The Lippman Co.

The Lippman Co. in Portland, Ore. is where you can still find old-time goodies like chattering teeth, honeycomb tissue balls and rubber chickens. Or, you can find cutting-edge party decorations, balloon designs and rental props. In other words, The Lippman Co. is pretty much a top-notch one-stop party store 60 years in the making.

That’s right — 60 years and three generations later, this family-owned party supply business is still going strong, offering just about every party need in their 14,000 square feet of retail space. But of course, it didn’t start out that way.

Early Beginnings
It all started in 1948, when Nathan “Ginger” Lippman and his wife Anne opened their store as a wholesale supplier of helium, balloons and redemption prizes for Punchboards — an extremely popular tavern game of the time.

Shortly after Ginger and Anne opened their doors, Portland’s mayor outlawed punchboards in a campaign to “clean up sin, gambling and prostitution” in “morally-depraved” post-WW II Portland, and Ginger and Anne had to adapt to keep the young business going strong.

Seeing the growing trend of traveling carnivals, The Lippman Co. morphed from selling mainly redemption prizes to distributing full-blown carnival supplies. Anything a carnival midway needed, The Lippman Co. could supply — balloons, helium, plush toys, darts, rubber ducks, gaming equipment and everything in between.

Their son, Alan, started to work at the family store in 1951, and worked alongside his father until he was ready to take over operations. By the late ’70s, the carnival supply business had started to die down, and Alan and his wife Joan looked at a related industry that was beginning to grow: party supplies.

So in 1979, The Lippman Co. opened its doors for the first time as a retail party supply store. As the ’80s progressed, the party industry took off and the store carried a larger selection of party supplies to meet customer needs.

In 2001, after 50 solid years of partying, Alan decided to retire. He and Joan sold the business to their son Steve (and wife Vicki), officially making it the third-generation family business it is today.

Current owner Steve Lippman joined the business in 1983 and worked on the development of the balloon business, incorporating a brand-new invention into the store’s selection — the foil balloon. This new item became a root of their expanding inventory, and the first Lippman Co. balloon catalog went to print in 1996. In addition, they continued to add more party products, expanding the balloon selection, costume accessories, props and the gaming rental section.

“My business philosophy is based on taking care of the customer,” Steve said. “That includes the best possible service and being aware of the marketplace regarding what’s happening out there and being ready to provide the customer with basic and innovative products.”

Team Effort
Because of his innovation, The Lippman Co. is now one of the largest helium and balloon distributors in the Northwest, delivering products to commercial customers in Oregon and southwest Washington.

“We have a three-truck fleet to deliver helium to over 1,000 business customers throughout the Portland metro and suburban areas,” said Mel Heywood, manager, “and we do a substantial amount of retail helium rentals, as well."

And Heywood would know, as he’s been manager of The Lippman Co. for the past four years, joining the team after an established retail career in boutique and gallery settings. He began his career there as a member of the sales staff, and moved into management after about a year of taking on more administrative and supervisory responsibility.

“I work under the philosophy that you need to be having fun in order to do really good business,” Heywood said. “And having fun includes making consistent and ethical decisions, finding the best stuff to sell to the customer and taking everything with a grain of salt and a sense of humor.”

Under Heywood’s supervision, the staff works together to make sure the large store is well-stocked and merchandised, and that the warehouse is organized and accessible. While roughly two-thirds of the sales floor is permanently “set,” the rest of the space is always in flux, depending on the season and/or merchandise they want to highlight.

For everything to run smoothly, different staff members are assigned to particular areas. For example, one staff member is assigned to general upkeep of store displays; daily refills on the foil balloons that line each aisle, dusting of fixtures and forward-pegging all merchandise.

“Erin is our display and merchandising specialist and creates all of our large window displays, while Megan is the 'Warehousing Queen’ and keeps all of our backstock and incoming Halloween merchandise organized,” Heywood said. “Christina is solely in charge of our 'small toy’ merchandising and backstock.”

Heywood believes having a reliable and talented staff is the best thing possible for a business, and a large part of their reputation throughout the community. And that reputation includes their selection of small toys, as they offer more than 300 unique small toy items sold in bulk, out of their packages and in large spinner bins (similar to those found at a hardware store).

“It’s a very hands-on shopping experience,” Heywood said. “I’ve found it’s almost impossible for someone to leave the store without buying at least a few items from the bins. In addition, we have an enormous backstock on the small toys so we can supply arcades, nightclubs, school carnivals, pizza restaurants, etc. with whatever they need, when they need it.”

Unlicensed Selling
But while you might find any toy imaginable, what you won’t find is licensed product. At The Lippman Co., they make a conscious decision not to carry most of the licensed character products that are available. In their birthday themes, you won’t see Disney Princesses, Bob the Builder or Elmo. Instead, you’ll see dinosaurs, kittens, racecars, astronauts, etc.

“A lot of people think we’re nuts for 'missing out’ on the licensed merchandise segment of the market, but we’ve found that our loyal customers are desperate for a place in the world that is NOT inundated with the same corporate images over and over again,” Heywood said. “People come here with their kids specifically because they won’t find the typical High School Musical/My Little Pony/Pokemon stuff, and they can be more creative with putting a party theme together.

“In fact,” Heywood continued, “they usually end up buying more because there is not that finite 'set’ of products with a specific licensed theme. We took a big risk with this decision, but it has paid off over and over again.”

Their jump into the costume realm has paid off for them, as well. Costumes are relatively new for The Lippman Co. and they’re still in the midst of increasing the public’s awareness of that side of their business.

“We benefited greatly last Halloween because the usual temporary Halloween store(s) didn’t rent space in the 'urban’ mall that’s in close proximity to us, so all of the people who flocked to the city expecting to find that store found us instead,” Heywood said. “Luckily, we were ready for it and gave them an amazing shopping experience.”

Heywood has no doubt that they will retain that new customer base, even if the temporary store does open in the mall. After all, that store will come and go. And while you might not find Hannah Montana at The Lippman Co., what you will find is three generations of service and 60 years of experience.

That’s anything but temporary.

Originally posted Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009