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Another Portland Blog

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

 

Tom Peterson's (and Gloria's, Too!), 1964 - 2009




It's the end of an era, gone but not forgotten to anyone who watched local news broadcasts or late night TV in Portland between 1964 and the early '00s. Tom Peterson's (and Gloria's Too!) is no more. Another local blog, The ZehnKratzen Times, has photos of a lease sign on the front of the building and the store's phone number has been disconnected. The store, the last remaining of a chain, closed sometime within the past month.

Despite being an area institution once as memorable as the "Made in Oregon" sign or Sam Adam's libido, it's surprising that no local news organization ran a tribute or a eulogy for the late, great home furnishing empire. Tom Peterson, his stores and his kooky marketing tactics were once infamous here in Portland. His iconic logo and "wake up! wake up!" ad campaign are still sure to conjure up memories for two generations of locals.




At the height of Peterson's glory in the 1980s, his face graced alarm clocks, Halloween masks and t-shirts. His stores offered free flat-top haircuts on the weekends and a trolley carted customers from location to location. You couldn't turn on the news or watch reruns of Cheers on KPTV without seeing one of his commercials. He had cameos in Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and Mr Holland's Opus. Kurt Cobain can even be seen wearing one of his watches in this Nirvana poster.




Then the bubble burst for Peterson around 1990 when he made the mistake of investing heavily in a chain of local stereo stores as larger electronics chains like Circuit City began making inroads in Portland. Within a few years, he was bankrupt and his empire toppled but his story had a second act. Peterson, a man of humble beginnings (his wife Gloria once told the Oregonian he had holes in his shoes and nary a penny to his name when they first met) rallied back. He scaled the stores down to a single location on SE 82nd and the operation continued on as Tom Peterson's (and Gloria's Too!) for a number of years.

But he never reached those previous heights again. Eventually, the operation was moved to a smaller building on SE Insley. Peterson worked at both the store and as a motivational speaker for a while before his declining health began to wear on him. During its final years of operation, a family member managed the store.




Over winter break, a friend of mine who grew up in Portland flew out from DC. He had a list of places he wanted to see during his visit. In addition to Powell's Books and the typical places expats always hit, he wanted to see Tom Peterson's. I drove him over there on a cloudy December afternoon so he could buy a t-shirt and grab one of the masks. We chatted with a guy working at the front counter and he admitted that the store's days were numbered but that they'd had "one heck of a long run." My friend later penned a Wikipedia page on Tom Peterson.

I have one of Mr. Peterson's alarm clocks still sitting on a shelf in my bathroom. It broke years ago but I can't bear to throw it away. I'm sure other clocks are sitting in bathrooms, guest bedrooms and attics all over town. Mr. Peterson's legacy may be an odd one but he left a mark on Portland that few ever will.

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