store credits. There was the slippery $20 from Next Adventure magnetted to our fridge for maybe eleven months. We used that coupon, combined with another coupon for 20% off any used item from the bargain basement, and scored a sizable haul of used, wool underwear for super cheap.
I even managed to use an eight year-old pre-purchased drink card from Stopwatch Espresso—185 miles north of our home—inherited from my parents who abandoned the remaining six drink stamps on the card when they moved to San Diego.
And cleaning out the house and my shop, I discovered load after load of unused items which I escorted back to Lowes for some highly questionable returns. Surprisingly, most of them still had their barcode sticker, which made their returns at least a little more elegant. But many items had no barcode and I presented those to the Lowes’ returns desk anyway.
We were really cleaning up.
This is ostensibly what inspired our return to Hippo Hardware: an unused credit for $11 that had been spooning the other coupons on the side of our refrigerator for years.
During our Great Home Remodel of 2013, Hippo had come in clutch for several esoteric fixtures and odd-ball trinkets. An eight-sided, crystal-handled doorknob say, or a milk-glass deco sconce that helped us put the finishing touches on a massive home renovation that tested the limits of our joists, and our marriage. When we finished the job, we were officially dunzo with major remodels for, at the very least, a decade.
At first look, Hippo is an assault. Just in the front door, visitors are confronted with a wall of noise: doorknobs, chandeliers, locks, old hardware signs, door knockers, door hinges, spindly hat hooks, bells, whistles, old medical equipment and, of course, hippos. It is a yardsale—how I’d imagine a storefront to look if a Roma caravan were to have fallen there from the stratosphere.
This first impression is brief though, since, with a closer look, it turns out all these items are actually manically curated. The arrangements of hardware begin to take shape, not just into categories and collections, but bouquets—a sort of rusty ichibana indicating someone, or several people, on the Hippo staff has an eye for symmetry and patterns beyond the call of practical organization. It is an eye for beauty, actually—the difference between making a shelf not just a shelf, but a diorama.
I find this enormously gratifying perhaps because I know what it is like to work in retail. As anyone who’s ever worked retail could tell you—customers are the worst. They kill the human spirit. Shoppers roughshod over beautiful displays and tidy arrangements like drunken bovines. They are brutish and inconsiderate and can happily lay waste to an entire store and leave without purchasing so much as an antique nail.
And so, I especially admire the attention to detail Hippo pays their little corner of the world. It shows they have not yet been broken by the customer. Or, maybe they have? The point is, you’d never know it from their displays. And therein is the magic je ne sais quois so few stores are able to pull off tastefully or, more importantly, sustainably. In spite of it all, the staff keeps putting things back the way they were. Drawing in the sand, though the tide repeatedly laps their good work into oblivion.
The staff at Hippo Hardware is still as friendly and excited about hardware as the first day I visited. They are also remarkably patient—I showed up to redeem my years-old coupon, with my camera, asking if I could take pictures of every tiny corner of their store. To my surprise, they agreed. They even occupied my daughter with a giant puppet dangling from the ceiling, actuating it’s arms and legs with some hidden pulleys from across the room.
We left Hippo minus our store credit, and plus one brass octopus keychain ring, which we promptly packed up with all our other belongings, and shipped to our new home in Minneapolis. It took us a while (unpacking a household is a lengthy process), but we finally got it up, next to our door. Every time we leave and return to our apartment, we’ll hang our keys on this little reminder of our Portland home and some of the weird, happy little shops that made our stay there so special.
Per the Hippo website: “Hippo Hardware is an eclectic building salvage store specializing in hardware, lighting, architecture and plumbing from 1860-1960. We also offer assorted collectibles, trinkets, whatnots, and whoziwhatsits depending on what we get in. The spirit of Hippo Hardware is to rejoice in the individual, the unique, and the original.”
Like the Oregon Leather Company, Next Adventure, Andy and Bax and the Outdoor Store, Hippo Hardware offers a last, helpfully grumpy look at Portland’s unique past. In the meantime, these vestiges seem to be holding their corners. But there is a new, glitzy city foaming up around them…