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Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co goes it alone, unaware of potential help from government

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co. owner Brian Faherty in the shops industrial NW Portland location. Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co. is the type of company that economic development agencies should be falling all over themselves to promote.

The homegrown business owns its own historic brick building in Northwest Portland’s industrial area, where the train tracks cross Nicolai Street. It has a stylish showroom featuring its Depression-era lighting fixtures, furniture, artwork and trinkets (think vintage pen knives and flashlights). Visitors are greeted by a coffee shop and are encouraged to hang out even if they are not buying. An old walk-in safe has been turned into a library for design and architecture books. Anyone, including companies, can use the long dining table for meetings. There’s a vinyl record player. Knitting groups use the space. Recently a team from Nike had a meeting there just for a change of scenery, according to store manager Matt Brown.

It’s all achingly Portland, with the refreshing fact: it’s making money. Growth is strong. Sales were up 70 percent in 2012, 32 percent in 2013 and 35 percent in 2014.

Other floors of the building hold inventory carefully boxed up for its flourishing clicks-and-mortar operation, or are destined for the company’s only other store, in Tribeca, New York.

Upstairs are offices devoted to design, sales and accounting on one side. It is also home to Egg Press, which does letterpress and fine paper crafts. The other side is a factory where workers make a living wage finishing steel and brass lamps, or assembling $285 electric clocks. Many of the workers are minorities, some hired though placement agencies such as the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). There are chemical baths and milling machines, simple workbenches and rocks of parts.

They actually make things here, not just assemble them or brand them.

They make heavy brass lamps that will last several generations, simple drawer pulls that feel solid in the hand, and thousand-dollar chandeliers that make a room.

Brown explains that the company started with lights, “which are our baby, they are close to our hearts, but then we started making clocks and partnering and collaborating with folks. We are always changing, we’re not just the lights in your house any more,” says Brown.

Isaac wall sconces, Otis fixtures, spruce and spearmint candles by Sydney Hill, leather weekender bags by Wood and Faulk… “If Brian loves it we will bring it in, or figure out how to do it,” says Brown. “Everything is driven by what Brian loves, mostly from the mid-century, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Things where you buy it once and pass it on to member of the family.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Various homewares in the showroom of Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Co.Brian is the CEO Brian Faherty. He calls it “Depression-era” but admits it extends beyond the 1930s.

The products have a strong look and feel that harks back to a time when homes, offices and institutions depended on American made products.

A Grant High School graduate, Faherty got his taste for interiors on the ground floor of the real estate market. He bought homes around Portland, living in them for two years to reduce his tax liability, fixing them up and selling them.

“Bungalows, colonial revivals, ranches fourplexes, duplexes…partly it was a curiosity about different floor plans. In remodeling he got a taste for vintage and recycled gear because it was well made and elegant. Faherty owns Schoolhouse Electric with his wife Jill, a designer there, and last summer their home was featured in the New York Times magazine. He tries not to live with new things.

“The last thing I want is a house full of new stuff,” he says, noting that his home is 60:40 blend of old and new.

He jokes that he has a large IKEA couch because he has a kids age 13, 11 and 6, plus a dog.

“We all come together on that couch and eat popcorn and everything.” He knows it will be trashed soon and admits, “Some things are disposable."

Faherty fell in love with the IBM electric clock and licenses the design. The company makes other electric clocks, taking pride in the glass face and sweeping second hand. They are still powered by a C battery, but as he says, “Why buy this when you can get a clock at IKEA for $10?

All clocks have a face, case and movement, but look at the fonts and layout — does the design hearken back to your childhood, or have you seen it in a factory or a movie? Ours has nuance and it’s going to last longer.” For him, quality is design and craftsmanship, the nuance and the details.

Durable items are for him sustainable. He likes iron beds that look like they came out of Little Orphan Annie and last a lifetime, but painted in new colors such as persimmon.

He wears a Shinola watch, (which are made in Detroit and start at $550) because he loves the design and the Americanness — the fact that it’s giving an old brand and a burned out city a second chance.

“I’d like to open a factory on the east coast one day, in a city like Pittsburgh,” he says wistfully.

His 1,400-square-foot store in Tribeca has been there for 10 years but took three to five years to turn a profit.

“The biggest moving audience to me is Millennials,” he says. “They’re interested in less. They don’t have TVs and don’t want to drive. Surrounding themselves with a bunch of disposable crap is not high on their list.”

He hits Portland’s garage sales, either early to forage, or late to see what’s not selling.

“Usually tools, or things for maintaining tools, like axe sharpeners,” he laughs.

Schoolhouse electric got a Small Business Loan to help buy the building, and gets a tax break because it’s a historic building, but he says he has seen little interest from government.

“It seems like Portland is interested in high tech, wind and solar, and courting foreign companies with the allure of lots of jobs, A lot of businesses in this manufacturing community are being overlooked because they (government officials) have their eye on the prize.”

Flaherty says Obamacare has been costly.

“We already pay healthcare at 90 percent. We’re not trying to figure out how to pay people less, we’re trying keep them happy.

“No one’s knocking down our door down asking how they can help,” he says.

Then he remembers: “Sam Adams was a fan. And Councilor Nick Fish came by, I was happy, he was asking good questions.”

It turns out Fish came by as a shopper — he does his family’s groceries and laundry too — then returned as a politician to see if he could help the business.

Fish says he was impressed. “I try on a weekly basis to go and see some business as the council liaison to Venture Portland,” he told the Tribune. “I’m interested in Portland as a hub for people making things, like bike frames and furniture.”

Fish likes their family wages and diverse workforce, that he’s chosen Portland, is already building a new building next door — and has a clear set of values.

“I always ask what can the city do better, and Brian didn’t have many complaints. Not the usual litany, how people feel they are paying too much for water and sewer…”

Quality of life issues did come up: there’s a big campground around the corner. Then Faherty mentioned the need for parking and an empty lot that sits across the street.

It just so happens it’s owned by the Bureau of Environmental Services — one of Fish’s three bureaus — and is one of the many properties that BES is trying to offload.

“I am the landlord! We gave him the information so he could bid for it.” Fish says the city can be “proactively helpful. We provide concierge service,” he said of the city. “He may well have regulatory issues as he builds, with permits.”

Faherty agrees the bid for that BES lot should be “a free and open process, but they should they be weighing who should own it to stimulate the local economy.’ He'd like to see an industrial sanctuary in his part of town, rather than more housing. He doesn’t want to move to a concrete box by the airport, like Coffee Bean International before him.

It seems by this example, government and private business have to seek each other out.

Fish thinks people like Flaherty are too busy to make many requests of government. “I told him he has a friend in City Hall.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Although the store is mostly a showroom for lighting fixtures, it is also a museum of well-crafted object, and a place for creative and design professionals to hang out, read and get inspired.

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