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Sports utopia polishes swing

Institution founded by the late Harry Caplan leaves downtown for golf mission in Beaverton

Downtown Portland is about to lose an institution that etched itself into the hearts of generations of Little Leaguers, golfing fathers and a vast array of other jocks and near jocks.

After almost a century's succession of downtown locations, the Caplan name will disappear from Portland.

Caplan Sportsworld will sell off the sports oddities that once filled Ñ from dusty floor to cobwebbed ceiling Ñ three legendary basement blocks, and slip away to suburbia.

In its new location, in Beaverton, the sports store plans to stock only golf merchandise, phasing out what's left of the glorious hodgepodge that once was Caplan Sport Shop.

'It's sad to see Caplan's go,' said Larry Colton, local author and former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher. 'Part of what makes Portland successful is the vitality of downtown. The city becomes a destination Ñ people go there for the theater, to eat dinner É Caplan's was a part of that menu.'

Caplan's will close its doors at 500 S.W. Fifth Ave. sometime later this month and take over the AllGolf at Sunset driving range in Beaverton, said Steve Chung, Caplan's co-owner and president. The suburban golf store will stock high-end Japanese golf lines, such as Honma Golf, S-Yard and Kamui, Chung said.

Currently one of 17 Honma Golf dealers in the United States, Caplan's virtually owns the Northwest market in Japanese-made golf gear. But when asked about the frequency of Japanese clubs swinging on Portland greens, Waverley Country Club golf professional Chris Garrison answered, 'Let's just say it's not really a trend.'

Caplan's success, Chung insists,

isn't exactly tied to Northwest retail trends or, for that matter, to a downtown location. About 70 percent of the company's revenue comes from mail-order sales generated by advertisements in Asian newspapers.

And Asian markets continue to be a source of 'high-end dollars' for golf, said Paul Swangard, managing director at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

Owner made his mark

Caplan's departure will bring to a close a colorful chapter in Portland's retail history, most of it related to the rich lore surrounding crusty, outspoken Harry Caplan, its founder, who died in 2000.

'Harry was a gruff man on the outside,' remembered Brad Berman, one of Caplan's five grandchildren. 'But it would be that same man who'd open at 7 a.m. just so you could get to your soccer game on time.'

People came to the shop as much to see Caplan as they did to buy sporting goods. 'I remember I'd go down there just to listen to Harry mouth off about something,' Colton said. 'He was a real throwback, kind of like the local barber in that he had an opinion about everything.'

Caplan worked six days a week for the better part of 80 years. 'He didn't take a sick day in his life,' said Jan Chciuk-Celt, a Northwest music producer who worked as a clerk for Caplan in the early 1980s. 'He had a million dollars in the bank and still rode the bus to work. He was the only one with the key because he was literally always there.'

Caplan graduated from Commerce High School (now Cleveland High) in 1923 with football scholarships for college. But his Russian-born parents saw more value in the business world and convinced him to work at the shipyards. He later joined his brother in running a downtown pawnshop.

It's ironic that Caplan Sportsworld will pursue a golf-only line, Berman said. 'It was when Harry started selling golf clubs in the pawnshop that he realized the value in sporting goods.' The result was a small store called Caplan Sport Shop, and the rest is local legend.

Basement fills with goods

'Harry was a terrible businessman Ñ inventory control was nonexistent Ñ but he was brilliant at marketing and customer service,' Berman said.

There was the time when Jerry Hopkins, a manager at Caplan's for more than 30 years, cut a $1,800 bid with the Portland school district that was so close the store made only $10 on the deal. Caplan's response, according to Chciuk-Celt: 'So. That's 10 bucks I want. We take a loss on every sale, but we make it up in volume.'

That volume, of course, was stored in a basement stuffed to the seams with every sporting eccentricity a kid could imagine. 'If he didn't have something, he'd stock a hundred just so he would have it the next time someone asked for it,' Berman said. 'I pretty much grew up in that basement. It was like a kid living in a candy store.'

When Caplan sold the shop in the mid-'80s, the new owners sold off most of the basement bounty and moved out of the landmark store on Southwest Fourth Avenue. It was a good time to sell, since big businesses were buying up mom and pop stores by the truckload.

'For Harry, downtown was his base; it was his brand,' Berman said. 'He'd be rolling over in his grave to know the store's moving from downtown.'

Chung blamed parking issues and steady hikes in leasing costs for his decision.

'Many of our customers work at offices that have moved from downtown. We thought the driving range, and its location near stores like Costco, was a good marriage for us,' he explained. 'Besides, younger people don't remember Harry Caplan as much.'

Harry Caplan was kept on staff for a few years after he sold the store. He still greeted every customer by name Ñ from the 6-year-old handball novice to the 60-year-old boccie ball fanatic. But the store had changed.

'Harry was relegated to the backroom,' Colton said. 'The store was never the same after he sold it.'

But the downtown legend remains for those who knew Harry.

'I don't tell people I'm related to Harry Caplan,' said Berman, design director for Nike. 'But when a person finds out ÑÊwhether they're 80 or 30 years old ÑÊtheir eyes light up because they were also raised in that basement.'