Work in the Precarious Economy   /   Spring 2016   /    Work In The Precarious Economy

Portland’s Artisan Economy

Beyond the Myth of Romantic Localism

Charles Heying

A brewer in Portland, Oregon; courtesy of The Oregonian.

The lens of romantic localism distorts what is happening in the artisan economy.

Ah, the artisan economy! Such an evocative ideal, expressing the hope, in this time of deep concern over rapacious global capitalism, of a return to a local economy of self-sufficient yeoman entrepreneurs. In the misty haze of our imaginings, we see bearded brewers quaffing pints of a super-hoppy IPA, hipster moms draining raw cheese through pristine white muslin, urban farmers selling dahlias from their front doorsteps, and chocolatiers individually wrapping one-off batches made from cacao grown in remote and exotic places. Such images have sparked both parody (Portlandia, IFC network) and adulation (Those Who Make, Vimeo). In my book Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy,1 I also celebrate artisans and their embrace of self-reliance. But since its publication in 2010, I have become concerned that the myth of romantic localism is distracting and inaccurate. It distorts the economic significance of artisan enterprise and stifles the discussion of artisans as exemplars of a new way of working and living in the postindustrial economy.

Consider these challenges to the romantic image of small-scale artisans selling handmade goods to appreciative local patrons. Where in this image do we place Portland, Oregon, artisan Ken Wheeler, whose Renovo Hardwood Bicycles will now carry the Audi brand and be sold in Audi’s auto showrooms throughout the world?2 And how do we think about Jeanne and Dan Carver, who started an artisan yarn business to help save their high-desert sheep ranch and now partner with New York−based Ralph Lauren to provide the yarn for US Olympic Team apparel?3 As romantic localists, should we have felt incensed with Duane Sorensen, founder of Portland’s iconic Stumptown Coffee, when he quietly sold out to TSG Consumer Partners, a San Francisco equity firm known for flipping fast-growing small companies?4 Did Sorensen abandon his dedication to meticulously sourced, quality-roasted, precisely brewed artisanal coffees that put Portland on the map as a world-class coffee town? Finally, should we be puzzled or fascinated that Portlander Steve Smith is obsessively working his way down to an ever-smaller world of gourmet tea lovers with his new company, Smith Teamaker, after having founded and sold both the Tazo and Stash tea companies?5

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