Monday, March 21, 2011

My Guiding Principles (pardon the pun)

When I was in the first grade, my class went on a field trip to my hometown’s state-of-the-art hospital, Mid-Columbia Medical Center. {I was probably wearing the outfit pictured here. I apparently wore it everywhere.} The point of the trip was to explore the different careers represented at a hospital: doctors, nurses, administrative staff and volunteers. We were going to witness what made the hospital tick.

To this day, I can recall the trip pretty vividly. We rode the elevator, tried on rubber gloves, explored hospital rooms, met doctors and nurses and marveled at the giant machines that – as we were told – kept people alive. During our tour, we were shepherded around by a cheerful, smiling young woman who acknowledged nearly every employee who walked by. “Hi, Dr. Martin!” “Hello, Lisa! How’s that baby of yours? Growing like a weed, I bet!”

I was enthralled. It was like walking through the set of a musical performed by handsome soap opera actors – as if all the employees would break into song at any time, bellowing about how content they were, saving lives and receiving personal satisfaction every day on the job. In retrospect, they were probably smiling despite the unbearable stress of their jobs because they saw wide-eyed first-graders walking down the hall. All I knew was the place was full of energy, and I wanted to be part of it.

When I got home from school, I gleefully proclaimed to my mom that I had decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. Having high expectations for her only kid, her head began spinning with the possibilities.

Dr. Erin Sutherland, world-renowned epidemiologist
Dr. Erin Sutherland, fêted brain surgeon
Dr. Erin Sutherland, ground-breaking psychiatrist
Dr. Erin Sutherland, pediatrician to the rich and famous

Then came the bad news. “Mom,” I proclaimed dreamily, “I want to be a tour guide.”

Between this experience and the disturbing recurrence of the expression “social butterfly” on my report cards, my mom was rightfully concerned.

I have recounted this story several times over the years because it ended up being somewhat of a prophecy. All of my jobs have included some element of “guiding.” As a college admissions counselor, I explained the curriculum and financial aid options to out-of-towners, then spent an hour helping them piece together an itinerary of must-see Portland destinations. I would suggest restaurants (down to my favorite menu items), neighborhood bars, music venues, hiking trails and shopping destinations based on what the visitors wanted to see. I got such great joy out of helping people figure out what to do with theirs lives and explore the city I love so much.

From there, I ventured into the administrative side of college life. I spent most of my day interacting with students, helping them complete requirements for graduation. I loved interacting with these eager minds who were so passionate and full of life, and I felt like I was guiding them (there’s that word again) through the program, and ultimately to graduation.

After two years, I was promoted to a job that looked pretty desirable on paper. I would be managing an entire department and forging partnerships with people out in the community. I thought it sounded absolutely perfect for me. Unfortunately, that new job found me sitting in front of a computer monitor all day. I got a lot of satisfaction out of the position, but I desperately missed the human interaction element of my other jobs.

Then the bus came along, and I couldn’t resist. I had to pursue my life’s work of becoming a conductress. I would finally do it. I would become a professional tour guide.

Many of my customers are from out of state or out of the country: San Francisco, NYC, Seattle, Vancouver, Boston, Australia, England, Japan...the list goes on. I get daily opportunities to help folks explore all the things Portland has to offer. It doesn’t hurt that I’m positioned between several world-class restaurants and shops. I can hop off the bus and point to the businesses on Williams, citing the best dishes, cocktails and hand-crafted products. My neighbors make it easy.

I also take great pride in referring customers to other clothing stores. This always throws them off. They expect me to have the killer instinct that a lot of retail employees have, where they swoop in on customers and claim them before their fellow associates can. You know the ones: “Can I help you with anything today?” “Still doing OK?” “Can I start a fitting room for you?” “Was anyone helping you today?” These questions inevitably solicit the stale expression we’ve all used. “Thanks, I’m just looking.”

Don’t get me wrong: I cut my teeth working at Nordstrom in college, and I’m so grateful for those experiences. I had wonderful mentors who taught me about good customer service, inventory tracking and how to help a man buy a suit that fits. However, my objective in the bus is simply to help people find what they’re looking for. If they don’t find it in my store, I want them to look elsewhere. I’ve even been known to talk people out of buying things if they seem like they’re settling half-heartedly for something they don’t love. I like encouraging them to keep on looking until they find that special item that makes their heart pound.

I often send customers down the street to Little Edie’s Five and Dime. I feel like the owner, Penelope, and I have similar taste. The first time I walked in, I nearly fell over. I loved everything I saw. She has bunches of dresses, shoes and boots, jewelry, purses, wallets and all kinds of other neat stuff. I figure if people are drawn to the inventory in my store, they will also love Little Edies' treasures.

The staff of Little Edie’s has kindly reciprocated by sending shoppers to me, too. I also get shoppers on a daily basis who have been referred to me by Tinymeat, Queen Bee, Yoga Shala, Ink & Peat and lovely Nicole from Union Rose, way over on Stark Street. This is really what it’s all about, if you ask me. We small businesses need to have each other’s backs.

So there you have it. When you visit Williams Avenue, you simply must stop by the bus so I can keep my tour guide muscles strong. I’ll show you my favorite places and insist that you explore a few of my personal downfalls: the Toro Burger, Proletariat Red beer and Fleur de Sel macarons. After all, the mark of a good conductress is to make sure her passengers enjoy the ride.

Now, does anyone have any questions?


  1. My hubby and I are feverishly trying to sell our home in Florida so that we can make our way to Oregon. He travels for work, so not sure we'll be near Portland right away, but I can't wait to visit your shop once we are!

    Any suggestions for must-see art galleries in your area? I know Portland is chock-ful of art & artists ( I can't wait!! ), but thought I'd ask a local!

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