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Scenes from Hippo Hardware’s East Burnside store

Image: Michael Novak

Step beneath the pillared arcade at East Burnside and 11th Avenue. Look around. Witness the displays of brass wall hangers of every conceivable motif and theme: sea turtles, monkeys in a row, hands grasping flowers, griffins, mermaids, and naked ladies. Pass under the giant pair of jeans dangling from the ceiling. Up the hall, a row of hippos wait to jump from a diving board into boxes, crates, and shelves of doorknobs, hinges, and window locks.

At Hippo Hardware & Trading Company, a legend of Portland oddity founded in 1976, objects (and the stories behind them) collect like dust on crystal chandeliers, waiting to be rediscovered.

Take the one about the guy who came in about 20 years ago and said, “I’m trying to open a brewpub” ... in two days. But his custom lighting was all wrong. So the Hippo staff pulled a massive overnighter to fix it, bringing new fixtures to what became the McMenamins Ram’s Head on NW Hoyt. At the register, Annie Grenawalt claims to have the photos to prove that the staff once partied naked in the backyard of Trail Blazer Terry Porter’s Dunthorpe mansion (before he remodeled and moved in for the first time). Down in the basement, Dave Riker unloads old doors, trim, and mantels, and readies them for sale. The former truck driver and steelworker was sleeping on couches when he got hired here. Within a week, he was the proud owner of a 30-foot travel trailer, thanks to a loan from Hippo’s quirkily charismatic cofounder, Steven Miller.

“We sell what other people throw away—and in some cases, we are the people that were thrown away,” he says, speaking like a mad mystic. “Every time we sell something old and funky and ragged, it gives us credibility as human beings—that we might have value in this society.”

A soft-spoken former military mechanic, Brandy Hardison runs Hippo’s lighting design and build shop. He recalls a woman who came in with “a broken, dilapidated, twisted-up old fixture” that she wanted to have fixed up for her daughter. She cried with joy when he showed her the result.

“Everything I’ve ever done in my life accumulated to this place,” Hardison says.

Miller hints that Hippo, located in the fast-changing “LoBu” neighborhood, may not be long for this world, at least not in this location. Then again, Hippo has moved before. As Stephen Oppenheim, Miller’s fellow cofounder, explains, a 1990 transition from the original location at SE 12th and Ash became a legendary parade of loaded shopping carts. He says the store hired many of the area’s homeless people to turn the move into a one-day mass event—which devolved into chaos: “We said ‘Go,’ and everybody started running like it was a race.” The loading area’s approach had a one-inch lip above the pavement, which carts hit at top speed, sparking a scrum.

Somehow, the store’s spirits held on through all that. Oppenheim says it’s “karmic kismet.” But the shop’s living souls don’t hurt, either. 

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