The original handcrafted gifts store
Now one of the largest privately-owned fine craft galleries in the nation, The Real Mother Goose began as a humble 650-square foot gallery and shop in Vancouver in 1971. Run by husband and wife team Stan and Judy Gillis, The Real Mother Goose features American-made jewelry, art-glass, ceramics, furniture and more from nearly 1,000 local and national artists at its downtown and Portland International Airport locations.
What inspired you to open The Real Mother Goose?
The emergence of the modern American crafts movement began in the mid-1960s when many young people decided to run their own businesses based on creating functional, yet artful items. In the early 1970s, our good friend Steve Stout began to buy unique, handcrafted merchandise from the hippy artists in Berkeley. At first, the items he purchased were for gifts and for his own use, but soon his garage was full of boxes filled with beautiful handmade items.
Friends suggested that he consider opening a specialty retail store so he approached me to partner up and run the business. I had put myself through college by working in jewelry stores, among other jobs. That experience, along with my bachelor’s degree in business, gave us the confidence to open our first store in downtown Vancouver, Washington in the spring of 1971.
Most of our merchandise in the early years came from those hippy artisans in Berkeley and most of them had no experience dealing with retailers since they had typically sold their work directly to consumers up to that point. It took some persuasion to get them to consider filling our orders on a regular basis and extending discounts to us for volume purchasing. We loved working with the artisans, but it sometimes felt like we were conducting business training courses.
As our business grew, we developed relationships with many local and regional artisans. In 1974, we opened a second store in Washington Square Mall near Tigard and shortly after, Stout closed the Vancouver store and sold his interest in the business.
By the late 1970s, we were attending major, semi-annual wholesale craft shows, on the East Coast and began buying from small studios across the nation. The Berkeley connections have continued for many years, but became a smaller percentage of our inventory as time went by.
In 1978, we opened a store in downtown Portland. After many expansions, this has become our flagship store with a city block of display windows and 8,000 square-feet showcasing work by over 900 American designers, artists, and craftspeople.
As The Real Mother Goose has grown over the years, how have you stayed true to your original vision– or has your focus changed?
Our original vision was to build an ever-changing collection of unique high-quality, handcrafted products by American artisans and display it in a retail environment where customers would feel comfortable viewing, purchasing and learning about American craft and art. Our focus has not changed. However, since the recession, many of the nation’s craft stores and galleries have started adding imported and mass-produced items to their merchandise mix to try to increase customer interest and improve sales and profit margins.
Tell me about some of your favorite artisans. What makes their pieces stand out?
Ashley May Heitzaman is a Portland jewelry designer. She creates fresh and modern designs in copper, silver, brass and gold that function as wearable art. Toby Pomeroy is also an Oregon jewelry designer and he is the father of Portland chef Naomi Pomeroy. For over 35 years, he has been creating jewelry by forging the metals by hand, ensuring minimal environmental impact. Toby has become a world leader in environmentally sustainable and socially responsible jewelry by using EcoGold and EcoSilver, which are acquired from recycled metal.
We also have pieces by Nicole Aquillano, who is a Boston potter. She took an unconventional path to her MFA in ceramics by first pursuing a career in civil engineering. Her ceramic pieces feature drawings of historical buildings and other structures, including Portland’s own Steel Bridge.
Like Nicole, Donald Carlson completed a formal education with a BS, BA, MS, MFA, and MBA before embarking on a career in glassblowing. He built one of the first private glass studios in the U.S. and now he works in his studio on the Oregon coast creating vases, bowls, and vibrant glass cherries up to 24 inches tall. Our other glassblowers include nationally known Bob and Lauire Kliss from California. They have studied at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State, taught many workshops in California, and have been guest curators at the Fresno Art Museum. I think their work is both stunning and whimsical. Imagine an exotic glass flower emerging from the top of a delicate vase form.
And finally, we have Ralph Phillips, who is an Oregon furniture designer/maker known for his use of gem-quality woods, which are often mixed with metal to create unique, functional pieces. He likes the challenge of designing pieces to fit a client’s specific needs.