Located in the heart of downtown Toronto’s electric King West neighbourhood, Portland Market is a small, nature-led plant shop that locals and tourists have loved for over three years.
The shop’s owner, Irene Hickman, reveals that her vision for Portland Market was simple: she wanted to bring nature into the big city. Born and raised on a peach farm in Korea, Hickman believes that plants have played an influential role in her life since childhood. “I’ve always had a garden,” she explained. “My love of plants was never something that began. It was always just a part of my life.”
Surrounded by restaurants and coffee shops, Portland Market lives up to Hickman’s dream of being a small natural oasis in Toronto. Portland Market is full of gorgeous greenery, where customers can buy everything from popular houseplants and succulents to handmade pots and local produce from their family farm. Customers will also find unique natural products like African black soap, which she was inspired to sell after seeing how it helped heal her 102-year-old father’s dry skin.
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Bringing Nature to the City
Hickman is a big believer in the healing power of nature. “We as human beings are innately drawn to nature and have a passionate love of life and living things,” she says. She also highlights the importance of biophilic design, the concept of integrating natural elements into the spaces we live and work in.
In other words, adding more components of nature into our spaces, such as plants or water features, have an effect on our mental health and overall wellness. Hickman says that she’s passionate about bringing more biophilic design and energy into the city. There’s a reason why people go hiking or visit national parks, she explains, adding that it’s all because of this need to connect with nature.
In addition to the power of biophilic design, Hickman also believes the world could be a much more peaceful place if every person on the planet became a plant parent. “You just learn so much about life from observing the growth of a plant,” Hickman says, adding that even people born without green thumbs shouldn’t shy away from spending more time connecting with nature.
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Becoming a Plant Parent
The secret to plants is to think of every plant as an opportunity to nurture and learn how to take care of something, she explains. She likes to joke with young couples who enter the store that it starts with buying plants, then having a pet, and then kids. People want to nurture and take care of things, she says. “It’s a big part of personal fulfillment. And as you get older, you realize that giving is way more rewarding than wanting something.”
“When you give unconditionally, you feel a lot happier,” she says. “But, on the other hand, if you always want something, you’re always unhappy. However, in nature, like in gardening, if you garden well, or if you’re a pet owner and you take care of your pet well, nature gives back to you in more ways than you think. So I think as people get older, they become more drawn to that nurturing energy and appreciate it more.”
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One of the biggest adjustments Hickman has faced over the past year has been transitioning Portland Market to an online store and turning to Instagram and Shopify at the start of the pandemic. Toronto experienced one of the world’s longest lockdowns throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Similar to many businesses, Portland Market often needed to quickly pivot from reopening their storefront to their online store and back again. “We’ve been on that roller coaster ride throughout the whole pandemic.”
Despite the unforeseen circumstances of the past year and a half, Hickman says it helped her become even more grateful for the community. “We get a lot of repeat customers, and the local restaurants and nearby patios all support us as well, which is something I really appreciate.” One of her favourite things about being a business owner in the King West neighbourhood is the fact that eventually, everyone becomes friends.
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The Future of Portland Market
Once the pandemic is over, Hickman is excited to finally start renovating her store, a project that has been in the works for a couple of years now. She envisions Portland Market becoming a store that’s reminiscent of a rainforest. “It’s a bit of a challenge,” she says, “but we’re going to try.” Hickman adds that she’s even thinking of creating a massive moss wall into the store. “I think it’s important to bring nature into the city, and with biophilic design trends growing, I think we need it as well.”
To learn more about Portland Market’s owner Irene Hickman, tune into the @AmexCanada #ShopSmall Twitter episode here. The Twitter Original series was created in partnership with American Express Canada in support of Shop Small, a national initiative backed by a Cardmember offer to encourage Canadians to get behind their local small businesses.
Images courtesy of Elaine Fancy Photography
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