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HELEN'S PACIFIC COSTUMERS HANGS IT UP
Pam Monette liked things the way they were before "the costume business blew up."
Yes, at one point in time, Helen's Pacific Costumers was the place for Portlanders looking for their Great Gatsby-themed party attire or that perfect mask to scare the daylights out of friends for Halloween.
It still is to some degree, but its heyday has certainly passed. It still serves many local schools and theater programs, but after 127 years, what's been called the oldest retailer in Portland is closing its doors. Monette, 71 and owner of the shop, is ready to sell and enter retirement.
Another casualty — think record shops and video stores — of the internet and megastore retailers, as well as a changing social and entertainment landscape, Helen's, 7501 N.E. Glisan St., no longer can support itself.
"I feel a little bit like I did something wrong, you know. Like I was left with the care of this old costume shop and now I'm failing," Monette says. "The costume business has diversified to the point where you can buy a costume at the local grocery store. It wasn't always like that."
The days of Helen's being the sole go-to for costume needs are long gone, as are the days of live theater as a leading source of entertainment. People can buy any old Batman costume and mask at Fred Meyer, Walmart, or, of course, online.
Monette came on board as a clothing steamer in 1972 and inherited the business in 1991 when Helen Learman herself died. She's selling the entire costume collection for $200,000, liquidating everything by Aug. 31, while employees are attempting to raise funds to save it. The collection includes rare and old items, such as an extremely heavy, jeweled matador suit, amongst the stock of creepy Easter bunny heads that sit in clear plastic bags atop the store aisles.
Though she's ready to go, Monette is fond of the early days before she had the shop. Learman left her the store because she and her husband, Al, didn't have any children. And Monette's two children aren't interested in it.
Monette says she met Helen and Al at a grocery store called Terwilliger Market, where they lived next door. Monette worked at a card store on Fifth and Yamhill.
"So they lived next door and I'd ride with them to my job, and then eventually I went to work for them. They got a new steam room and I was to be the steamer, like ironing, but a steamer," she says. She also started building mascots.
"The costume shop didn't make mascots or anything before I came, so that's what I brought to the shop. And I still do that," Monette says. "I like the creativeness and building, you know. Sewing and building the mascots. I'm an artist ... I don't like managing very much."
Some of the mascots the shop is known for include J.R. Beaver, Oregon's state park mascot, and Ima Blueberry, seen wandering Portland's Saturday Market.
In addition to those mascots, Helen's Costumers helped many area theater programs dependent on the store for quality costumes at a discount.
Old format/new life
Jay Lieber was wandering his new neighborhood in Montavilla one day last year when he spotted the mysterious purple-and-blue striped Helen's Costumers building. Thereafter, he'd walk by, waiting for a day the neon "Open" sign was actually on.
He worked his way into employment driven by curiosity of the old shop, and along with coworker and store manager Sally Newman, they're now behind the effort to raise a down payment of at least $40,000 toward the $200,000 Monette is asking for to purchase the costumes. They're also starting a nonprofit.
"What we're worried about is this costume collection, which has been going for 127 years, we're worried that it's going to be broken up and pieced out, you know with the 'Alice in Wonderland' costumes going over here, 'Fiddler on the Roof' going over there," Newman says.
The two, both in their 30s, are working on acquiring a warehouse-type of building in the Portland and Vancouver area to store the costumes and take the operation online, ditching what they call a lost cause: the storefront format.
"That's the format that most costume shops are continuing because storefronts are expensive," Newman says. "It's being able to raise enough funds to keep on being able to rent to schools, community theaters, and the smaller budget professionals."
She says they work with several Vancouver schools, and others including Columbia Christian and Central Catholic, and as far away as Hood River.
"We wouldn't have walk-ins anymore. We'd have to make an appointment," Lieber adds.
Lieber is thrilled at digging through all the materials in the store, cataloging each item one by one for the internet, an effort he says has been a long time coming.
In his digging, which includes mountains of materials not only in the main store, but two sheds out back, he's found lots of old photos from the old days, when the Learmans and Wonders before them were running the store and active in Portland's lively cabaret scene.
Lieber made a campaign video to attract donations and they're putting together a benefit "telethon" event at Dante's on Aug. 26. The telethon is being held in an old-fashioned spirit, but instead of being broadcast on a TV such as in the old days, it'll stream online through social media.
"This is a big goal, but it's so important. (The costumes are) such an essential resource. It's a historic collection," Newman says.
Monette is just letting them take the reins.
"I don't know," Monette says, with a sense of sadness, thinking of all the changes the industry has seen over the decades. She can't quite put such massive changes that occurred in the world into words.
"We did everything, all these years. We always relied on our reputation and our quality," she says. "It took me forever to get a computer. I'm very old school. I was fine with the way it was."
The story of Helen's Pacific Costumers starts with Ellen Learman, who worked as a wardrobe mistress at the Marquam Grand theater.
She married Fred Wonder, and the two opened the Wonder Costume Shop in 1890, and according to their own telling of history, the Wonders became the leading float builder for the Rose Festival parades.
Eventually the family moved to California to work in Hollywood in 1915, producing some props and sets for studios including Charlie Chaplin's studio. The family returned to Portland around 1923 to open the Portland-Chicago Costume House.
Later, the Wonders' grandson, Al Learman, left for San Francisco. In 1936, he met Helen Brickman on a blind date and later married. In 1941, Helen and Al moved back to Portland to care for Ellen Wonder. In 1943, they opened the Pacific Decorating and Supply Company at 1917 S.W. First and Hall, building props costumes and sets for the Multnomah Stadium and Rose Festival. In 1965, it moved to 909 S.W. Washington St., renamed Helen's Pacific Costumers, and shortly after started building mascots for companies, schools and municipalities.
In 2003, according to Pam Monette, the building was purchased by the city's Urban Renewal efforts and was relocated to its current spot, 7501 N.E. Glisan St.