On the eastern end of Congress Street, away from the chaos and crowds of the Old Port, Ferdinand Studio & Storefront owner Diane Toepfer has watched the city change since 2001.
Ferdinand marks its 20th anniversary this summer, and Toepfer said she still remembers signing the lease a week after she moved to Portland from California two decades ago.
“In the past 20 years I’ve screen-printed T-shirts; letterpress-printed cards; sewn plush toys; made candles, lip gloss, quilts, ceramics, posters; cast plaster (and made) mobiles,” Toepfer said. “(I’ve tried) everything I find interesting and there’s so much more to try.”
The shop at 243 Congress St., just west of Washington Avenue, contains an ever-changing inventory, much of which Toepfer has made herself. The back half of Ferdinand is a studio, although during the pandemic she has mostly made her creations at home.
Toepfer started out making lampshades from vintage fabric and selling vintage housewares. She said she had no idea what she was doing, but managed to stay afloat by working constantly. Adding clothing and jewelry to the shop made it more lucrative.
Sewing and ice-dying fabric have captured her attention the most recently, but her art has run the gamut over the years.
The community surrounding Ferdinand has also evolved. For many years, Toepfer’s primary customers were college students who would walk by Ferdinand on their way to school or work. Tourists back then were mostly middle-aged parents with their families.
Now, she said, the tourists who visit Ferdinand are mostly in their 20s and 30s, and homeowners nearby are older or only in Portland on a seasonal basis. Fewer people live in the neighborhood too, she noted, with more Airbnbs and condos housing fewer people.
Foot traffic has declined over the years and given way to more cars driving by.
“Everyone is still pretty nice and there have been good and bad aspects to every phase,” Toepfer said. “My store appeals to the same kind of person and luckily they still seem to find me.”
Changes brought on by the pandemic also shifted how Toepfer sourced the materials used to make her creations. Pre-pandemic, for instance, she often bought clothes or other items at thrift shops but did not do so at all last year. Instead, she found new fair trade resources. Now, she said, those supply chains have become backed up but thrift stores are open again.
Keeping prices low, she added, is a core value for her and she has learned items priced in the $5-$20 range sell the best.
“It’s a tricky balance,” Toepfer said. “I’ve learned many hard lessons during the recession and subsequent continuous road construction on Washington Avenue that helped me get through this past year.”
Support from the community and other small business owners during the pandemic was also helpful. When one of Ferdinand’s windows was smashed last year, for example, several people pitched in to help pay for the replacement.
After two decades, Toepfer said she is grateful to still be in business in the East End – in what she called a “Goldilocks zone” between being too slow and too busy. She said she enjoys Ferdinand being a “hidden gem” because it is fun to watch her customers get excited when they come in.
“I’m very much in love with Portland and amazed I’ve managed to do my thing this way,” Toepfer said. “I’ve evolved and adapted over the years, but the current iteration of what and how I’m selling is my favorite so far.”