March 11, 2008

Eyewitness: Trader Joe's has nothing on Import Plaza

It seems the world – Central Oregon’s center of the universe anyway – is all atwitter about the upcoming opening of Trader Joe’s in Bend. It shouldn’t come as any big surprise to anyone who knows me that I only ‘discovered’ Trader Joe’s a couple of years ago. Oh, I’d heard about it for years – like I did the first “Star Wars” movie, telephone answering machines and cable television – but like everything else I seem to be the last person on my block to check it out.

I dropped in on a Trader Joe’s in Portland two years ago with my SINK (single income no kids) yuppie girlfriend who knows where all the hot shopping places are. It was incredibly busy and packed to the ceiling with unusual food stuffs that those of us who shop at Sentry have never even heard of. Dried and salted squid in a sack like a bag of chips, candied citrus rinds, exotic cheeses and cured meats, things that might have been cookies, in boxes with foreign names I couldn’t read.

People in the know, I understand, love Trader Joe’s. They like buying things they can’t find anyplace else at a price not to be beat.

Obviously, none of these people grew up in Import Plaza.

For the unfortunate ignorant souls who never heard of the iconic Portland store, it was a fairyland of excess, a jumble of flotsam and jetsam from all over the world.

It was paradise.

It was the deliciously tacky, cheaper – and much larger – version of Pier I or Cost Plus Market.

In real terms it was a warehouse-style retail import store owned by the famed Naito family. They had a few stores but we always shopped in the granddaddy store in the still-seedy Old Town section of Portland.

Why did my family like Import Plaza so much? Well, it was foreign and it was cheap. It was so cheap that in hindsight I realize most of the goods sold there were probably made with near slave labor earning 10 cents a day.

But people didn’t think much about things like that back then and we relished our great deals. More often, we needed those $5 Indian bedspreads and 50 cent boxes of muesli to make ends meet.

Quite an eclectic crowd shopped at Import Plaza. Many were like my mother, former middle-class professionals down on their luck, but just as many were West Hills matriarchs slumming for bargains, Chinese families seeking the right ingredients for a special meal, and scores of hippies.

Hippies loved Import Plaza. That’s where they bought the large ‘tapestries’ for their walls, with scenes of unicorns frolicking in the woods, regal stags on cliff faces, and tigers in the jungle. Tapestries were handy in covering up plaster walls with holes and windows with cracks that let in the cold.

They bought thin cotton coverings from India in wild patterns to cover their sagging sofas and coffee tables with one wonky leg made of rattan from Taiwan.

That was the dark underbelly of Import Plaza. You had to be a discerning shopper because a lot of what was sold there was junk, plain and simple. It was cracked, torn, broken or – more often – just poorly made in the first place.

That made a shopping trip there like a detective story. Who could roam all three stories and find the best value for their dollar?

We bought dishes there all the time, at prices so cheap we could easily replace them with new ones when we got tired of looking at them.

We bought beaded curtains and posters for our walls and toys certainly made in China that no doubt contained lead.

I fell in those with the sesame-and-honey wafers and rice candy from China that melted in your mouth. I couldn’t get enough of the peacock feathers and bamboo window shades and brass bells. Flip-flops with seagrass footbeds, cheap kimono robes in garish colors, and straw hats shaped like cones, last seen by me in a movie about rice planters in Asia.

Import Plaza no doubt had great influence on my shopping taste as an adult. I’m a sucker for cheap and foreign to this day.

I enjoyed my little foray into Trader Joe’s but don’t find it likely I’ll be shopping there much. It’s mostly food and mostly food I never heard of and wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway.

Might drop in for some of those rice candies though.

-- author Leslie Pugmire Hole is editor of the Redmond Spokesman


gnostraeh said...

I ran into your piece here when nostalgically googling for Import Plaza.
I discovered the place as a teen, and although I DO shop at Trader Joes and World Market(for lack of an Import Plaza) my shopping there probably has its roots in my formative teens years and the hours spent browsing and discovering in the isles of that icon of my formative years, the original Import Plaza.
Thanks for your great descriptions. You made it alive again for me.

Anonymous said...

Just today I realized that Pier One IS NOT Import Plaza!! I kept thinking what happened to the good ol' store I used to shop at?? Now I know. Pier One is not Import Plaza. I am a 56 year old Portland native and remember LOVING the downtown Import Plaza when I was a penniless teen. What treasures I could find. I say, "Bring back Import Plaza!!" =)