After 16 years in Old Town, Portland’s Floating World Comics is moving out of the neighborhood. Customers will now need to head to the Lloyd Center to see the comic store’s new location, which is already open. Jason Leivian is the owner of Floating World Comics. He is hopeful his move will inspire other small businesses to open shop in the mall and ultimately create a new community. Leivian joins us to share what prompted his move and what he’s hoping for the future of the Lloyd Center.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Sixteen years ago, Jason Leivian opened the Floating World Comics Store [Floatingworldcomics.com] in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown. He lasted through a recession and COVID shutdowns and in recent years he’s found himself running a business in the very epicenter of the city’s tense debates about homelessness. Eventually Leivian decided he had had enough – for the neighborhood has, as he put it in a kind of farewell letter, ‘...lost a lot of things that used to make it so fun and special.’ So he picked up stakes and just reopened his door across the river in the Lloyd Center, the mall that you might have thought had closed. He says this is a chance for a rebirth and a renewal in Portland, Jason Leivian, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Jason Leivian: Dave, thank you.
Miller: What was your dream for Floating World when you started it 16 years ago?
Leivian: I wanted to have a shop that encompassed all of my interest in comics, which includes mainstream comics, underground comics, independent comics, self published zines. And I wanted it to be a place where people could come in and sell their zines in the store, and for it to become part of the Art community. And we did that through our First Thursday Art Shows. Then that worked out well and we started branching out into publishing and putting together all sorts of other events. So yeah, that all came together really well at the beginning.
Miller: Why did you choose Old Town to start?
Leivian: The shop first started in a little active space in Northwest, underneath the I-405 freeway where I could just find a little month to month spot and that was like, it was a good place to start but there wasn’t many people walking by out there, but it was a good destination spot. We actually had people coming out every day. Then a painter from the active space, he told me he had just moved to a studio in the Goldsmith Blocks, at Fifth and Couch. So that got my attention and I moved over there and that’s where we started for the first six, sixteen years and being in that location, you know, it connected us to those First Thursday Art Openings that were happening all in the neighborhood with all the galleries there, you know, we had Compound Gallery, Upper Playground, Everett Station Lofts. So yeah, those were some good times in the first ten years or so.
Miller: What was the vibe like at that time in that neighborhood?
Leivian: I remember it was kind of sleepy and quiet compared to rest of downtown, parking was definitely much easier and I mainly just have a lot of great memories about those First Thursdays when you just get so many people coming out to those Art Shows and we have people coming in the door, spilling over from the other galleries. And I just got to meet so many great artists in the community, so many great artists traveling from around the country and the world. Yeah, there was a lot of exciting events going on back then.
Miller: What has it meant to you as a Chinese-American small business owner to be in Old Town Chinatown to start this business in a place that has a lot of history?
Leivian: I feel like the importance and relevance of that to me is just something that emerged and it wasn’t something, growing up that I ever thought about, and maybe that’s the experience of a lot of Chinese-Americans where we grew up as Americans and I don’t think about, but I didn’t think about my Chinese identity or Heritage as much when I was a kid. Then, growing older you start to realize like, well, this is a part of me that’s maybe missing and as you start to find different ways to access it, either through my family or traveling back to Taiwan or China or things here like being in Chinatown. It kind of opened my eyes to, and I’m like, well this is a part of my identity and I’m actually proud of it and I guess I never realized that it was absent, you know, growing up, and so now I feel just fortunate that I’ve been able to discover a way to, to access that part of my identity.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for what the last two and a half years have been like running a business in this neighborhood?
Leivian: The big thing was the pandemic, and the shutdown, which is what? March of 2020, that felt like the end of the world. It felt like the end of the business. We essentially closed, we laid off all of our staff and this was before, like I’d been following the news so I knew that they were working on something like the PPP, I knew that they were working on something, but it hadn’t passed yet, that those funds weren’t available. So that was a crazy time for everyone. And it felt like you know, once the PPP came in, we felt like we were starting a new business from scratch, which was essentially our online business. So you know we’re doing curbside pickup, we’re going into the store to ship, do shipping fulfillment but we’re not open to customers. So it felt like my business ended and then I had to pick up the pieces and put it back together. Eventually, the…
Miller: Can I ask, you know there’s a financial piece, here, which is gigantic, but there’s also the social or emotional one.
Miller: It was, up to that point was your experience of running the store. I mean how important was it to have people inside the store as opposed to just having them be names and credit card numbers for orders…
Miller: …you could fulfill?
