It’s what the store ultimately does. We present customers with product and it inevitably leads into this place of being curious. The store’s assortment creates choice, and so with that, we’re trying to build this sense of exploring.
I sat down last week with Pam Zsori, owner of Ink & Peat, listening as she described her move from San Francisco to Portland, the innate curiosity that develops in owning a store, and how the process of attraction to a product builds with greater knowledge, positioning the owner as educator, and moving shopping from an association of frivolity to an experience of learning and discovery.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon; Williams Avenue is a ghost of its usual self: A handful of young mothers and children scatter the streets, holding hands as they make their way to and from the park. It’s an hour or so before commuters head home and the bike lane is mostly empty. The New Seasons parking lot holds no more than ten cars and employees gather outside on break, preparing themselves for the inevitable pre-dinner shopping rush.
I walk into Ink & Peat, welcomed by a soft glow, the glimmer of three o’clock catching itself on objects throughout the store. It emits a certain warmth that builds in the visual display, a mix of clothing, home goods and other discoveries so carefully selected, that you step with the same awe as if entering a museum. A fun and fascinating, brilliantly designed museum.
We begin our conversation with context, with how Pam came to owning the store, what inspired the concept and aesthetic, and what brought her from San Francisco to Portland.
“I had been a textile designer for 15 years, and I came to a point where I thought about repositioning. One morning, I was at Brimfield (the thrice-yearly antique show in Brimfield, Massachusetts), and I was sitting on a picnic bench having my coffee. I began thinking about the things I could wake up early for, the things I was passionate about. That’s what I wanted to follow and dedicate myself to doing.”
Pam has always loved design. She loves the process of planning, reflecting upon the conceptualizing and the color palettes. With experience in textile design, Pam thrived in the fast-paced environment it demanded and the interaction between designers it allowed “And, of course, there was this creative energy built in. I loved all of it.”
The transition, then, from design to owning a store was nearly seamless. Pam notes the qualities her new position requires, and I realize that there’s a dual nature to what she does, to what the store asks of her. There’s details that need to be addressed, a certain analytic component to the product assortment, inventory and planning of the store. But there’s also the communication, the synergy between people created in the discussion of objects and discoveries the store presents.
Pam’s layered interests confirm my observation: “I like the idea of wearing multiple hats, where you can be thinking about numbers one minute and ordering a product, while also going out on the floor and interacting with a customer. I love the detail of the job, but I also like that it allows me to work with people. To collaborate and learn and interact.”
So Pam and her partner left San Francisco, where Pam had lived since graduating college. They headed to Portland trusting the fortuity of a single visit, but they soon found that the transition was right. “We really loved the architecture, the arts and crafts bungalows, the nature. And we loved the people. It’s true for almost everyone: the people are very friendly here. When we moved in, all of our neighbors came to visit us. One woman came with fresh lilacs, another brought homemade cookies. It was a wonderful welcome, and it made us feel like Portland could be home.”
It took her another two years following that to find the space for Ink & Peat. As Pam explains the process, she cites the shift in retail space opportunities in Portland between 2008, when the store opened, and today. Ten years ago, there was little option for what she was looking for, but now it seems that new retail space is rising up everywhere and opening throughout the city.
When she found the storefront on Williams, the space was mostly empty. The building served as an old food bank in the late 60s, early 70s, and Pam loved the idea of the space being rehabbed from an old building, inspired by the creativity it permitted her. “When I saw the sketches from the landlord, I got to use my imagination in reworking the interior. At the time, it was all cinderblock, there were no windows. But it had this integrity that allowed me to do so much. It had these gorgeous twenty-foot high, barrel-vaulted ceilings, and now, we have the roll-up garage door and high windows looking out on the street.”
And with renovations being made to the exterior, Pam considered the store’s aesthetic, how what she carried would be consistent with the space it inhabited. “From the beginning, I wanted the store to be light and airy. I’ve always said that the concept is eclectic and modern. Eclectic in the sense that we have textiles from India, Indonesia, and from different areas around the world. They’re collectible, one-of-a-kind. And then we also have modern products, like candles and handmade pottery. It’s always been this interesting contrast of sparse and clean with overly-embellished, and then seeing how these pieces mix in your home.”
Beyond that comes the question of trend, of developing the established aesthetic and adhering to the shifts in style to which consumers respond. Without, of course, promoting fast fashion.
