Photograph by Philip Steffen

Another weekend, another thrift store gem

Sellwood Union Vintage, a crown jewel of the Sellwood scene, is located a short two blocks up 13th Avenue from the Pioneer Express’s 13th and Tacoma stop. Compared to many of the flashy boutique storefronts of 13th Avenue, Sellwood Union is somewhat unassuming. The branding in the windows is limited to white block letters announcing both “Modern Clothing” and “Vintage Clothing,” and aside from a small placard with the store’s Instagram account in the window, there is no indication of the store’s name. 

Sellwood Union’s owner Corey Guidry said this laid back approach to storefront setup is by design. 

“It’s about keeping Portland the way it was,” Guidry said, also emphasizing the store’s commitment to sustainability. “The way things were before everything became pop, Urban Outfitters.” 

Indeed, Sellwood Union’s sparse advertising does it no disservice: The dense racks of t-shirts, flannels, jackets and sweatshirts that fill the windows and overflow out onto the street do more than enough to draw the intrigued passerby into the packed old building, which used to house a coffee shop and hair salon. 

Once inside the historic 13th Avenue storefront, which Sellwood Union has operated out of since October 2019, visitors are greeted by a wide array of clothing. While technically a “vintage” store rather than pure thrift, Sellwood Union offers a wide variety of options for any budget. Merchandise ranges from high quality vintage leather apparel, which sells for the requisite price, all the way down to collected t-shirt oddities on the $10 rack. 

While appearing outwardly as a single store, Sellwood Union is in actuality more of a marketplace, composed of 15 separately curated and operated vendors, which Guidry refers to as “micro-businesses.” Largely independent, these vendors are bound by a simple set of rules that Guidry describes: “No brand stuff, no racial stereotypes, no hate symbols.”

Despite the large constellation of vendors inside, Sellwood Union manages to convey a coherent atmosphere, and the various sections in the front two rooms seem to flow in and out of each other seamlessly, producing a generalized ’90s alternative ambiance between chunky sweaters, baggy jeans and bright streetwear windbreakers.  

Further into the store a short set of stairs leads up into the back. Here, the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 single “Today” played on speakers to a room full of baseball caps, flannels and novelties. On one side of the back room there’s a small vendor selling a curated collection of old books and video tapes ranging from Shakespeare to Nabokov to L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics,” with a great selection of 1950s pulp science fiction to round things off. On the opposite side of the room, a vendor is selling a collection of art prints with various levels of esoteric appeal, all of which seem purpose made for dorm room decoration. 

As with many stores in Sellwood a large portion of the clientele is college students from Lewis & Clark, as well as Reed College. This demographic pattern is part of the larger dynamic of gentrification and redevelopment currently taking place in Sellwood, a situation which Guidry and Sellwood Union are very conscious of. Standing on the sidewalk in front of his store dressed in a large camo jacket with a sling bag over its shoulder, Guidry gestures across the avenue to a recently constructed building with garish metal siding. 

“The same company that built that monstrosity built another one up there” Guidry said, pointing up the road. 

Guidry takes pride in choosing and protecting authentic neighborhood buildings when he chooses his locations, which currently include the Sellwood Union and a location in the Nob Hill neighborhood north of Downtown Portland known as Northwest Union. 

“I look for cool old buildings,” Guidry said. 

The final rooms in Sellwood Union are two small ones adjoining the main back room. In these rooms the racks are less packed, and their more limited contents are strictly organized by color and style in a fashion that begs the shopper to compose an outfit. Both rooms have old windows which face the noon sun to the south, and the white sunlight striking the bright color coded racks fills both rooms with a pleasant glow. Such curation does of course come at a price, and items in these rooms carry a slight mark up, with most prices between $30-40. 

While checking out, the environment is relaxed, and the cashier makes small talk with the passing customers. There is no register, since the store is fashionably cash free, although all forms of payment apps are supported. 

Stepping out of Sellwood Union Vintage shoppers are transported back into the increasingly corporatized, financialized and gentrified environment of Sellwood. Even then, though, the alternative model of apparel trading that exists inside the microcosm of Sellwood Union is unlikely to leave visitors quickly. 

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