April Hoffman grew up in Kalama and graduated from Kelso High School, but her new gift shop has a big-city feel.
Ella Gray Home+Gifts opened on Nov. 1 in the heart of downtown Kalama. Its clean, cozy vibe and feel of a modern loft apartment are traceable to urban places, where Hoffman spent most of her adult life in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.
“For our area, these are (items) we’d have to drive to Portland to get,” she said. “I think it’s a welcome thing for people to come in, grab a gift, know it’s not going to be something that’s just generic. It means something.”
Hoffman, 43, said a trip to Cowlitz County inspired her to return home.
“About three years ago, when I was living in the Bay Area, I came back for a visit around Christmastime and was really struggling with the big-city thing of not really feeling connected to people around you,” she said. “At that point and time, I decided to move back to Kalama, where our kids could be kids and (I could) just really start trying to form community.”
Hoffman bought the building on 210 North First Street, which she described as her “favorite building in town.” It was already gutted, and she spent a year and a half rebuilding and redesigning the space with the help of a Portland contractor.
Now, Ella Gray is open for business, and Hoffman hopes to provide Kalama with more than just random gifts and interior design: She wants to use it as a community-builder, too.
“One of my plans for (the store) is that this table is not really so much retail space as it is my ‘community table,’ “ Hoffman said, gesturing to a table in the store’s second floor. “I’m going to be doing some workshops. There’s going to be a local woman here in town who’s going to do a workshop on certain types of painting.”
One thing Hoffman hopes for is that her new store, along with the McMenamins’ incoming Kalama Harbor Lodge at the Port of Kalama, will spark a renaissance in her hometown.
“One thing that has been true about Kalama is that a lot of people in Kalama don’t come to town to shop because there’s just not a lot,” she said. “I want to change that and have people coming into the town that they live in.”
Ella Gray’s goods are varied: Visitors can buy handmade leather products from Portland Leather; soaps and lotions from a small company in La Conner, Wash.; handmade jewelry from individual artists; and artisan shaving cream, soap and solid cologne (yes, it’s a thing) from a small North Carolina company owned by Hoffman’s brother.
Hoffman also joked that one of her most popular items so far is a metal pitcher that has “You say tomato, I say bloody Mary” printed on the side.
Word to the wise: If you see something you like, you might want to buy it quickly because Hoffman said her collection will rotate frequently.
“I’ll be getting all-new products at the end of this month,” she said. “In February, it will be a completely different store. It’ll continue to always be ever-changing.”
Luckily for Hoffman, getting customers to her store hasn’t been too difficult since the November opening.
“It (has been) very, very busy for the past couple months,” she said. “Kalama has been great at receiving the store, and it’s just a really great community to be in.”