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Portland’s downtown Saturday Market is open for business

Customers flock to Portland Saturday Market after its reopening in mid-April 2021. The market had been only open June - September in 2020. Vendors used to sell to customers from March through most of December.
Courtesy Howie Bierbaum
Customers flock to Portland Saturday Market after its reopening in mid-April 2021. The market had been only open June - September in 2020. Vendors used to sell to customers from March through most of December.

Before the pandemic Portland’s Saturday Market was open weekends from March through most of December. But the outdoor market’s vendors have suffered from closures during the pandemic. Executive director Howie Bierbaum says all told the market was only open 22% of its usual run last year. Now the market is open for business again, although just on Saturdays. Still, about a third of vendors haven’t returned. We hear from Bierman and Dagny Haug, owner of Bonus Pants about weathering the pandemic and how Portland Saturday Market is planning for the rest of the year.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross. If you’ve been itching to get back outside and maybe grab a curry and browse through some handmade clothing and artisanal soap, you are in luck.  After more than a year of COVID-19  closures and restrictions, the Portland Saturday Market is open again on the downtown waterfront. It’s smaller, it’s on Saturdays only, but it is there. Howie Bierbaum is the executive director of the Portland Saturday Market and Dagny Haug is a vendor and the owner of Bonus Pants and they both join us now on the line. Howie, Dagny, good to have you.

Howie Bierbaum: Thank you.

Dagny Haug: Thank you.

Norcross:  Howie, let’s start with you. Could you give us a sense of how the Saturday Market was doing before March of last year, when you had to shut down?

Bierbaum: It was doing well, business as usual. Good attendance, typically averaging 200 plus vendors every Saturday, a little less on Sundays. The COVID surprise really knocked us out, but we’re dusting ourselves off and coming back.

Norcross: What was the decision like to have to shut things down?

Bierbaum: Well, we didn’t have a decision. It was made for us. We opened in March, we were open for a few weeks in 2020 and then we were shut down by the city and state and were allowed to reopen in late June of 2020. And then based on our budget forecasts, we decided it was wise to close at the end of September and hold on to our funds for a stronger 2021. And then the forest fires hit anyway in mid September and forced us to shutter once again. So our last day was September 26, 2020, and we opened up again in April of 2021 and things have been going really well.

Norcross: How was business before the shutdown?

Bierbaum: It was really solid. It was consistent and solid and it was just getting shut down really. You know we basically represent over 250 small businesses so it’s a real huge impact not only to the organizational structure and the organization but the actual vendors themselves who make a living as artisans.

Norcross: Yeah. And when you made the decision or more accurately as you point out, the decision was made for you to shut down, did you have any sense of how long you would have to stay closed?

Bierbaum: No. No idea. We met weekly as an executive committee and the board and I met weekly and we just kind of went with the flow and you know I scrambled and wrote the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan),  PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) and all those various grant requests. And we received a substantial amount of funds which certainly helped save us. But we did have to dip into our reserves which was unfortunate and we’re hoping to rebuild that back over the next few years.

Norcross: You mentioned that you did reopen for a little bit last year. How did that go?

Bierbaum: We had to create a new footprint with social distancing between the booths. So we lost about 40% of our booths. We went from roughly 250 to about 150-160 I believe. And so that kind of hurt but it made it a safer shopping experience for our customers. So that was a big plus. But we had to just pivot regularly and try and make this thing work. So it’s the biggest challenge I ever had in my professional career as an executive director. I’ll tell you that much.

Norcross: I can imagine. Was it a little bit easier, though, given the fact that you operate outside?

Bierbaum: Yes, that made it easier. I have friends that own restaurants and businesses and I really felt for them because it wasn’t viable for them to open at all. So being outdoors made the shopping experience safer. And I think that really helped us. We had okay attendance, not great attendance between June and September of last year, but this year we opened and we’ve been really busy. I think people are really itching to get back outside and do things and spend money. So it’s been really a good rebound.

Norcross: We have Dagny Haug on the line. She’s one of the vendors at the Portland Saturday Market. Can you describe your products starting with the bonus pants of Bonus Pants?