Leivian: To me, emotionally, that’s all of it. That’s what it’s all about. And so to lose that, yeah, we, I was glad that we were able to pivot and do some online sales but I don’t find that fun. Like it’s you know, posting books on Instagram and selling them. There was a few moments, early COVID, when there was some novelty of doing the hybrid thing and doing online events. But man, there’s just no replacement. In the two years since we reopened, that component never fully came back. We never got quite as busy as it used to be. We weren’t seeing as many visitors and I think I might have mentioned it in the press release. Just, it feels like I haven’t had any fun at work. It’s been just kind of boring for the last two years…
Miller: Because people aren’t coming in to the same extent?
Leivian: Yeah, not as many, it felt just more like work. I was like, okay, I’m going to work and we’ll make some sales today, but we’re definitely missing that huge social component when we used to have monthly book release events and yeah, so losing that is a huge emotional below and yeah, I mean like having to close the store, back at the beginning of the pandemic, that felt like the end, it felt like the end of the store, you know, and then emotionally, I had to rebuild it, you know.
Miller: In your press release or farewell letter or pivot letter, whatever you might call it. One thing you didn’t mention was homelessness and it was a striking omission or choice largely because your business is, as I noted in the intro, it really is in so many ways the epicenter of public discussions and even public policies about how…
Miller: …they should deal with homelessness and other business owners who are your neighbors have been very public saying this is a catastrophe, a crisis – city,...
Leivian: Oh, yeah.
Miller: …do something, and there’s not, there are a lot of different points of view about that, about what the city should do,...
Miller: …but it’s not something you mentioned in the letter and I’m curious why?
Leivian: Yeah, it absolutely is a crisis that needs to be dealt with. I didn’t put it in the letter because the homelessness wasn’t a primary factor in me moving, those elements have always been in Old Town throughout the history of the store. The difference is, previously, I guess that stuff could be kind of in the background when you had so many people working downtown and so much life and energy going on and all these things. And since the pandemic, you don’t have people working downtown, the streets are basically empty except for the homelessness. So the contrast is so striking and now it’s like yeah, basically, I guess I left it out of the letter because I just, that’s like a whole other huge discussion that’s important to have. But it didn’t particularly, to me, it didn’t seem particularly relevant to this move or this change. So I left it out of that.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with Jason Leivian and the owner of Floating World Comics for sixteen years, the store was based in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown. Today is its First Day, a kind of soft opening in its new location in the Lloyd Center Mall. I want to read a few sentences from that letter that you wrote because they really stood out to me, you wrote this: ‘Something felt out of step, It didn’t feel right to try and go back to business as usual. Everything is still pretty weird. And I started feeling that surreal sense of liberation from the early days of the pandemic, when anything seemed possible and we might actually try something new.’ So what did you decide to try?
Leivian: Right. So, that out of step feeling is, I was looking around, of where else to move. I looked at some other neighborhoods and it seemed like all the rents have kind of gone back to pre-pandemic prices and I’m just thinking like I don’t feel like I’m quite there yet, I don’t feel like we’re quite there yet, and…
Miller: Meaning if you’re going to pay full pandemic prices, you’d want full pre-pandemic business and you don’t think you can get that right now.
Leivian: Yeah, that’s a part of it. And also a lot of like I don’t know, I feel like, I look at a lot of the neighborhoods and I don’t feel like they’re fully quite back yet. We’re still not quite there and you know that feeling of wanting to try something new. So I remembered that my friend Tony had just opened up his record store at the Lloyd Center. I saw his instagram post. And of course my first reaction was like, ‘I didn’t even know the Lloyd Center was still open.’ So I contacted him and asked him how it was going and he says, ‘It’s going great, so far, like we’re a destination spot. Our customers are coming and finding us, we’re doing shows here, we’re having like weekly DJ parties and the Lloyd Center is all for it. They’re just letting us, you know, have these great parties because they just want to bring more people in.’ So I’m like all right, I’m gonna come down there tomorrow and take a look. So I did a couple visits, you know, all week. I kept coming back to the Lloyd Center to see what the foot traffic was like. I was basically trying to find reasons why this would be a bad idea. You know, I’m like, this seems so crazy. Like I’m gonna go there and, and silly, but I came and I did not find those reasons to deter me. And actually I just kept getting more excited the more that I came here and I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to the point where it’s like, oh my gosh, I think I’m actually gonna do this and I think we can make this work.
Miller: Your friend’s record store, called Music Plastique; there’s an article about it just today in the latest issue of Willamette Week and the writer there noted that the record stores had some events and has been buzzing with activity, he said. But he also said that much of the Lloyd Center quote,’Still feels like a lawless ghost town with kids on skateboards,...’
Miller: ‘…sailing past the many vacant storefronts.’ Is that a feature or a bug for you?
Leivian: To me, it’s kind of a feature, that energy is pretty great. Those kids don’t seem like the ones that I’ve seen skating around, they just seem to be having fun, and it’s a different sort of lawless energy than say, what I’m used to in Old Town.
Miller: You can handle some kids on skateboards?
