By Ellen Spitaleri
As Evan Shlaes was on his way to work on the morning of October 5, 2021, he saw two fire trucks headed in the direction of Really Good Stuff, his shop at SE 13th Ave. and Hawthorne Blvd.
“Then I saw a huge pillar of black smoke and I had a real bad feeling that got worse the nearer I got to my store,” he said.
Streets were blocked off, so he parked as close as he could get and he ran into Justin Frey, one of his employees who had been in the back of the shop seconds before the fire. Frey had smelled something and walked out the front door.
“Just as he turned back to grab his pack, an explosion rocked the building and a thick acrid cloud of smoke came pouring out from the rear. He was very lucky and I was relieved to find him unscathed,” Shlaes said.
While the fire crew was still mopping up embers, Shlaes called a friend and asked him to bring his truck. The men sneaked past the yellow tape and began an attempt to rescue another employee’s jewelry and tools by reaching through the broken front window.
“The fire marshal saw what we were up to and I figured we were going to get the boot, but he said we had five minutes to grab what we could.”
Then the men were told that things were still too dangerous for them so they had to back off but they had managed to save about 80 percent of the tools and all the employee’s inventory.
“I asked when we might be able to go back in and see if anything else was salvageable and was told that we’d have to wait for the official investigation to conclude and that it would be days if not weeks,” Shlaes said.
“Of course, looters were under no such constraints and my neighbor Jenna says she witnessed truckloads being removed that very night. She reported it to the Portland Police along with the license numbers of the vehicles involved but nothing has ever come of it,” Shlaes said.
Later, he and his helpers managed to get a few things out that the looters had passed up, including a big neon clock with Really Good Stuff painted on it that miraculously survived, and a few of his own tools.
Shlaes first opened Really Good Stuff in 1993 in a duplex he owned at SE 31st Ave. and SE Division St., selling an eclectic mix of collectibles and antiques. When he outgrew that space, he moved to a storefront at SE 32nd Ave. and SE Division St.
In 2002 he expanded again to the store on SE Hawthorne Blvd. which housed vendors selling jewelry, brass and reed repair, vinyl records, vintage clothing and more.
In the aftermath of the fire, which destroyed his shop, two restaurants and a vintage furniture store, Shlaes noted that he lost 30 years of his life in the fire and about a quarter of a million dollars in inventory and fixtures. He did not have fire insurance.
“I was really low and trying not to show it. I considered retiring, but I couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my days tending my lawn or selling stuff to other store owners,” Shlaes said.
Then Claes Almroth, his vinyl record vendor, phoned and told Shlaes about a storefront for rent at 3629 SE Division St.
“I was just blocks away when he called, so I pulled over to take a look. I saw a big, empty, dingy place with holes in the floor, holes in the ceiling, no heat, no electricity and no water. It smelled of mildew and dust. The basement was underwater and filled with trash,” Shlaes said.
“I’ll take it,” he said, to the surprise of the real estate agent, his friends, and even himself.
He had seen that the site had “terrific Feng Shui, lots of natural light, space for a real workshop for me and a studio for Justin and Brian,” two of his store vendors.
He loves the neighborhood with its foot traffic, restaurants and other boutiques on the street and was especially delighted that the old convenience store left a big, illuminated sign over the sidewalk.
That’s where his late store cat Tommy’s six-foot visage can survey Division St. next to the shop’s logo.
Shlaes fixed the leaky basement and used it for storage while he and his friends worked on the walls, floor and ceiling.
As for stock, many people came together to help Shlaes outfit the new shop – too many to count, he said. “I cannot thank them or the friends who donated their time and labor enough. Amazingly, we were able to reopen December 1, just nine weeks after the fire,” he said.
As he settles into his new space, Shlaes said “People should buy whatever makes them happy and when they do, it makes me happy. It’s the reason we’ve been successful when so many other businesses like mine have failed, and why, after just shy of 30 years, I still look forward to heading down to the shop six-and-a-half days a week.”
“The other reasons I can’t stay away,” he added, “are the friendships I’ve made with my customers, the camaraderie I share with Brian and Justin, the pleasure I get from fixing old, abandoned, broken things and making them useful or beautiful again and the thought that today could be a day that something really, really cool turns up on my doorstep.”
Owner Evan Shlaes, wife Maggie and store dog Barney . Photo by Dick Trtek