J.K. Gill: In 5 minutes or less

After delivering my Ignite West Linn: History on Fire talk yesterday, I surveyed the crowd as to who had ever set foot in a J.K. Gill store. More hands were up than down, leading me to imagine many more than just those in the Willamette Ale & Cider House on a June Sunday afternoon might enjoy the snippets I pulled together about my great-great grandfather. Start your motors for a quick journey……

Joseph Kaye Gill was born in Yorkshire, England in 1841 as the oldest of 11 children. His family emigrated to the U.S. in 1854, where his father worked in woolen mills in Worchester, MA.

He was educated at Wesleyan Academy in MA. HIs brothers included a college professor, mechanical engineer, and singer and celloist who also handled the textbook departments at Gills.

His brother Sam became a steamboat engineer on the Columbia and Willamette, and was also a writer. Both Sam’s journal and late 1880’s Portland Bulletin newspaper articles are archived within the Oregon History Museum’s Research Library.


J.K. rented a room in the same house where Chloe (my great great great grandmother) and her three daughters lived after moving from Salem, Oregon to Massachusetts after William died late in the 1850’s. She moved there to be closer to family.

Chloe and the girls returned to Salem in 1863. J.K. visited the next year, teaching briefly at Willamette University. He returned east to finish his studies but moved to Salem in 1866, marrying Chloe’s oldest daughter, Frances, soon after.

J.K. focused on bringing in books into Chloe’s share of a drug store, before opening his first bookstore in Salem in ~1866 (now Salem’s Taproom Cafe and Lounge).

In 1871 J.K., Frances and Chloe moved to Portland, where they lived in a “mansion” on NW 19th Street. He was the president of his Methodist Church’s Trustee Board, a Republican, a member of the Club Commercial Society.

J.K. and Frances had 5 daughters and a son, including my great great grandmother Georgia, who later married William Montgomery who worked his entire adult life at Gill’s.

J.K. first formed a partnership with George A. Steel, purchasing a business in 1871 at the corner of Front and Washington. They added musical instruments but weren’t happy business partners so Steel took over music, but in 1875 J.K. became the sole owner, closing out the music department.

Photo credit: Old Oregon Photos

Soon after Gill’s moved to First and Oak, and finally in 1893 to Third and Alder.

When Portland looked a bit like this…

Gills published 18 editions of this dictionary of the Chinook Jargon including the eighth edition in 1881. The eighteenth edition was published in 1960

Online source: The University of British Columbia.

J.K. Gill was one of the original founders of Ocean Park WA in 1883, when its campground was used for Methodist church retreats. He soon after bought a summer home, which began generations of family gatherings on the Peninsula.

In 1884 he founded the Columbia River Paper company with Henry Pittock (and William Lewthwaite), and Gill served as president. I learned by reading his unpublished diary that he never felt he gained what he might have from that venture.

J.K. Was the first president of the Lang Syne Society of Portland, a professional men’s organization.

Source: Lang Syne Society of Portland: A Centennial History: 1914-2014.

In 1892 he climbed Mt. Hood. The venture entailed horse and buggy ride to a base camp, sleep overnight, hike the next day to summit.

Gill’s remained an office supply company specializing in books and school supplies, and including book signings from famous people like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.

Source: family photos.

Perhaps Gill’s grandest building was built in 1922 at Southwest 5th and Stark (today the Gladys McCoy Building, owned by Multnomah County).

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Gill’s chain stores in regional shopping malls continued well after his death, although the downtown store closed in 1991. Gill’s couldn’t keep up with store competition and was forced out of business, closing its last store in 1999.


The end of a Portland bookstore legacy….until Powell’s, perhaps.

Want to learn more? Check out information about My Music Man and In the News.

Copyright 2019 @dedemontgomery.com

13 thoughts on “J.K. Gill: In 5 minutes or less

  1. thank you for posting this – I couldn’t attend yesterday. such rich history you hold
    and btw – I would have been one of those raising her hand as I loved shopping at J K Gills

    ps will you please tell you Mom hello?


  2. Fascinating history, and I love the photos! Thank you for posting. As I recall, the company stayed in family ownership for many years, but ultimately sold to Young and Rubicam, which always struck me as an odd fit. It was that distant corporate ownership that ultimately saw the business fail and close, I believe.


    • Yes, in my Ignite talk – limited to 15 seconds per slide – I didn’t get into much detail. In other notes I have that it was sold outside family in 1970 and that may have led to its failing after 1999 when the last store closed. If you imagine the popularity of office and chain book stores of that time, its not hard to imagine the difficulty of making it regionally (once they got rid of the downtown store). Thanks for chiming in!


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  5. I worked for J. K. Gill for 10 years just out of college (Univerisity of Washington). I started at the Northgate store, then ultimately became a buyer in the Rancho Bernardo, CA office during the Brodart years. While I never had the pleasure of meeting him, my coworkers who had been transferred down form Portland were very sentimental about Mark Gill.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. i am also a gill after reading this article i believe that jk gills brother sam was my great grandfather he was jk gills brother he was a steamship engineer up and down the columbia my grandfather was also joseph gill named after his uncle he married rita howland who was a school teacher in portland and he was an engineer they had 3 sons one of which was my father who was an orthapedic surgeon and later put his brother through medical school my father was joseph howland and his brother was sam named after his uncle sam jk gills brother there was a 3rd son dick who was an ace pilet in would war 2 and was shot down and killed i remember many amazing times in ocean park as a small child and at present live in ilwaco i have pictures of many family members including sam gill on one of the ships he engineered and his engineering license plus a log book jk gills cabin is still in ocean park and is a historical site i remember going to the jk gill store i always thought of it as a place where they had endless art supplies i now live in ilwaco and volunteered at the museum but sadly will be moving in the near future to a small town in the mountails cougar i learned much from your blog thank you susan gill

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Susan and thanks for finding this and sharing! Yes, I share in my memoir (My Music Man – you might really enjoy this and can find it in many libraries or buy it) that Sam Gill was a hero of my Dad and Grandfather. In fact, my grandfather (author of The White Headed Eagle and other historical books) is quoted as wanted to have written a book about Sam but couldn’t find enough. When my dad was President of the Oregon Maritime Museum based on the Steamer Portland he was often quoted talking about Sam. You can find more about my memoir on my website under books. Here’s a blog with a photo of him and more: https://dedemontgomery.com/2018/01/27/but-of-all-boats-dad-most-loved-steamboats/. Please stay in touch.


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