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November 29th, 2006 Alice Joy | Q & A
 

Karen Leppmann

A longtime toy-store owner wonders if downtown construction will dampen holiday cheer.

     
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Karen Leppmann
IMAGE: JENNA BIGGS
Karen Leppmann likes to play with toys. For a living.

As the 54-year-old owner of Finnegan's Toys and Gifts, Leppmann has provided a staple of downtown Portland shopping since 1977.

But Leppmann is worried that Finnegan's, the largest independently owned toy store in Portland, could be undermined by downtown construction on an underground parking garage that began in June less than a block from her store.

There will be a downtown construction moratorium during the holidays, Although Leppmann remains concerned in the long term about construction that will last through early 2008.

WW: How much have your sales suffered since construction began?

Karen Leppmann: They were down a little bit for a month or so, but then they came back up. The real test will be in December. That's when a toy store does most of its business. We lose money several months of the year and have to make it up during the holidays. That's true of most retail businesses—I don't know yet what's going to happen.

Have you hired fewer holiday staff?

No, I take the attitude that you have to assume things are going to go well and be prepared, because they need training. So no, we've not done that. I have bought as if we're going to have a good year—and I hope we will.

If sales declined because of the construction, what can a short-term moratorium do for you?

Downtown businesses learned when they were constructing light rail 20 years ago that the downtown could die while they were improving it. And so they instigated the annual moratorium. And we just said, it was there for a reason, and this year we needed it as well. Locally owned businesses are what make a downtown different from a mall. And those businesses represent a large part of the local economy. They employ a lot of people.

Isn't the short-term cost of the construction for the good of the stores in the end?

I don't know that it will affect sales in a positive way. It will affect them in a negative way in the short term, and you don't make up those sales ever. But if downtown continues to become better in the way that it has in the past several years, then yes. I think it will just be that much better of a place to be.

What's the danger that the construction will drive shoppers in the long term to the suburbs?

I think Portland has a commitment to supporting local businesses. Maybe more than people in other cities. Portlanders do feel strongly about supporting local people. So I hope that people will think about that when they decide where to go. There are more competitors now than there were before. Because there's Bridgeport Village [in Washington County], and Lloyd Center looks better than it did 10 years ago, and Washington Square...and there are other choices that people can take. And they don't involve coming downtown. But mall shopping is very different from downtown shopping. Downtown has a special feel about it. That's why people come here. So I hope people will make the same choices they've made other years. People will come down here because they want to shop at a place that's different.

Is there any temptation for you to leave downtown for the suburbs?

I've thought about that. If we can get through this project, I would resoundingly say no. I like downtown; I do not want to be in a mall. I wouldn't even want to be in an outside mall.


Finnegan's (finneganstoys.com), at 922 SW Yamhill St., is modeled after a Munich toy store Leppmann visited as a child.

The store takes its name from Leppmann's childhood nickname, which comes from the name of a cat in a children's book.

 
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