Canoes buyers make it easy for the one-stop shopper

by: JIM CLARK, Canoe’s buyers often stock the shop by visiting stores and manufacturers abroad, bringing back items that complement U.S.-made goods such as Heath’s handsome bud vases.

The clock is ticking on holiday purchases. Lucky for me, this year my shopping reached record efficiency. Everything that's not edible is coming from the downtown store Canoe.

If that sounds lazy or Scrooge-like, then you haven't been there. After two years in business, Canoe has become a work of genius. It's hands-down my favorite shop in the city - and most other cities, for that matter.

Recently I've been reading 'Shopping: Why We Love It and How Retailers Can Create the Ultimate Customer Experience.'

The author, Pamela N. Danziger, argues that since shoppers can acquire nearly anything via the Internet, product selection can no longer drive a store's success. Beyond the necessities, people aren't really shopping for 'things'; they're seeking an emotional experience.

Canoe forges a deep personal connection with its customers. Owned by Craig Olson and Sean Igo, the store provides an expertly curated retail experience. Shopping there requires no specific agenda; it's enough to simply see what the brilliant buyers have found this time.

Canoe is fundamentally a design store. But unlike the cold pretension of many of its peers, Canoe exudes a warm sentiment - that well-designed, functional objects are a source of personal fulfillment.

Olson says: 'We share a belief that good design can really enrich one's life. This isn't a new concept by any means, but it hasn't really penetrated into American culture. In most of Europe or Japan the way things look, work and feel is quite important, and products are evaluated critically by a large part of the population.'

Even with an increasing emphasis on aesthetics in American products, design still gets a bad rap as impractical or inaccessible.

Olson argues that 'somehow modern product design in the U.S. right now has become associated with extremely trendy, almost conceptual products. They might be interesting at first glance but they are kind of one-liner-clever, without much staying power.

'We try to find products that have longevity, a clear story or concept behind them, and do a job well.'

Like any remarkable store, the presentation at Canoe is integral to the experience.

The interior space is minimal but inviting, with rich blue walls and pine flooring. But perhaps Canoe's signature gift wrap summarizes the store's philosophy best. The plain brown kraft paper and a white string with gift tag makes a bold visual statement with utter simplicity.

Items are displayed with a small sign describing the designer, the history and the unique aspects of the product. The stock may seem at first glance to be random - Pendleton blankets sit next to Heath ceramic tableware - but everything is unified by its merit.

Olson explains: 'A $10 whistle and a $300 bag can coexist because they share the same values. Sometimes the value can just be pleasure.'

The resulting collection conveys the same feeling as the home of a well-traveled person with great taste: Everything is there for a reason. Canoe typically stocks only one product per category - one set of wineglasses, one kind of luggage, one trash can, one ice cream scoop.

'A lot of our products come from foreign travel, visiting shops and manufacturers in those cities,' Olson says. 'It is a lot more work than attending a trade show, but it can yield some very satisfying products. Other great products come to us in recommendations from customers, many of whom are designers themselves.'

Recently, I was thrilled to see that Canoe acquired two products I've admired for years. First is a colorful array of Comme des Garçons wallets. For a balance of style and function, they are unparalleled.

The next was luggage by Filson, an outdoor outfitter founded in 1897 for Klondike expeditions. The bags are canvas and leather - nothing fancy. The luxury is their outstanding quality. With a company motto of 'Might as Well Have the Best,' the goods are meant to last a lifetime.

Maybe nothing epitomizes Canoe's mission more than the owners' current favorite: luminous metal baskets from Sweden. The baskets are rustproof and were designed for fishermen and farmers.

Olson says, 'These have been in production for 80 years but they look very modern, which to us speaks to the high quality of the design.'

It's not often you can leave a store and be confident that someone thought that the purchase in your hands was the absolute best out there, considering both beauty and functionality.

If the author of my book is correct, then what Olson and Igo really are sharing with their customers is love - love of thoughtful design, love of the perfect alarm clock. Could fulfillment really be so simple?

Canoe, 1136 S.W. Alder St.,, 503-889-8545

• • •

Speaking of love, I am a total goner for the Box Dress by Linea. I spied it on the runway at Portland Fashion Week and stalked designer Jess Beebe until I got my own.

Made of black boiled wool with a flipped-up hem (which doubles as a pocket) the dress is indestructible, warm, comfortable and unbelievably sexy. Who says you can't have it all?

• • •

Congratulations to local eco-bag company Entermodal.

The company's products will be included in VIP gifts at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Entermodal deserves widespread attention for its beautiful, conscientious luxury leather goods. Sundance should be a great jump-start.

Find Entermodal at Canoe or online.

• • •

New Zealand active wear company Icebreaker just opened a Portland retail location at 1109 W. Burnside St.

The company makes simple, stylish and sustainable garments out of merino wool. It's the perfect fabric for breathability, warmth and water resistance.

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