Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Port O'Call Gifts and Antiques, 388 South Lake Avenue, Historic "Oak Knoll" South Lake Shopping District

In 1957, Mary Elizabeth Colby co-founded with her husband Port O'Call Gifts and Antiques in a tiny gray bungalow on Granite Drive in Pasadena, also soon including a larger bungalow located at 388 South Lake Avenue. The shop complex offered contemporary California gifts and crafts and European gifts and antiques, and later clothing. It was a remarkable institution which lasted from 1957 through 200?, when the property was sold and the bungalow at 388 South Lake was demolished and replaced with a modern non-descript stucco box which now houses a realtor.

I remember the buyer coming to American Express on South Lake Avenue and purchasing British Pound denominated Travelers Cheques to go on annual buying trips. The Port O'Call shop complex always had unusual treasures, both contemporary and antique, from the entire world. Such an unusual and upscale shopping experience is sorely missed on South Lake, just as Gump's Luggage, I. Magnin, Hall's Jewelers and Bullocks are missing from the once high end exclusive "Oak Knoll" South Lake Shopping District.

There are remains of Port O'Call behind the businesses on Granite and South Lake, Ghost signs showing the way to the dearly departed destination. I found a gift box from Port O'Call recently, with the tasteful Tarot Card design covering, just as with their gift bags, and containing a piece of Meissen German porcelain, a beautiful pheasant. What a nice gift!

Here is an article from the Los Angeles Times in January 19, 2008, about Mary Elizabeth Colby, co-founder of the Port O'Call chain of gift stores: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jan/19/local/me-colby19

What will become of bricks and mortar shopping? Will the exclusive "Oak Knoll" South Lake Shopping District ever come back? Please share your memories of shopping on Lake Avenue in Pasadena....


  1. Well, I don't go back that far and I've never been much of a shopper. But my chief memories have to do with eating on SLake (I still prefer this name over OK, ok): group eating parties at Burger Continental & a fav restuarant - Souplantation.

    I recall the Alexandria newage store next to BC. Now it's moved north to about Lake/Cordova.
    But shopping chiefly at Bullocks. A old friend used to live in LA but took the bus to work at the Pasadena Bullocks.

    (Btw, ever see any guys in those Port O'Call bushes?!) ;)

  2. That's a find, Thal. I've been back there with the camera but never noticed those signs.

    Brick and mortar isn't going away. People still need to see and touch (and try on) the things they buy. At least I do. I almost never purchase something from a catalogue, and my online purchases are rare.

  3. @Cafe Pasadena, it appears that the only type of business that is thriving on South Lake are the restaurants. Case in point: Dickson Podley Realtors have moved into the old Chronicle Building on San Pascual and a new upscale restaurant is moving into the old Hall's Jewelers/Dickson Podley space on South Lake. We do have some interesting places to eat on South Lake in all price ranges, from Bob's Big Boy to Hamburger Hamlet, Smitty's, etc. Alexandria Bookstore made a mistake moving from being near Starbuck's, I think, since they've lost a lot of their walk in business, not a smart move. A real treasure on far South South Lake is the French Hand Laundry, a family run business since forever. I hope true high end retail can remain; they seem to be mainly supported by the Asian San Marino residents, as many of them are displaced millionaires from Hong Kong, and are not accustomed to shopping online for luxury goods, ....yet. Also, Japanese tourists and students at local educational institutions such as Art Center are keeping Beard Papa's and Hello Kitty going. Amazing the money the upper class Chinese and Japanese have to spend. We've noticed even selling at the local fleamarkets we've had a huge uptick on Chinese buyers, as they seem willing and able to spend money even on collectibles, as opposed to our previous clientele.
    @Petrea, alas, I do believe bricks and mortar retail will wither away, except for high end luxury goods and specialty items. Much of the clothing business has moved to thrift stores, as why would anyone in this economy buy a shirt for $45 plus, when you can buy a like new shirt for $5 at the local Out of the Closet? Also, I think the young hipster crowd, who still live with their parents until they're 35 or 40, and have disposable income, will keep South Lake hot spots going like the Magnolia Speakeasy. We hope to have another hipster hot spot when the Hotel Constance renovation is complete, with a destination hipster restaurant and bar at Mentor and Colorado. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm going to have to sell a lot more antiques and curiosities to the well heeled Chinese before that happens. Cheers to the new Asian tiger!

  4. TA, you talk like you're on SLake. I thot you were on NLake?
    And Podley now occupies the old JLo restaurant now, if I'm not mistaken.

    You've said a lot here in this one comment. I'll just say this general comment: population changes are the norm but I hope whoever new moves in, & now has the most money & power, will also respect the history of accomplishment of those who came before them.

    A key question is: if brick/mortar bldgs are not in as demand by biz anymore, what will happen to the excess square footage?

    These things will be squared away of course, but as with any revolution, there will be some pain & suffering along that road.

  5. Hello Cafe Pasadena,
    I cover all of Lake Avenue, from the Old Mill to Los Flores Canyon, and everything adjacent. My office is located at Colorado and Lake, so I'm well positioned to monitor what's going on here.
    Where Podley is now located has been many restaurants over the years, and yes, I believe JLo was the last unsuccessful restaurant venture in that old brick building; years ago it was the Chronicle Restaurant where the movers and shakers of Pasadena met.
    I believe bricks and mortar on South Lake will become more restaurant and entertainment venues, as those experiences are hard to translate into virtual experiences.
    Just like the dinosaurs, we will either evolve or wither away. I think we need to follow the money: tourists, wealthy immigrants, all those including those who live at home with their parents and have a high disposable income, and wealthy seniors. Really, anyone with a high disposable income who is willing to spend it in our attractive backyard. We must be the guardians of our history, however, and insure that our proud heritage is not obliterated by uncaring developers. Hopefully, we can enhance and preserve the beauty that has been left for future generations to enjoy. And we must support the wonderful businesses which have survived through service and quality, such as the French Hand Laundry on South Lake Avenue.

  6. I do remember those boxes and bags! My mother used to store various trinkets in the boxes---sturdy and just the right size to collect a host of things.

    In the 80's, we used to hang out on Lake. Pop in and out of stores, stop at Haagen Dazs, Bullock's or Magnin's, Tam's to look around and Continental Burger or Jurgenson's to have lunch. There was flow, and plenty of things to buy and look at. The last time I wandered thru SLake/O-K, I got the sense it was more commercial, not retail.

    Regardless of where the money is coming from, there is only so much food one can eat---but an actual product to purchase---whether planned or spur-of-the-moment---is needed in order to keep the economy going, IMO.

  7. Cool pictures of Port o' Call ghost sign and box! I remember the shop - worked with a woman who swore by the store.

    Regarding brick and mortar retail, from one of the old "dinosaurs" on upper North Lake - if we continue to evolve and carry things that are different from the mainstream, I think we'll be ok. You should come by sometime and say hello.

  8. I not only loved shopping there, but I worked there as well. I started out as an assistant to the cashier in the main store, and then later worked for the clothing buyer Marlene and her assistant Sue from Lake Front. What a wonderful place.