In January 2003, Ken Unkeles and his friend David Gold bought a warehouse/office complex in North Portland's St. Johns neighborhood. Recently occupied by the Columbia Sportswear Company, this 280,000 sq. ft. assortment of buildings sits on a five acre site one block off the river, in the shadow of the awe inspiring St. Johns Bridge. The structure is actually a conglomeration of 15 buildings added on to each other as the need for more space by former occupants increased.
Originally built for $250,000 as a six story brick woolen Mill in 1904 to house Portland Woolen Mills, all of the building material was barged down river from Portland. At the time, St. Johns was its own incorporated city and was not annexed to Portland until 1915. The woolen blankets produced by this mill were considered so essential that plant operations were taken over by the Federal government during World War I. Following the war the mill was returned to the private sector just in time for the great depression. By 1927 the plant was $650,000 in debt. After the reorganization, solid financial footing was regained, and by World War II the mill employed 650 people, with seventy percent of production going to the military.
By the early 1960s the woolen mill was gone and the complex was taken over by Northern Specialties, a wholesale toy distributor. The toy company was owned by BB&S which was three partners: Lou Buchwach, Herb Bodner and Herb Shapiro. Buchwach was widely regarded as a business genius. By the early 1970s they were the third largest toy wholesaler in the country. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, factory direct purchasing by big-box retailers such as Toys R Us forced the large toy wholesalers into irreversible decline. After a brief ownership by local investor Jordan Schnitzer, Northern Specialties went out of business. BB&S retained ownership of the real estate and leased out space for general warehousing and to its rapidly growing neighbor, Columbia Sportswear. Owned and run by the shrewdly marketed "tough mother" Gert Boyle, and her son Tim, Columbia Sportswear expanded into the entire 120,000 sq. ft. upper floor. They eventually outgrew even that space and moved to larger quarters in Beaverton in 2002.
- Ken Unkeles