Haug: Well, the concept behind Bonus Pants is that if you’re already wearing pants, underwear constitutes just a bonus. So what I do is I use novelty prints and I specifically choose them so that I can make stupid jokes. For instance, I’ve got one design that has planets all over it. The title that’s on the front of the wrapper is Uranus. And then I developed a list for the back of the wrapper that tells you who they are suitable for. In that case it’s astrologers, astronomers, astronauts, proctologists, things going along a theme.

Norcross: Yeah, I get it. When did you start this business?

Haug: I began it in 2004, but I didn’t really pursue it in earnest until 2008. That was when I quit my day job and started doing market full time. And it’s been a mainstay of my business, along with my online presence ever since 2008.

Norcross: How big a part of your business is the Saturday Market? Or has it been?

Haug: Easily 50%.

Norcross: What did you do during the shutdown?

Haug: Well, I was in a very lucky position because of the nature of what I do, I’ve got the skill set to have been able to make masks. And it was kind of strange because I would look on Etsy and do a search for masks and there would be tens of thousands of results and I thought there are plenty of people making masks. I don’t think I need to throw my efforts into this. And then my customers started contacting me. And I really credit the way that Saturday Market has built and sustained my business. My customers wanted my masks, they wanted, they know my workmanship, they know my taste and fabrics. And so that sort of forced a pivot and what I ended up doing was making masks.

Norcross: Are you pivoting back though? Are you back to making your old lines?

Haug: Yes.

Norcross: Okay. What’s it like to be back in that business?

Haug: Well another aspect to what I do with the business. It’s not just the underwear, although I’m sure that people need a fresh pair every now and again. I also make oven mitts and pot holders out of the same kinds of novelty fabrics. And one of the things that I’ve found true since restrictions are easing and things of that nature, I am selling the living heck out of oven mitts and pot holders because everybody has spent a full year cooking from home. And so all of their kitchen linens look like hell, so there’s a different aspect to an economic recovery. I didn’t see that coming, but I got everybody covered.

Norcross: Well, what did it tell you? That you can pivot and make different lines based on what’s happening in the world?

Haug: For sure. Yeah, it pays to pay attention, I guess, is the moral of that story.

Norcross: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking about the revitalized Portland Saturday Market. Dagny Haug is a vendor there and Howie Bierbaum, is the executive director of the Portland Saturday Market. Howie, how many of your vendors have come back?

Berbaum: We have, on average about 125 a week. We lost some vendors, you know, the pandemic? There were some vendors that were with us since the market’s inception in 1974 and I think the pandemic caused them to take a step back and go,  “I’m ready to retire.” So we lost a few of our valued older vendors. Membership went down but now we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in people applying. And we had about 15 new vendors during the month of May alone. So it’s an ebb and flow. I think we have to pivot as an organization and be a little more nimble and make things more accessible and we’re heading in that right direction.

Norcross: Has the loss of a few vendors added up to a loss for you because I understand that you rely on fees from vendors?

Bierbaum: Yeah, the vendors themselves constitute 90 plus percent of our revenue. And so membership is really important to the organization to sustain it. So the addition of new vendors as old ones retire is really vital to the organization. And typically it’s the kind of the word around the market is in bad economic times, the market does better because people need a side hustle. And unfortunately, it was such a unique downturn that didn’t really pan out for the market that way. But what we’re seeing is we’re getting younger and more diverse members/vendors selling at the market in the hopes of joining us as full members.

Norcross: So what did you need to do to open back up? What were the conditions in terms of social distancing and masks and other stipulations?

Bierbaum: We’re continuing what we started with when we reopened in April. Hopefully they’ll go away by July 4th. Masts are strongly encouraged, but not mandated. Being Portland, roughly 95% of our customers wore masks anyway, So that was really encouraging. Social distancing between the booths. We have readily available hand sanitizer and that’s about it. And you know, we’re outdoors so it’s a pretty safe environment to begin with.

Norcross: Sure. Can you give me a sense of what it’s like now compared to the experience of the Portland Saturday Market before the pandemic hit?

