Banking on books

Wide-eyed children and equally astonished adults walk through Tree House Books on the Ashland Plaza and straight into the past.

The two-story brick building was constructed in 1884 to house one of the city's first financial institutions, the Bank of Ashland.

Today, the bank vault, made of 3-foot-wide concrete, is used as a wizard's study, where book club members meet under purple drapes and a bright white lantern.

Bookstore owner Jane Almquist gestures toward the vault entry where there are century-old handwritten notes detailing the vault's time locks.

Then she whispers as if the intimate space were still stacked with gold bullion that needs protecting. "This is where they used to keep the gold," she says. "Bank robbers hid in the alley."

Almquist has a talent for telling stories in animated ways. It's no wonder that she calls her store with books, toys and games a "portal to other worlds." Here, she hosts community events, book club gatherings and First Friday Artwalk Imagination Celebrations with fairy face painting, nature crafts and costume contests. On bright yellow walls and full shelves, she has historic photos, curiosities from the past and even a slice from one of the trees removed during the current Plaza remodel.

From her large front window, she can see the Lithia fountain. But when the Bank of Ashland was filled with gold miners and land speculators, windows framed a wooden hitching post that circled a lone tree. Even then, though, the spot was known as the Plaza.

Miners found gold in the hill above Ashland in 1891 and a year later, three bricks of the yellow, precious metal were displayed in the bank. The 13 pounds of gold were worth $3,340 then and $332,800 at today's price. The bulk gold was hailed as "harbingers of a golden era" by the Ashland Daily Tidings, which would eventually move its newsroom into offices on the building's second floor.

Since the Bank of Ashland was one of the region's chief financial institutions, the building at 15 N. Main St. needed to reflect its success. So it was designed in elaborate Beaux Arts Classicism architecture with a heavy projecting cornice band and ornate window surrounds. Construction cost: $6,800.

Although the building was expanded in 1906 and the ground floor modernized with large aluminum-framed windows by the early 1950s and later split-face stone and horizontal wood siding, it earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1914, the bank's name changed to the U.S. National Bank of Ashland. In 1939, it was absorbed into the First National of Portland and the Ashland branch was closed.

In 1948, Marshall-Wells Stores, an appliance dealer, occupied the ground floor. In the 1960s, it was Coast-to-Coast Hardware and then Laurentide Financial Corp., Rare Earth and a men's clothing store called Adam's Leaf. Upstairs offices had become apartments.

In 1978, the store became the Tree House Children's Bookstore.

When a devastating flood raced through the Plaza buildings on New Year's Day 1997, the bookstore suffered only minor damage to a worn-out carpet. The store's second owner, Muriel Johnson, had moved out the merchandize early in the day on New Year's Eve to redecorate.

After working at the bookstore for 10 years then owning it for 14 years, Johnson sold it to Almquist in 2010.

Almquist, who graduated from Ashland High School as did her three children, says, "I am so happy we are still a children's bookstore and the local and visiting families have supported us over the years and experienced the magic of this store."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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