Leivian: Yeah, completely. And it reminds me…
Miller: But, does that mean… it’s, sorry, what did you say? What does it remind you of?
Leivian: It reminds me of when I started my shop, like sixteen years ago, back in Old Town, that youthful energy. I don’t know, it’s exciting and invigorating to me and I think, the Lloyd Center is gonna want to find a balance. Of course, they don’t want skaters too to make their customers feel deterred or uncomfortable, so, who knows how long that will last, but…
Miller: What’s the vision for what the Lloyd Center could turn into? I mean, Music Plastique and you are kind of the, some of the early arrivals of Lloyd Center, 2.0 or 10.0 or whatever it’s going to be, and I think some others are possible, but we’re still talking about a relatively small number of independent Portland businesses in a big space. What’s your vision?
Leivian: Yeah, so this, to me, is the truly exciting part and this is what I couldn’t stop thinking about when the idea first came to move here. So the rents are very affordable here. I mean, any businesses out there that are not happy with the location that they’re at or maybe businesses that closed during COVID and they just never thought that they would reopen. I mean there’s a huge opportunity here. You can come down, find a space that might look good for your business, and it’s fun when you lease a space here, you get, like all the fixtures that were left behind by the last store. So I’m in the old Torrid space, which is just a nice big retail space, but we got a lot of like, shelves and fixtures left behind. So those are kind of fun amenities. We have, the bigger vision is what if every cool, you know, business and artist that we love about Portland, the things that have made Portland great for the last twenty years and you know, a lot of those spaces have found it tougher to get a foothold with rents increasing. Like this feels, like when I talked about that renewed feeling of possibility, you know, from the early days of the pandemic, like this is that opportunity, this is Portland twenty years ago, when rents were affordable enough for artists to try things and you could have like an art incubator, like how amazing would that be if we had like an Indie Mall, like all of our favorite Portland businesses and possibly restaurants, you know, here in one spot, like what if the food… what if the Food Court got built out the way like Pine Street Market was going, you know, with like the best restaurants in town doing their take on mall food…
Miller: You know, where my brain immediately goes is, let’s say this really does work, that your vision you just outlined really works. I imagine that in fifteen years, then there’s retail gentrification and Banana Republic says, ‘Hey, there’s a mall here that we’ll move into it,’ and you all get kicked out again. But that’s maybe just the way the world goes.
Leivian: Yeah, let’s reset the cycle. That’s the problem. I guess we would deal with fifteen years from now, and like we’re thinking big, you have to think outside of the box when you’re like, ‘What do we do with this big space? Like what are you gonna do with the anchor?’ There’s obviously no retails or you’re not, you’re not gonna get a grocery store probably, moving into any of those anchor stores, but one of my employees, Sam Ashhurst is a Filmmaker from the UK, moved here recently and he had this amazing brainstorm that he was talking to one of my customers who works in the TV industry here and he’s like, ‘Well, how’s filming been going in Portland?’ And the conversation was like, well actually the filming is slowing down. It’s harder. A lot of the studios are leaving because it’s getting more expensive here in Portland. It’s getting harder to find spaces to film. And then we had just been talking about all these big spaces here, like, you know, the empty Macys and Nike and Nordstroms and so the idea is that there’s possible grant money available. We want to talk to city officials about this. And I’ve even talked to Tom Kilburn, the owner, I kind of planted the seed with the new owner at Lloyd Center and he’s like, ‘Oh, this sounds interesting, let’s keep pursuing it.’ But anyway, the idea is what if we took one of those floors and soundproofed it and then you could build a sound stage in there an independent you know, movie studio that television and film can rent out, but also make it very accessible and kind of like sliding scale for independent filmmakers to come in and use as well. And I’m like, that is such an amazing, you know, out of the box way of thinking about using a huge space like that, you know, so just ideas like that, just keep coming. And I mean we’ve only been doing this for a couple weeks and it’s just like every day, new ideas are coming in.
Miller: Is anybody outside walking past the store right now?
Leivian: It’s just employees right now, but I just waved one of my neighbors here, but while we’ve been moving in, it’s been really fun, just seeing people look at the posters in our window, people waving at us and cheering us on as we build the store. So that’s been pretty cool, too.
Miller: Jason Leivian, Best of luck to you and thanks for joining us.
Leivian: Thank you, Dave.
Miller: Jason Leivian is the Owner of Floating World Comics, which as of today is in Portland’s Lloyd Center Mall on the east side after sixteen years in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown neighborhood. Tomorrow on the show, we’ll hear about the Northwest Survivor Alliance. It was founded by survivors of sex trafficking. Members support each other and advocate for more services to help people deal with the trauma of their abuse and they’re calling for a change in the way law enforcement handles sex trafficking, arguing that victims are still being charged with crimes related to being trafficked.
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