Even now, at the end of it all, office manager Sharon Sullivan gets a kick out of watching customers walk in the door at Gordon’s Fireplace Shop.
“They just stand there and go, ‘Oh wow,’” Sullivan said. “They’re just flabbergasted.”
From the outside, Gordon’s is a historic but fairly nondescript old airplane parts factory right off Interstate 84 in Northeast Portland. On the inside, it’s part of a dying breed: an independent furniture store that sells pretty much anything that has ever struck the fancy of the store’s namesake, owner Gordon Malafouris.
Employees asked to list their stock lose track of just how many different items Gordon’s sells, but they know the collection includes chandeliers, grandfather clocks, art, mirrors, fireplace equipment, carpets, silk flowers, lamps of all shapes and sizes, wall sconces, tables, chairs and couches.
Pretty much the only thing missing these days is Gordon himself. He comes into the store once a month or so, and spends most of his time at home in suburban Fairview. A player piano provides background music as he sorts through his papers and photos and watches Fox News with the sound turned off.
Malafouris is 88 or 89. He either can’t quite remember which or chooses not to say. He’s frailer than he likes to admit, though he’s still got the slim build of the dancer he used to be. He’d rather talk about his show business days or his little dog Polly than furniture and furnishings.
“She loves everybody,” he said of the dog, a plump, aging thing that moves with the same gingerly taken steps as her owner. “She’s not that fat.”
Still, his furniture business makes for a good story too. According to the federal government, about half of all new small businesses survive five year, and just one-third survive a full decade. Malafouris made it 61.
He started selling fireplace tools out of Fred Meyer’s first store and eventually had a dozen of his own shops up and down the West Coast. The style was a little glitzy, a little baroque. Fireplaces, sure. But also grandfather clocks and model clipper ships. Gold-edged picture frames and leather sofas.
“There’s not a lot of people who do what I do, I guess,” he said. “I just do what I like.”
Gordon’s taste tends toward eye-catching. He does not like understated.
“I walk in and think, ‘I could never afford any of this, but I have to see everything,’” said Kathy Thoreson, a longtime friend and employee. “And then in seeing everything, you do find one or two things that you can afford. You find some things that are collectible or that bring back memories, or you find that little lamp that fills a corner you never thought you’d fill.”
Malafouris never had children, so there’s nobody to inherit the business. He tried to sell a few times, but never found a deal he liked.
Furniture and bedding are still strong businesses in the U.S.: Furniture Today, a trade publication, estimates sales will hit almost $100 billion this year — that’s a 20 percent jump from five years ago. But the age of the small, local, independently owned store is all but over. The Gordons of the world have been replaced by international chains and big-box stores better suited to a more modern, disposable state of mind.
“People don’t build their homes and live in them forever anymore,” Thoreson said, shaking her head. “Even if they build a new home, it’s maybe a 5 to 10 year commitment, and then they’re moving on to something else.”
Gordon’s closes for good this summer. It will join a list of the retail dead that includes Sparks Home Furnishings in Vancouver and Fishel’s Furniture, a Portland staple for almost a century.
Malafouris says that’s just business. He’ s not sad.
“I’ve only done this for about 70 years,” he said, laughing. “I don’t want to do it anymore.”
He’s got his dog, his pictures, his piano and — finally — retirement.
The rest of us? We have Ikea.