Curious goods await at Hippo Hardware

They say a good salesman can sell anything.

The questions is, does that include a treasure chest full of chastity belts missing their keys?

Steve Miller and Stephen Oppenheim, co-owners of Hippo Hardware & Trading Co., will tell you it does.

This hardware store and offbeat icon Ñ whose yellow-pages listing appears under 'Museums' Ñ has been supplying Portlanders with a dizzying array of 'stuff' for 25 years. The company's esoteric merchandise includes those keyless chastity belts, which filled a trunk that Hippo procured from a local theater company.

You can while away hours on a lazy afternoon wandering through the maze of rooms, which contain more than 300,000 items.

Although the three-story fun house at 1040 E. Burnside St. is famous for its funky offerings, Hippo also stocks a huge variety of highly functional pieces.

Searching for a good used urinal? Look no farther than Hippo's plumbing department Ñ you'll find an entire row of them in a range of colors.

Having trouble finding 1930s art-deco lighting fixtures? Just ask. Need a vintage doorknob? Hippo has those, too Ñ by the dozen.

The store's supply of unusual lighting fixtures caught the attention of the McMenamin brothers, the local brew pub kings, who now buy most of the lights for their pubs, hotels and theaters from Hippo, according to Miller and Oppenheim.

When Miller, 54, a former Navy Seal, and Oppenheim, 52, a self-described 'burned-out social worker,' decided to launch Hippo in 1978, they bought $1,000 worth of bolts and screws and declared themselves open for business.

'We found out quickly what wouldn't sell Ñ we couldn't sell exactly what people were buying in other hardware stores,' Miller says. Twenty-five years after their grand opening, he jokes, 'we still have our original inventory.'

Over the years, the pair has worked out a formula for what does sell Ñ unusual items that shoppers can't find elsewhere. Describing Hippo as 'three floors of affordable fun,' Oppenheim explains that 70 percent of the store's revenue is generated by its stock of vintage and hard-to-find items.

But as Miller and Oppenheim will tell you, business is really about much more than sales and profits, and nuts and bolts.

By 1990, Hippo had outgrown its 2,000-square-foot location on Southeast 12th Avenue. As the inventory continued to grow, eventually occupying more than 20,000 square feet of space on the block, the city of Portland stepped in and told the two they were violating zoning laws and had to move.

They complied by hiring dozens of Portland's homeless to move their entire inventory in a 'shopping cart parade.'

'We were quite a sight,' Miller says of the four-block move to the current location.

The new 30,000-square-foot space gave them more room to showcase existing fixtures and the opportunity to search out new items Ñ though most of the items aren't really new. Hippo is 'in the business of re-marketing,' Miller says. 'We find creative venues for old stuff.'

The pair finds most of their inventory at garage sales, auctions and estate sales. But they never turn down an opportunity to add an unusual piece to their collection. 'If we see something interesting on someone's front yard, we knock on the door and ask to buy it,' Oppenheim says.

Miller and Oppenheim haven't purchased any of the hippos sitting on top of cash registers, stashed on shelves and hanging from the ceiling throughout the store. They're all gifts from well-wishers.

And the 312 hippos aren't for sale Ñ they're part of the clutter that gives Hippo its own special ambience.

At a time when many businesses are concerned with the economy and profit margins, Miller and Oppenheim are focused on different values. They see their store as more than a profit-making venture; it's also a community-support vehicle.

Though Hippo has nine full-time employees, the store occasionally relies on casual workers to keep things running smoothly. 'We provide open-ended employment opportunities for people with alternative lifestyles,' Oppenheim says. 'People come here to work when they can, or need the money, and then they move on.'

Many of the company's casual employees are from Portland's homeless population. Oppenheim says the city's social service agencies frequently call them to find job opportunities for hard-to-place members of the community, and he and Miller are happy to help.

'We want to be of service for a very selfish reason,' Miller says. 'It makes us feel good.'

The company relies heavily on word of mouth and referrals from large retailers such as Home Depot. They don't pay big bucks for advertising. Instead, employees wear Hippo T-shirts while they're out in the community volunteering for local charities during company-paid hours.

Miller and Oppenheim would rather be recognized for bringing people into the store and making them part of the Hippo family than for flashy ads and smooth sales pitches.

'We had a choice,' Miller says. 'We could either become an institution Ñ or be put in one.'

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