One of North's baby billboards, available by request from PDXSOS for companies and small biz enthusiasts.

For more than a decade now, I’ve written about Portland’s small businesses. The boutiques you go to for that special occasion outfit, the spot you buy a new record to play on Sunday morning, the corner shops overflowing with your next houseplant friend. And in that time, there’s never been anything like this. The goal for any successful setup in town is wall-to-wall customers. Literally. Crowd them in, make it feel like a busy house party when everyone squishes into the kitchen, while folks happily fork over dollars to their neighbor. Now, we live in the COVID era, and Portland’s small businesses will not look the same on the other side of this. We’ve lost many, with more saying goodbye each day. 

Everyone has been touched economically by this virus, from closures to furloughs to constant anxiety. And while financial worries aren’t equatable with health and safety, the burden that our small businesses carry is a painful one. Big outside investments are rare. Most small startups invest every ounce of savings they have. They call upon their friends and family for financial help. Some have used their homes as collateral for loans to fund their dreams and could lose them in this mess. 

Sarah Shaoul is familiar with the small-business cocktail of stress, ingenuity, and determination. The owner of now long-gone shop Retread Threads and founder of Black Wagon children’s store on Mississippi Avenue, Shaoul spent years navigating the small business world before she moved into her current life as a small business coach. When it became apparent how badly small businesses were being battered in the pandemic, Shaoul leapt into action and created PDXSOS, the SOS standing for Save Our Shops.

“What we really want to do is change minds, so people understand the importance and have that positive peer behavior of saying ‘I love these small businesses,’” says Shaoul. She’s also behind the website Bricks Need Mortar with business advisor Jim Hassert, where they offer small businesses free bi-weekly panel discussions with industry experts on topics like advice for how to renegotiate a lease and 30-minute one-on-one consultations.  

The volunteer-run website contained user-generated content by category, creating a directory for Portlanders to have one place to look to when they were trying to find a local biz to support as they restocked on personal items or decided where to get takeout that week. A dedicated Instagram account continuously shouts out businesses both on and off the free directory. It was a small, but lovely idea of bringing the community together and building goodwill in a time company owners felt battered. 

What they needed was help in getting the messaging out. Enter local ad agency North, who took on PDXSOS as a pro-bono client, spending weeks creating a multi-layered campaign. (Full disclosure: I am married to a North employee). First up? Over one hundred baby billboards, each measuring one foot tall, with messages like “Live Large, Shop Small” and “Little Gestures Go a Long Way” mounted on top of free sidewalk libraries, outside local boutiques, and even on tree stump gnome houses. Then there’s the #pdxloveletter campaign where locals write, you guessed it, love letters to their beloved neighborhood. The initiative asks people to post a story and hashtag it so not only your friends see, but PDXSOS amplifies it so its followers get to know what makes that place great. Then there’s the tilt-shift video showing a nearly antique train set view of beloved Portland spots while many familiar Portland voices—Matt Sheehy from the band Lost Lander, the owner and bartender of Wilder Ben Preacher, and jewelry designer Betsy Cross from Betsy & Iya to name a few—lay out the enormity of what’s at stake for our local economy.

PDXSOS: Distress Signal from PDXSOS on Vimeo.

“Part of our raison d’etre is not to just give back, but to fuel the community in which we live. Ensuring that it continues to be vibrant and a place where we want to live as well,” says North’s managing director, Rebecca Armstrong, who has been friends with Shaoul for 30 years. “There was nothing but complete enthusiasm. I think it’s good for the agency’s morale, actually, to have an initiative which is really about giving back and volunteering. You know, some wise people once said that doing things for the community always makes you feel better.” 

Now that the two volunteer forces have combined to maximize the visibility and support for small businesses, they’re asking for your help. Shaoul says that spending your money in town, of course, is the number one priority. The PDXSOS website and Instagram can help you find new ones, and, hey, we have an entire publication devoted to covering them. But with Oregon’s unemployment rate at 10.4 percent last month, spending money isn’t on the table for all. That’s OK—there are lots of opportunities to uplift local companies without spending a dime.

Step 1

Follow PDXSOS and other small businesses you love and amplify their messages to your circle. Many have been forced to cut ad budgets that help their posts show up in customer’s feeds. You can help them out just by hitting the share button, adding to stories, retweeting, etc.

Step 2

Write those love letters. Small businesses in town are exhausted. Many are single-digit operations where the owners operate as the manager, staff, accountant, custodian, you name it. Spread some goodwill. Write up that quick ode to your fave cocktail maker in town, snap a picture of the go-to local necklace you wear every day, shout out the leather-bound notebook you bought to make the new home office feel official. Then tag the business so they can see it, and use the #pdxloveletter to get the word out. Don’t stop there, though. Take that same sentiment and march it straight over to Google and Yelp to give your company choices a nice review. So many people only take the time to write a review when they’ve had a bad day or an off experience. They need those positive reviews, too, particularly when in-person commerce returns.

Step 3

Share the message that shopping local is important. We’re all being swayed by the dark temptations of the big guys, and sometimes it might even be necessary, but make it a habit to spend money locally every week and talk about it. That could be sharing the Distress Signal video, that can be just a public acknowledgment you’re grabbing a pie from Ranch Pizza this weekend instead of one from the freezer selection, or it can even be explaining to your kids why you’re going to pick up their schoolbooks in town instead of online. Every bit of the commitment helps remind others, and when we all do a little, it adds up to a lot. 

"There’s definitely consumer fatigue out there now. Like, why is it my job to save the world? I’m struggling myself, you know? I feel like this is nice because it isn’t putting economic pressure on you to spend this money," says Shaoul about the campaign. “I just want so many people to see it because I think it really hammers home, these businesses make our city. The city we love.” 

 
 
 
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"Welcome to the jungle. Thank you plant friends! Those lovely plants sure helped me with the COVID blues. We are so lucky to have such amazing plant stores in our neighborhood! Let’s all remember to keep supporting them so we can enjoy them. @birdsandbeesnursery @citrine.bloom @vineanddandyshop @glasshauspdx you brightened my day! You are doing a true service for us all. Thanks!" ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #pdxloveletter from @rubypressmercantile ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ What's your #pdxloveletter? Tell us about PDX businesses you love to love. Stay Local. Share the Love. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 📷: @rubypressmercantile ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #pdxsos #portland #shopsmall #pdxloveletter #supportsmallpdx #pdxsmallbusiness #shoplocalpdx #smallbizpdx #pdxshopping #shoppdx #saveourshops #saveourshopspdx #buygiftcertificates #carepackage #pdxgift #communityovercompetition

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Listen: Portland Monthly editor in chief Marty Patail talks with style editor Eden Dawn about recent small business news, including an update on Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s eviction moratorium on commercial leases, as well as how retail and fashion in Portland are adapting to the coronavirus. 

 
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