It began as a small business for a Magnolia housewife in the early 1970s.
It became one of the top businesses in its industry, at one point earning a visit from the then-richest man in the world, the Sultan of Brunei.
“It wasn’t ever meant to be what it became,” said owner (and son) Steve Lundh. “This was just something for my mom to do and have fun.”
But after more than 40 years in the neighborhood, the Porcelain Gallery (2426 32nd Ave. W.) is closing its doors.
“It’s just time,” Lundh said. “Things have — the world has changed so much. Brick and mortar is slowly but steadily going away, and in my opinion will continue and probably speed up.”
The origin of the store traces back to a contract between Bertil O. Lundh Construction Co. and Peoples National Bank to build a new branch in Magnolia Village in the early 1970s. Lundh struck a deal to purchase the property and building that held the old location.
“[We] didn’t know what we were going to do with the building other than split it, and keep the side with the vault as a bank,” Steve Lundh said.
The idea for a porcelain-centric shop actually stemmed from a find in the family’s garage. When Steve first visited extended family in Sweden as a young child, he purchased some Mother’s Day plates with money he earned on a paper route, and hid them. It wasn’t until about a decade later that they were uncovered, by which point the plates he had bought for approximately $1.25 were now worth $75.
“The light went on in my dad’s head, and he said, ‘Well, we can probably get my parents to buy plates in Sweden, and send them over,’” Lundh said.
In late 1973, the store opened, and Steve was eventually pulled over from the construction business to help out, and later take over.
With the bank operating in the other half of the building, their rent covered the monthly payments for the property and the building, while any profits from the business went right back in. Meanwhile, the store grew, with the addition of a second floor to the building in the late 70s.
“We went from being a nobody to a pretty good size player,” he said.
But in recent years, the challenges for not only the store, but the industry itself, have mounted.
The number of businesses dealing in middle-to-upper range dinnerware and/or collectibles has dwindled over the past decade, from roughly 60 a decade ago to just 20 today. Meanwhile, manufacturers have also felt the pinch, unable to compete with knockoff goods online and lower prices stemming from forced labor.
On the retail side, Lundh said the quality over price mindset has almost disappeared.
“It’s more strictly price-driven,” he said. “Who can come up with the best scheme of a sale that’s not really a sale. There’s no such thing as 50 percent off other than like, what I’m doing where I’m closing out, but to do it year round, that’s just impossible.”
Lundh said he’s not entirely sure what comes next, but said he “can’t imagine retiring.” He’s a longtime woodworker, and though he doesn’t feel led to go back to preaching, he spent nearly a decade in the ministry working with the homeless, and can see himself returning to that endeavor as well. Lundh also has a new granddaughter he’d like to spend more time with.
He said he’ll miss the day-to-day interactions with people the most, and that he’s made a lot of friends through the years through the business.
“Every once and while, somebody will come and say, “Steve, how are you doing?’ and you know, I have to kind of look for a second, and then I’ll go, “Oh, you were a groom or you were a bride of mine 35 years ago.”
Those customers come back in search of something for their children, now old enough for their own weddings.
Lundh also enjoyed his work in the community, like resurrecting the Children’s Parade, and launching the Magnolia Historical Society. But, turning 61 later this year, he’s ready to step away.
The building was sold in January to a local buyer, and Lundh said he’s sure there will be interest in the space. His hope moving forward is that local residents will give their support to neighborhood businesses to keep them afloat.
“Magnolia’s always been unique in that it’s sort of a city unto itself until you get off the hill, but it’s changed a lot,” he said.
“I’m hoping that people see the reason that everything is disappearing, and we’re getting all these empty spaces, is because they need people to buy to survive. There’s something about having relationships with brick and mortar. You get a different service, and you learn about a product versus it just looks cool online.”
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