Nimbus has always been part of the downtown Ashland streetscape, or so it seems. A true survivor amid the constant turnover of shops, it keeps on selling clothing, shoes, gifts and trendy housewares, and it’s getting hard to find someone who remembers when it wasn’t there.
Founder Brooks Hodapp, who opened the doors in the summer of 1971, and present owner Ken Silverman are marking Nimbus’ 45th anniversary and cautiously boast that it’s the oldest continually operated shop at the same location in downtown. Only Omar’s Restaurant, started in 1946, predates it, they say, and Rare Earth opened some months earlier but moved to a smaller spot in the Railroad District.
Inspired by the first Oregon Country Fair in '71, Hodapp scoped out Ashland on the way home to Eureka, loved the beauty, growing flock of young alternative consumers and the “sleepy” business district, which offered little competition with hip, young clothing and leather goods, which he was skilled at making.
Poring over a display of nostalgic '70s photos now in the Nimbus window display at 25 East Main St., Hodapp says he and his girlfriend, both good at making jewelry, and Ken Fox, good at making stained glass, decided to go for it, opening the store previously occupied by the old Village Fair shop and a repair bay for Lithia Motors, which was expanding to Medford. They used old boards from actual barns in the region for part of the store, adding a signature touch of hippiedom and back-to-nature vibe.
“It took right off,” says Hodapp. “Young people loved it and said 'this is a groovy place.' It was amazing. You had to wait in line to buy stuff. This was before all the other shops, like Paddington, came in and the pie got sliced smaller.”
Silverman became a buyer, then manager, and in 1984 bought the store. They were all in their mid-20s when the shop opened and had to learn many new skills quickly. Silverman, now 65, built display cases, learning the craft onsite from Bruce Hornak, who was teaching himself carpentry at the time — and building complicated walls and stairs for Nimbus.
Nimbus filled a big market niche as trendsetter, says Hodapp, moving through the fads of leather boots, belts and purses, potted plants-in-macrame hangers, turquoise jewelry, pottery cups with comical faces on them, bell-bottoms and hip clothes. They offered a big stock of the wildly popular Birkenstock sandals and became, he says, the largest shoe store in Southern Oregon at the time.
Hodapp recalls seeing four turquoise dealers a day, buying all they had and selling it the same day, then calling them back for more. His stock of hand-punched and dyed leather belts and hats met with similar demand and he would be up half the night, he says, making more for the next day.
“Brooks was so successful with his leather goods that he had to hire people to help keep up with demand, a demand he created,” said Hornak. “At one point he was so successful, the number of people he had to employ was huge. He built a factory in Talent just to make and tool his leather belts, which he sold all up and down the West Coast, using a traveling salesman … there was no shortage of people needing jobs back then. That's the real story here. Brooks and Nimbus became a warehouse for a lot of talent and creativity. His stores were constantly under renovation which kept them alive and relevant — and he knew how to follow consumer trends.”
Silverman adds, “the migration of young people to this town brought us to where we are today. It's an amazing story of a talented guy (Hodapp) borrowing $300 from his mom and starting a cool store from scratch, making all the leather work himself.”
It wasn’t all high times, as weather could wreak chaos on Plaza commerce. The "Big Freeze" just before Christmas 1988 was one such time, shutting off electricity, lights, natural gas, and making it hard to even walk, says Silverman. It had the potential to wreck the peak shopping week and put them out of business, but Nimbus, operating on kerosene lanterns, got through it.
Although it made business sense to sell his beloved Nimbus, Hodapp, now 73 and selling health insurance in Medford, notes “It was the best time of my life. I loved meeting people coming through the doors. In a lot of ways, I wish I hadn’t sold it. I guess it was a mid-life crisis thing.”
The window display shows the two men with many of their employees in the much hairier days of the '70s. It will be on display for the coming months.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.