An open-air Portland institution approaches 30 years of crafty commerce and goodwill
In memory of the good old days, members of the Portland Saturday Market hold a lawn-chair toss every year at their summer picnic.
The tradition goes back to the first days of the market. On the original site, Northwest Davis Street between First and Second avenues, there were no fancy booths or facilities. It was first come, first served. Craftspeople hoping to pitch their wares would literally throw lawn chairs across the lot in the 'land grab' that took place every Saturday at dawn.
Now in its 30th year, the Saturday Market Ñ now located under the Burnside Bridge Ñ has developed into a symbol of the city. Ask tourists what's on their agenda, and they'll usually say International Rose Test Garden, microbrews, Saturday Market.
As is usual with tourist traps, the locals often have a different attitude.
'There's this whole genre of people who would just think, 'Ooh, icky, Portland Saturday Market,' ' says Christy Atherton Schrack, who can be found selling her jewelry and the blown glass of her husband, Bert, who looks after their 2-year-old son. 'I wish we could get some of them down here to see the art that's being done.'
Portland Saturday Market, some think, suffers by association with the Skidmore Fountain Market just across the MAX tracks, which sells machine-made and imported goods. Here it's all junk food, pothead T-shirts and incense holders.
'We try to keep it distinct, and they try to blur the line,' says Paul Verhoeven, Portland Saturday Market's executive director and a former pottery vendor. 'They're pretty much piggybacking on the crowd we draw and our advertising.'
The Atherton Schracks, who live in the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood of Northeast Portland, represent the new face of the Saturday Market. Christy keeps the banter going as her customers tentatively finger the goods. (Top price for a vase, $250.) The work is exquisite, just as her sales pressure is exquisitely calibrated. She discusses fused glass chemistry and jewelry trends with ease, luring customers into her 8-by-8 space.
After much discussion a young couple pays $28 for one of the singlet-shaped vases that hang from ribbons around the booth's fringe. With her tape gun and bubble wrap, Atherton Schrack gift wraps it for a birthday party that evening, and the couple leaves, promising to come back.
'There is a hard core of locals who come down here every month or so for birthday presents, and just to check out what's new,' she says. 'Instead of going to Fred Meyer or the mall, they come to us. We've sold in art festivals in places like Marin County, Calif. Ñ to millionaires! And yet the best sales are right here.'
Atherton Schrack is on the market's board of directors and is a liaison to the Product Review Committee, which means she sees all the new stuff that people hope to sell. She speculates that there is more blown glass and more metal sculpture than when she started there eight years ago, but she can't spot one trend in the way the market is going.
'Every time I think I finally know how this market works, it changes,' she says.
Plethora of presents
A walk though the Saturday Market showcase store in the Skidmore Fountain Building, which the market owns, reveals CDs, earrings, wine glasses, key rings, dream catchers, stained-glass items, oil lamps, velvet hats, burled-wood boxes, painted gourds, birdhouses, landscape photos, wooden toys, cat stuff É just a step up from the usual tourist stuff of fridge magnets, plush toys and cheeky shot glasses.
Soap, candles and jewelry seem to be favorites of the new entrepreneur. (Many is the person who has had the insight that 4 cents worth of lye, scent and fat can make a $4 bar of soap.) A room in the back of the market's offices, behind an unmarked door on the Burnside Bridge, stores potential market creations until they are juried. It's a riot of wood carvings, wind chimes and beaded bags.
On a recent Saturday, Michael Starr of New Weld Order set up shop on the edge of Naito Parkway. It was his first time. A welder by trade, right now he says he's 'off on an industrial injury.' He makes large sculptures that mix driftwood with quarter-inch steel plate, seashells, beads and fishing line.
'She calls 'em chimes, I call 'em mobiles,' he says, pointing to his partner, Vicky Rice.
Rice has been doing the driving since he had his drivers license suspended. It's a hand-to-mouth existence. They travel the West Ñ 'when she hasn't kicked me out,' he laughs Ñ going to craft fairs and hippie festivals.
'We fly by the seat of our pants,' he says. 'We just got a flier about a barter fair in Sisters, so we're off there next.'
Moons and suns cut out of thick rusty steel dot the ground in his booth: 'You can hang 'em on your fence, your garage, your barn, wherever.'
Just then he sells his first piece of the day, a mobile of the universe, for $35. By the standards of the rest of the market, it's hideous. But the unpredictable is what's on sale here.
In a country where commerce is king, it's not surprising that Portland's market is different. When Portland artists Sheri Teasdale and Andrea Scharf decided to open something similar to the Eugene Saturday Market here in June 1974, beginnings were humble. For the first few years hippies spread their blankets on the ground next to woodworkers and potters, and macramŽ was in.
Guys who were there from the start, such as Jim Sells (wood, paper and glass objects) and Ken Haack (metal art), gradually became friends. Now they set up every Saturday morning at 7:30, then take the MAX train across the river to Denny's for breakfast. Vendors watch each other's stuff.
'The stragglers under the bridge are usually gone by then,' says Sells, 69, referring to the homeless people who use the parking lot for their bedroom. 'The site crew will roust them out, after a fashion.'
A former director of the student union at Portland State University, Sells says he makes $150 to $200 a weekend day, although others, he says, can make $500 a day. Vendors pay from $28 to $64 for their booth on Saturday, $18 to $59 Sundays depending on sales.
'I wouldn't want to have to make a living at it,' Sells says. His signature piece is a wooden rack shaped like a truck for kids to store their toy cars on.
'I've always been a people person,' he says, explaining why he's put up with the Burnside Bridge's gloom and drips for nearly 30 years.
Business is best in summer when the tourists are in town: 'A lot of exchange students come through, their families bring them down here for something to do.'
Old-timers are 'bridge trolls'
Metalworker and retired schoolteacher Haack, 62, takes a low-key approach to selling, reading the paper and waiting for people to make their move. The market's 70-page rule book warns vendors not to do the hard sell.
'Six years ago I counted who steps into the booth, and it was 100 people an hour,' Haack says. 'No shop in town could get that number. But a lot of them have to go home and think about it. Some of the newer vendors don't have the patience. After two weeks they get discouraged and don't come back.'
The best spots are assigned by seniority, which is calculated on a points formula that takes into account how long you've been a member of the market and how often you show up. Sixteen days a year is the minimum.
Insiders affectionately refer to the older guys as the 'bridge trolls.' Haack and Sells are just a few feet down from another veteran, Michael Kelley, the Spoonman. Kelley buys 50,000 pieces of old flatware a year to make wind chimes and wacky art.
Another Saturday Market veteran, Michael Miller, a potter, marvels at how well-run the market is.
'Over the years the management has made rules that address every problem that comes up,' he says. 'Everyone is treated fairly. It's probably the most democratic institution I've ever seen.'
How's that for a unique selling point?