But Pam is conscious of this, dedicating herself to the quality and longevity of her product. “It’s always this delicate dance between looking and feeling new and maintaining pieces that we love and the customer loves. You have to balance having something new for the customer to see and having what they fell in love with before.
“I definitely look at trends in terms of color and what types of patterns people are engaged with. And now that we’re doing clothing, I’m looking at the shapes people are interested in as well. But ultimately, what I think about is whether someone will have this for 10 years, 20 years, or the rest of their life. Because I don’t want to just sell consumables. I want to sell things that are well-made, that will last a long time and that people are investing in.”
After a pause, she adds to the thought, “What people don't realize is that this is true for many different price points. You can walk out of Ink & Peat with a $5 bar of soap or a $360 throw. There's many ways to bring pieces you love into your life and we acknowledge that by what's carried in the store."
Today, Ink & Peat shares its building with several other retailers, spaced out by multiple eateries along the street. Freelancers gather with laptops and notebooks at the Ristretto a few steps down, Eat: An Oyster Bar entertains diners with Cajun dishes, and Tasty n’ Sons regularly boasts weekend lines of no less than fifteen brunch enthusiasts.
And the rest of the street is no different, humming with a certain excitement for the Portland in flux. The Williams District is featured in countless travel blogs and cited in guides to Portland’s best restaurants, nightlife, and shopping. As a result, multiple housing projects are popping up in the neighborhood, with apartments crowding among the retailers.
“The neighborhood is up-and-coming,” Pam explains. “And because of that, it takes businesses a while to be established here. The area is going to continue to change, because people see the opportunity in the old buildings that can be torn down and rehabbed. The construction is ongoing; I’d predict that in 3-5 years we may see it slow down. But really, people just need to understand that all of Portland is like that right now.”
Despite the change, or maybe because of it, Pam loves where she is. The stores surrounding Ink & Peat interact with one another in a way similar to the warm welcoming Pam’s neighbors offered upon her arrival. “We’re a group of like-minded stores and restaurants; we all just want to support one another. There’s an interaction among us: if someone is waiting for their reservation, they’ll often come here and browse before dinner. It’s a collaborative network of stores and of people who want to help each other succeed.”
I think of a final question as we come to the end of our conversation. Ink & Peat is a mix of apparel and gift, an array of beauty products, greeting cards, beautiful throws, and blouses. But tucked amidst all of this is a library of cookbooks so precisely chosen and perfectly selected, loved as a resource of culinary inspiration and aesthetic pleasure. I want to know how Pam researched and discovered such a collection and what she intended in its mix.
“I’ve been a vegetarian for 22 years, so much of it, admittedly, caters to that. But there is variety, and I suppose then that maybe I focus moreso on healthy eating, on recipes that are accessible for many cooks, with ingredients that aren’t a mile long. I like to pick books that are visually appealing and ones that I can cook with."
“I’m looking for really beautiful photography, with matte paper and stunning covers. So many people today are looking at recipes online that I think cookbook publishers have begun focusing more on creating wonderful content. I became vegetarian at the time we had the Moosewood Cookbook. It’s a great cookbook, but it’s brown text, on brown paper, a brown cover and no pictures. So, to me, it’s inspiring to find cookbooks that are really more like coffee table books. They have design inspiration and visual inspiration. Some of them are really like lifestyle books instead.”
And Pam’s right; there is a new way of consuming cookbooks that drives the sort of material we see being produced. I often take cookbooks to the couch, a glass of wine in hand, sometimes looking very little at the recipes and staring only at the stunningly-composed images, noting the aspirational quality to it all.
Pam comments on this. “It seems that’s how most people are looking at cookbooks these days. It’s like a little visual treat.”
She notes that there are people who come in, commenting that the collection of cookbooks is tightly-curated. Pam compares it to Powell’s, whose endless array of choice overwhelms, supplying no direction for the reader: “That works when you go in with a specific intention, when you already know what you’re looking for. At Ink & Peat, we choose what we think will align with the customer’s curiosity, giving them the freedom to discover something for themselves.”
Ink & Peat. 3808 N Williams Ave # 126, Portland. (503) 282-6688
Monday - Friday 11 to 6. Saturday 10 to 6. Sunday 11 to 5