By Michelle Frost
You may first be struck by the abundance and variety of terrariums on display, by the winding iron staircase inside the entrance, or the giant antlers mounted overhead.
Maybe the first thing you notice is the proprietor’s likeness to Theodore Roosevelt, as seen in the large portrait hanging above the sitting area.
Gregg Harris, owner of Roosevelt’s Terrariums, also performs as a Roosevelt impersonator, most recently at Pittock Mansion. Harris is also a historian, a public speaker, a published poet, and father to seven children, much like Roosevelt who was politician, author, naturalist, soldier, explorer, historian, and devoted family man with six children.
The resemblance is remarkable.
“Our expertise is growing,” Harris repeats the shop’s slogan. We are seated on sofas with coffees while two young girls browse and comment to each other, “Oh, there’s a little orange frog in there!”, one exclaims.
He continues, “We’re going for an 1890’s to 1920’s vibe.” He explains briefly the Arts and Crafts movement during the Roosevelt era, and its attempts to “rescue the artisan from the effects of industrialism”.
He spent a couple of years in Laguna Beach, California, where he learned to build terrariums, before returning to Ohio. He opened his first terrarium shop at 19 years old. He’d been laid-off from his factory job and decided to go into business for himself, doing what he most enjoyed.
In 1983, the Harris family moved to Portland and he and his wife raised seven children before she passed away in 2010. Now Harris lives in the loft apartment upstairs with his youngest son, James, who is 15 and helps out in the shop after school and weekends.
“The tags with ‘J’ on them were all made by James,” he smiles proudly.
Three of his kids were best-selling teen authors, following in their father’s footsteps, writing and speaking on the values of family life and ‘doing hard things.’ Harris has been speaking on ‘family, business, and lifestyle design’ since 1981.
“The shop serves three purposes,” Harris explains, “research, display, and social connectedness.” His full-service terrarium shop offers tropical plants, succulents, air plants (Tillandsia), and carnivorous ‘bog’ plants.
On the spectrum of plant services, Roosevelt’s Terrariums “fits right between florists and garden centers”. Harris strives to create designs that are good for both the plants and the people caring for them.
“Wardian fern cases, or terrarium cases, were a common furniture piece in the Victorian era and the Roosevelt era,” he explains.
The Wardian case was the direct forerunner of the modern terrarium, and was invented by Dr. Nathaniel Ward in 1829, according to Wikipedia. People gathered ferns in that time, collecting and propagating the ferns for their Wardian display cases.
This hobby was called ‘fern fever’ or ‘fern-mania’ during the late 19th century at the height of its popularity. Harris hopes to organize outings to reignite this passion for “ferning” and terrariums.
He is also making plans to host workshops in-store, 2-3 times each month, to encourage the young naturalists who visit his shop and to teach customers everything there is to know about keeping a terrarium.
“This is a place to find a live gift,” Harris says, “and a place to teach.” He expects to accommodate 10-12 workshop attendees upstairs in his living space.
When his wife died in 2010, Harris decided rather than isolate himself, he would become more involved with community. When he first opened the shop in November, 2014, he used Nextdoor.com to promote his business.
When a bigger space became available two months later in January, a helpful troop of neighbors appeared to help him relocate to his current space ‘just two doors down’.
Harris believes in creating a life of delight, in truly living your art, passion, and values.
“I am not just offering something for sale, but I’m engaging in a mutual relationship. I also have needs; things I need from my community.” Roosevelt’s Terrariums certainly creates a place to connect.
To conclude our visit, Harris recited two poems: one written by Teddy Roosevelt, and the other, Harris’s own first published poem, written when he was 12 years old to honor his favorite blue tick coonhound.
Whether it’s ferns, orchids, history or poetry you seek, Harris is pleased to while away the days, visiting with customers and helping them one-on-one at his planting table. “I like the kind of people who like the things I like,” he chuckles.
Discover a sense of wonder, an otherworldly beauty inside this small shop at 1510 SE 44th Ave. Roosevelt’s Terrariums is a member of the Portland Orchid Society, and will soon be working with the reptile community.
Visit www.rooseveltspdx.com for information, store hours and upcoming events. The phone is 503.734.9996.