J.K. Gill’s returns

I thank my friend Sally for alerting me to a story I was surprised to have missed when it was released a month prior. Perhaps it’s time to update my google news feed search from Brazilian Blowout (as, no doubt, any news today on that depresses me these 10 years after we issued formaldehyde warnings) to J.K. Gill.

I had told myself that publishing Then, Now and In-Between earlier this month would release me from the urge to blog. That I would instead create brain space and time to draft my next fictional piece. Writing fiction, like Beyond the Ripples, takes me to a different writing plane: freeing, timeless, creative. And I want to experience that again. I will. Yet, blogging also soothes my soul. Whether it is five or 5,000 people who read these blogs, my brain seems unable to stop creating new ones. And so, I will continue to help these pieces escape. Like this one.

After hearing from my friend Sally, I reached out first, to Stephanie Basalyga, author of the Jan. 6 Portland Tribune article, who then put me in touch with her contact, who shortly after, put me in contact with Tom Kilbane and Hilary Alter, both of Urban Renaissance Group. Two weeks ago I was invited by Tom and Hilary to meet and tour the inside of this historic building, and for me, perhaps, to share what I knew of family stories and roots. I had to laugh when Tom warned me the building was an active construction site – hard hat and safety glasses would be required. I couldn’t help but tell him in jest, that I was in fact, a seasoned safety and health professional – but promised I wouldn’t report any safety violations if I noticed them. Of course, once I recognized the prime contractor to be Fortis, it confirmed that – me being a safety professional or not – the site and its workforce is in good hands. (In fact, the Fortis Site Manager kindly gave me my own J.K. Gill/Fortis hard hat sticker.)

For those unfamiliar with downtown Portland’s history, this building originally was built in 1922 for ~$300,000 – with a total cost including land and furnishings of ~$600,000 – as a book and stationary store owned by my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Kaye Gill.

Before all this, J.K. first sold books in his mother-in-law’s half share of a Salem, Oregon drugstore. J.K. had married Frances Willson in 1866, daughter of then deceased William Willson, and his then widow, Chloe Clarke Willson. In ~1868, J.K. opened his first true bookstore at 356 State Street in Salem. Followers of this blog have likely read about these three individuals in my previous writing.

Gill’s ~1868 at 356 State Street, Salem, Oregon.

In 1871, J.K. sold his business and moved to Portland, along with his wife Frances, and mother-in-law, Chloe.  It was then that J.K. first formed a partnership with George A. Steel under the name Gill & Steel, purchasing the business of Harris & Holman at SW 1st and Washington (who purchased from J.L. Parish & Co., and them from A.R. Shipley – the first book and stationary store in Portland founded in 1857). In 1872 Gill & Steel’s added musical instruments to their stock, including Chickering and Emerson pianos, and Mason & Hamlin organs. J.K. and George Steel became dissatisfied partners soon after, settling their differences by breaking into two departments: J.K. kept books and stationary, Mr. Steel took over music. However, it was short-lived and in 1875, J.K. became the sole owner, closed out the music department, and remained as J.K. Gill & Company. (from: Early bookselling: Ticknor & Fields to Gills – some of this is also now included in Then, Now, and In-Between.) Sometime during the mid-1870’s Gill’s moved to First and Oak. In 1893 Gill’s moved to the former Masonic Lodge at Third and Alder (details exist about a split between Gill’s and W.B. Ayer and Company prior to this, but branches reunited under the J.K. Gill name in 1988).

Finally, in 1922, Gill’s moved to the building now being discussed, and most recently recognized as the Gladys McCoy Building. During the era when Gill’s operated in this building, the store was considered the largest distributor of books in the Pacific Northwest. Wikipedia today tells me it was also once the largest business of its kind in any U.S. city the size of Portland. (You’d think I should be able to retire, knowing that?)

The downtown Gill’s Store closed in 1991, and although J.K. died in 1931, it was managed by family – including my great-grandfather William Montgomery (who I will discuss during my talk next month at the MAC as an original “footballer”). Smaller chain stores existed in shopping malls after its closure, but Gill’s had been sold outside of family in 1980. Late in the 1990s with increasing competition from larger, national book companies, Gill’s was forced out of business and closed its last store in 1999.

The two downtown Portland Gill stores, image credit Oregon Historical Society, and Lang Syne Society (J.K. Gill served as first president).

So, I got that tour of the downstairs main area, solid columns making the building far more structurally sound than many of such age. The current owner imagines an expanded and renovated ground-floor lobby with a decor that tribute the original J.K. Gill store’s ties to books and stationary.

The store from family album – check out the columns!

I can’t say that a lot of young memories from those days of visiting Gill’s spilled out of me as I was inside the building, now in the midst of construction. No…..that was until I stood outside the doorway along 5th Avenue. It was there that I had the memories of visiting Gill’s when it was still downtown, still owned by family.

This tour was such a highlight for me! I send a big thank you to Hilary, Tom and Urban Renaissance, for taking time to meet with me. I look forward to watching the building as it evolves into its 2020 and beyond state. Perhaps someday I can have a cup of tea inside and think about times, and people, long gone.

Historical remnant from the old store days, adjacent to the entrance facing SW 5th Avenue.

Learn more about Dede’s three published books.

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