EARTH-SHATTERING NEWS ARRIVED JUST AFTER THANKSGIVING – at least, shattering on my little slice of Oregon turf: Pearl Bakery, a 23-year mainstay on a tucked-away corner of close-in Northwest Portland that feels not quite Old Portland but not quite Pearl District, either, announced that it was shutting its doors immediately. Deliveries of baked goods to wholesale outlets will continue through Dec. 10.
Pearl Bakery might’ve been known for its breads and sandwiches and pastries and a pretty good cup of coffee, but it also held a small yet special space in the city’s cultural fabric. Settled onto a quiet edge of comfort a block north of Burnside and a block west of the North Park Blocks, it was part of a quick-stroll triangle that stretches from Powell’s City of Books, to The Armory (home of Portland Center Stage), to Waterstone Gallery on the same block as the bakery, to the gallery row of Augen, Froelick, Charles A. Hartman, Blue Sky, and the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, with several other leading galleries just a slightly brisker walk away. It wasn’t unusual to see someone with a fresh stack of books from Powell’s sitting at a table with a cappuccino and a sandwich and a loaf to go, or a little clutch of artists stopping in for coffee and a pastry and a chat.
Among many other things, the Pearl was beloved as one of the rare American homes of the gibassier, an irresistible three-fingered puff of pastry, just the right balance between sturdy and light, that is redolent of anise and orange and inevitably spins off a powdering of fine sugar on whatever you happen to be wearing. The work of art that is the gibassier was born in Provence and found a warm welcome in Portland, and I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it was as important to my life as Proust’s madeleine was to his, and yet I’ll miss it dearly. Such losses, while not the end of the world, are not to be taken lightly.
I spent a few years as a part-time writer about Portland’s restaurant scene, a gig that was not an entirely comfortable fit on either side because my publication wanted what was new and hot and on the inevitable cutting edge of fashion, and I leaned toward what was comfortable and accessible and real. I like a good sit-down meal now and again, and appreciate genuine talent and imagination in the kitchen, but I also like a place with staying power, an everyday sort of place, where you can count on quality and fair trade and a sense that you’re actually welcome. At heart I’m a diner and bakery-cafe sort of guy, with occasional forays into the upper echelons. A good breakfast at a counter or a little window table. A cup of French onion soup and a good crepe at a table feet from the kitchen, where I can hear the clatter and smell what’s going on. My own neighborhood Grand Central Bakery is my home away from home. In my world of dining the food’s important, but the place itself can count even more. I feel a deep nostalgia for the long-lost QP, Quality Pie, a round-the-clock joint in old Northwest Portland before the shoppes took over, which late at night was a buzzing haven for cops, hustlers, musicians getting off a gig, hookers taking a well-earned break, journalists hungry after filing a story, cabbies between calls, neighborhood night owls, and other lost or seeking souls: It was a demilitarized zone, with everyone welcome as long as they behaved (and if they didn’t, they were out on their ears quick). QP was a moving, vibrant, oddball community, a culture all its own, and so what if the food was forgettable: The people and the place were not.
Epicurially, Pearl Bakery was several rungs up the ladder from QP: There was nothing seedy about it except some of the breads. Those breads and pastries were among the city’s very best – pace-setters, really – and the cafe itself hovered somewhere in the territory of casually stylish. You got in line and made your choices and gave your order and paid, then grabbed a seat and kept an eye out for your food and drink. The place had a settled-in, understatedly elegant feel, and you didn’t need much more atmosphere than the rows and rows of pastries and loaves on display and the shining espresso machines, but it also had the advantage of big corner picture windows that let you feel the buzz of passing traffic on the sidewalks while you were comfortably ensconced inside. It was the best of two worlds, really: a first-class purveyor of the narrow range of things it chose to provide, and just a little bit of a well-polished joint.
Cities change, of course. People and places come and go. Grand gestures, big speculations, and bottom lines tend to sweep away the little stuff, and that’s what’s happening in the Pearl District: The small and settled are making way for the big and tall and profitable. The little tuckaway district where the Pearl Bakery fit so tidily is a forgotten zone no longer; it’s a clanging construction zone. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the bakery’s decision to shut down. But the real-estate landscape in that part of town is hot. Prices are escalating. The engine of creative destruction often tips more toward destruction than creativity. And when things are lost, they tend to stay lost.
We tend to think of culture as the big and bold, but in reality it’s the small corners, the idiosyncrasies, the stitches in the fabric, the little brilliances, the everyday touchstones that create a culture and weave it together. At the opposite end of the block from the Pearl Bakery is another, even older, pillar of a rapidly changing community, Fuller’s Coffee Shop, a genuine old-line breakfast-and-lunch diner with a hustle-bustle attitude and a brisk zigzag of counter stools that’s been in business since 1947, with more years in its current space than I can remember, and to the city’s developers and speculators I have just three words: Hands off, dammit.
“This sucks so hard,” Portland food guy Nick Zukin wrote in a Facebook post about Pearl Bakery’s demise. “Pearl is one of the first world class bakeries Portland produced and there’s little reason for them to go out of business, I suspect, except for the continuing rapid rise of the cost of doing business in Portland without the ability to raise revenues at the same pace. Portland’s small businesses are going to continue to be the main casualty.”
I hate to give another guy the last word, but there you go.