From highway 101 in Seaside, take Broadway toward the beach, and you’ll immediately find yourself in the historic downtown Gilbert District. The first building you will see was built in 1914 as a firehouse. It later became a jail and then city hall. Today it is Seaside’s first brewpub, the Seaside Brewing Company, and kegs are stored in what used to be the drunk tank. Go a little farther, and you will find yourself at the intersection of Broadway and Holladay Drive. Look ahead and to the left is the Kirwen Building, built in 1913, and to the right is a building called the “Gilbert Block,” from which the district gets its name.
The buildings are old – it’s a historic district, after all – but there’s fresh paint and, if you look a little closer, shops with fresh ideas. There’s a Renaissance going on in the Gilbert District, and at the center of this revitalization are Avery Loschen and Will Perkin, owners of the Gilbert Block and the adjacent Salmonberry Square. For their work in renovating the buildings they won a 2004 Main Street Award.
A large part of the commercial success of this area is the way in which the property owners have orchestrated the variety and boutique nature of the stores and restaurants in the Gilbert District. You can buy a purse or a vintage lunch box and then have an excellent meal at an Irish pub, an Italian restaurant or a sushi lounge. Later you can sample wine, buy flowers at a European-style florist, visit an art gallery, or get something special for the pooch in your life.
Denise Fairweather, of Fairweather House and Garden, has another explanation for the district’s growing popularity. Alexandre Gilbert was a colorful character, she says, “and we have to live up to that.”
Gilbert, a Frenchman and a naturalized U.S. citizen, was that and more. A veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, Gilbert moved first to San Francisco and then to Astoria, where he operated a liquor business and saloon. There were also rumors that he was involved in Astoria’s infamous “Shanghaied” trade. With all his business interests he became, of course, a civic leader, and was in charge of the exhibits for the State of Oregon at the 1889 Paris Exposition.
In the early 1890s Gilbert moved to Seaside, and by 1912 he was elected mayor. This was shortly after the disastrous fire of that year, and Gilbert bought downtown property where he erected the Gilbert Block. The four city blocks surrounding the intersection of Broadway and Holladay Drive, including the Kirwen building, constitute the Gilbert District.
Today there are over 20 businesses in the district. Some have been there for a while, like B. Boutique (women’s clothing and accessories), Bagels by the Sea and Seasoles; others, like Beach Books, literally arrived last week.
Beach Books owner Karen Emmerling moved her store two blocks to be in the Gilbert District, right at the intersection of Broadway and Holladay. “I think it’s the best block in the neighborhood for visibility,” she says, “and it’s such a historic building.”
Emmerling’s new shop is much larger than the old, so she will expand, carrying cards, art supplies, puzzles and magazines in addition to the latest literary best sellers and old favorites. Beach Books is known for its monthly catered author luncheons, and now the business has more room for additional events like readings and author signings. Emmerling won’t be putting in a coffee bar, however. Why compete with Seaside Coffee House, her neighbor across the street? Instead she’ll add seating so people can bring their coffee into the bookstore.
This sort of cooperation among Gilbert District shop owners is not unusual. Fairweather House and Garden has an elegant array of one-of-a-kind home furnishings, but if you’re looking for a painting, Denise Fairweather will gladly send you across the street to the artist-owned Gilbert District Gallery. “We’re like a big club,” she says. “We often have progressive events with different refreshments at each shop. And if I sweep my walk or water the flower box, I may find myself in the middle of an impromptu gathering.”
Gatherings are what another new business is all about. “A public house isn’t a bar,” says Vince Berg, co-owner of Seaside Brewing Company. “It’s a gathering place for the public.” Berg and partner Jimmy Griffin opened in June of 2012 and soon found that their tiny “nanobrewery” couldn’t keep up with demand. It will shortly be relegated to educating those interested in brewing, after their new, larger production facility is completed. The partners spent five months restoring the old building, while keeping its character intact, and it was well worth the trouble. “When we saw that this property was available,” says Berg, “we knew it would be a home run as a pub.”
Beach Books and Seaside Brewing are not the only new businesses bringing new life to the Gilbert District. There’s Nikki Luxuria Salon, J. Rae’s Wines, Patty’s Wicker Cafe, and Moody’s Supper Club. Both businesses and customers are attracted to the Gilbert District because of the emphasis on quality as well as variety, but the Renaissance of this boutique shopping and dining area isn’t over. “The more quality there is in the Gilbert District,” says Vince Berg, “the better for Seaside. There’s so much potential.”