John Helmer III knew what he wanted to do from an early age. “It was a little bit destiny,” he told me with a waggish grin when I visited his store in Downtown Portland on a recent summer morning. “My dad remodeled the store the year I was born, 1956. They put me out in a box in the window when they were working and people would come in and say, ‘you know there’s a baby out in your window?’ So that’s how I got my start here, as a window display. Now I’m 65, and of course people ask when I’ll retire, but I feel like I just want to keep doing it as long as I’m having fun.”
John Helmer’s has been a dependable presence in downtown Portland for 100 years. Founded by John III’s grandfather in 1921, it has always been a classic haberdasher. Over the decades the store experimented with everything from tobacco sales (in the 1920s), to a younger customer-oriented expansion into local shopping malls (in the 1960s), to becoming a major west coast purveyor of Levi’s denim (in the 1970s).
Today John Helmer’s remains in the same location that the first John Helmer moved the shop to in 1929. It’s well-known in town for its enormous collection of hats. Panamas, fedoras, bowlers, beaver top hats, and most any other variety imaginable from makers like Stetson, Borsalino, and Bailey. But the hats are only half of the story (and only half of the store).
The other half of the store presents rows of sumptuously textured sport coats from the likes of Hickey Freeman and Southwick (yes there are still a few of those left). Stacks of shirts from Gitman and Viyella line the shelves. Neckwear runs the gamut from knit, grenadine, and repp stripe ties to more daring patterns, bow ties, and ascots for the truly debonair. There’s a large array of trousers and chinos next to a display case showing off a winning selection of Aldens. There are Baracuta jackets, Barbour coats, and umbrellas. Menswear accessories ranging from standard accoutrements and grooming supplies to items and relics both fascinating and obscure round out the store’s offerings.
When it comes to suiting, John Helmer’s offers custom options from Hickey Freeman, H. Freeman, and Empire (which replaces dearly departed Southwick). Made-to-order sport coats, trousers, and shirts are also available. John Helmer’s website does feature e-commerce, mostly for the hats but also for a limited selection of their clothing and accessories.
When I ask what it’s been like to sell classic menswear through a historic pandemic and in an era when the suit is all but dead, Helmer offered a hopeful message: “People are loyal to stores like this. This is a feel-good business. We’re a little bit like comfort food.” He added, “Most of us have enough clothes. We want clothes to make us feel better, or for a special occasion — maybe even more so at the end of the pandemic. People coming in are just so happy we’re still around.”
The pandemic took a big bite out of business, but over the last several months it’s steadily returned to its normal pace. “The plan was to just get through it,” Helmer said. “I thought, if my grandfather can make it through the Great Depression, I can make it through this.”
Covid wasn’t the only recent crisis John Helmer’s has faced. Portland has been known for decades as a city with a uniquely fierce culture of political protest, and last year’s demonstrations were terrifically volatile. For months of 2020, the peaceful crowds that assembled in downtown Portland in the wake of George Floyd’s murder gave way each night to a marauding invasion of rioters. They were all over the news smashing windows, setting fires, vandalizing, and looting. Businesses downtown, already reeling from the pandemic and surrounded by a worsening homelessness crisis, were forced to batten the hatches. Virtually all shopfronts — those that hadn’t already closed for good — boarded up their windows as if in preparation for a hurricane.
One of the few businesses that refused to self-barricade was John Helmer’s, which remained open by appointment and was one of the only street level businesses in the area that chose not to board up the windows. “It felt important to not give in,” Helmer said. “We wanted the store to be a beacon of light for the neighborhood.”
It’s rare for a business to remain in family hands for a century. Rarer still that such a business is a classic haberdasher in our ever more sartorially negligent world. As downtown Portland reemerges and recovers, John Helmer’s shines on. — NEVADA JONES