Bierbaum: To me, it feels about the same and it actually feels a little bit more comfortable, ironically, because there’s a little more breathing room, so to speak, when you have six feet between the booths. So there’s more aisles and it doesn’t feel much different. The one thing I will say as someone who’s been in the arts and entertainment world in past lives. We haven’t had live entertainment on the weekends. So that’s been disappointing and we’re hoping to bring it back next year for sure. The biggest change for me that I see is the lack of live music, but we still have the buskers on the periphery of the market.

Norcross: Why couldn’t you have live music?

Bierbaum: This was one of the stipulations from the county. They didn’t want live performances. They basically didn’t want people “lingering too long.” And so they didn’t want us to set out tables and chairs, stuff like that. They wanted you to move along and get your food to go and they didn’t want people lingering. So whether I agree with that or not, we complied. And so no live music was part of that package.

Norcross: Dagny. What about your perspective, you were there before the pandemic? You’re there now. How is it different for you?

Haug: Well, there were a couple of other aspects that he didn’t mention. We also had to fence off the site and especially at the initial inception of being able to reopen, we had to count the attendees to make sure that we had adequate spacing for the number of people who were on the site. And seeing the aisles to be so sparsely populated with customers by restriction rather than by lack of interest was a very big shift. It was a very different view than how the market has always been in my experience. And so as things are, as restrictions are easing, as people are feeling more comfortable, we still have the fences up, but we’re not in a position where we have to count attendees anymore. It’s beginning to feel more normal. There is still a good proportion of customers who are walking around with masks. At this point, all vendors are still wearing masks. But we’re face coverings of some sort. It’s beginning to feel like people are more comfortable being in proximity to each other. The outdoor thing notwithstanding, it just feels like it’s expanding back to kind of how it was before.

Norcross: Although Howie  I gotta wonder. The pandemic has been a transformational change for so many industries. Is there any way that the market has changed forever because of this?

Bierbaum: That remains to be seen? Once again, I think there’s going to be a couple of more pivots before we’re fully back to what we consider normal or the new normal. So I don’t know. You never know what’s gonna come next. We didn’t expect the forest fires last fall that shut us down for two weeks. So one discussion we had at the board level is should we have blackout two weekends a year in our budget because of whatever comes next, forest fires or another health issue or another disaster. So it’s made us more aware of how vulnerable we can be financially and how we have to plan moving forward budget wise.

Norcross: You know, all of downtown Portland is trying to figure out how to do what you’re doing to come back after the pandemic and it must be said of the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year. And I’m wondering how you think your experience with the Portland Saturday Market will be helpful to other merchants downtown?

Bierbaum: Well, I want to say that I was really pleased. We had really good support from both the city and Travel Portland and the City of Portland Parks in particular. They were really, really supportive and I got to feel that some of that was based on the fact that as goes the Saturday Market, so goes downtown retail and so they really wanted us to succeed and we did. And I think that’s a really good bellwether for retailers downtown. Nearby neighbors like Mother’s Bistro just reopened and she’s doing well. Voodoo Doughnuts finally has lines waiting for their products. So it’s encouraging to see a slow, steady and positive improvement in the downtown scene.

Norcross: What about you, Dagny? What’s your take on the relationship between a healthy Saturday Market and bringing customers back to downtown Portland?

Haug: I think that part of what we have always had going for us is that we are situated in what’s known as a problematic neighborhood of Portland to begin with. And all of the media attention that has come to the protests and the things that have happened up around the Justice Center and things of that nature. It sort of is lending the reputation that we’ve overcome to other parts of the city. And so for people to be able to come down to the Old Town Neighborhood and we’re there. We’ve set up our little city of artisans and people can go and have a good time and feel confident and safe being there. It’s something that people can draft off of our confidence that we that we approach our stuff with on a every day on a week to week basis.

Norcross: Dagny Haug, Howie Bierbaum, we’ve got to leave it there. Thank you both very much and best of luck to you.

Bierbaum: Thanks.

Haug: Thank you so much.

Norcross: Dagny Haug is a vendor and the owner of Bonus Pants and Howie Bierbaum is the executive director of the Portland Saturday Market.

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Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Allison Frost