14 December 2005

[logo_design, pdx_history] Now, That's Tom Peterson's!

Does the word "Xonix" mean anything to you? Does the thought of a cheeful fellow with a laser-precise crewcut knocking on the inside of your TV screen exhorting you to "Wake up! Wake up" at oh-dark-thirty on KPTV tug at the heart strings of nostalgia for you? Ever get a free crewcut at 82nd and SE Foster on a Saturday?

Then you know of the Portland legend that is Tom Peterson. Yes, yes, I know it's "and Gloria's too!". That is true now. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. First, the logo talk.

The Tom Peterson's logo is singularly distinct and recognizable (see illustrative photo above right, click on it to enlarge). It's Tom. Smiling at you with his signature smile, the happy-to-see-you look that was his trademark, his face had become so familiar to Portland area daytime and late-late-show (and, yes, Portland Wrestling) viewers that he was the company. You didn't go to Tom Peterson's store . . . you went to Tom Peterson's. He could often be found there, especially during his weekend sales that turned the corner of SE 82nd and Foster Road into a happy circus of furniture, applicance, and Xonix television sales.

The treatment is what is called high contrast. Take any photo and winnow it down to the lightest light highlights and darkest dark shadows, discarding all other shades of gray. Tom's face rendering for his company's identity is a good enough example of high-contrast that it could serve in a textbook. The benefit of high-contrast treatment is that it enables the logo designer to render a very complicated symbol or design, such a human face, into a simple yet recognizable format that expands to Biblical proportions (again, see illo above) and can yet be reduced down to below postage-stamp dimensions (your business card, for example) and retain its recognizable features. It travels well (even to graffiti stencils and the pages of the comic Boris the Bear) and becomes an icon.

The distinctive type treatment, featured on the building and in ads, is also a graphic mainstay of the company's image, just as instantly recognizable as Tom's face.

Just like the fellow whom it depicts, the Tom Peterson logo is a winner.

For the Love of Tom and Gloria

And now, a bit of history.

Every major market in the country has their local advert heroes/cult figures. I recall there was this chubby guy in SoCal who sold cars, would breathlessly rush through his adverts, ending with "Se habla EspaƱol!" and "Bye Kids!", and there was Crazy Eddie on the east coast.

Tom Peterson was ours. From the mid-Willamette Valley northward, there wasn't anybody who didn't own a TV who didn't know his name, he was that ubiquitious. And, over the years, by doing what he loved – selling TVs, appliances, and home furnishings – with his trademark look, enthusiasm, and passion, he became a Portland mainstay.

By the time the early 1990's rolled around, he was king of SE 82nd and Foster, with the store on the corner (the current building), the big store on the north side of SE Insley St just east of 82nd (it's an Oriental market now) and a store about a block and a half west of 82nd on the south side of Foster (it was a United Furniture Warehouse until that chain folded, and now stands empty). For his weekend events he gave out free chips, hot dogs and sodas, free crewcuts, and had a trolley bus running between the three buildings so you didn't have to cross the busy intersections (that much hasn't changed).

Just as famous as his wares were the souvenirs. For a long time you could get a wristwatch with Tom's face on it and an alarm clock, shaped like a little TV set, with Tom's logo on the face. There are probably people still around Portland who have Tom's voice in the AM exhorting them to "Wake up! Wake up and have a happy day!" Yes, they really did have Tom's voice saying that.

Logo designers, take further note: you never know where your design may end up. Design accordingly. Anyway.

Coming into the 199o's, Tom was going well, with $30 million in yearly sales. If you date back to that time you may also recall another name "Stereo Super Stores". It was another local retailer, a chain of stores which competed with Tom in the TV and electronics biz. It wasn't doing so well, and the owners wanted to sell. Tom was doing well – why not sell to Tom? Tom wanted to expand, and the SSS owners wanted out of the business. Win-win-win.

Only, Gloria, Tom's wife, who had done the books for Tom for a very long time, had a bad feeling about it. Everything looked good, but something was amiss. She couldn't put her finger on it. She thought taking over the SSS was a bad idea. Tom, confident that this would be a good deal, went ahead and took the plunge.

The company pretty much went down with him. Within 18 months after buying Stereo Super Stores, Tom Peterson's was on the ropes, declaring bankruptcy. And, for a while, the only appliance store owner who'd ever been in a Gus Van Sant film sank from the Portland commercial landscape.

They say, in an old saw, you can't keep a good man down. And Tom is a good man. Tom regrouped. Family saw him through, and he set up once again, under the name Tom Peterson's and Gloria's Too!, giving due to the woman he ought to have listened to all along (though her face doesn't grace the building, nor her name, her visage has joined Tom's in the company logo and she appears in the store's commercials). The company is now organized under his daughter and son-in-law, but Tom, now in his 70s, still runs the show.

The store is kind of a shadow of its former self, but if you stand outside you can kind of hear echoes of the way it used to be. And, for the time being, the King of 82nd and Foster still holds court there. No 24-hour "Wake Up!" sales anymore, but the smiling visage of Tom Peterson still gazes benevolently over one of the busiest interesections in Portland, Oregon.


stan said...

Tom was also featured in the movie Mr. Holland's Opus, where he played the parade announcer.

Samuel John Klein said...

Thanks for the reccommend, Stan. Now we have one more reason to see it (we've been putting that one off for a while now)

Anonymous said...

Anyone have a audio file of Tom and his most famous saying? I would like to add that to my computer on start up. thanks, andrew email:fekall@yahoo.com

Samuel John Klein said...


No, sadly, I don't have any such file. I wish I did.

That would be such the cool thing I'd find a way to host it if one did come my way.

Excellent of you to comment, btw.

Anonymous said...

You said "Tom is a good man", and I certainly agree!!

worked for Tom, in sales, back in the Muntz tv days, when Crown 500 was the big guarantee. Xonix followed later.

The crew then was myself, Walt Otto, Mike Porter, Keith Godfrey, Rodger Baughman and Cliff somebody. (Sorry, Cliff.)

One of Tom's truisims at the time was any man that came in wearing bib overalls would have excellent credit. And he was always right about that. I'm sure that was something he discovered when he was with the Green Giant co. in Mn.

I could go on, but won't. :)

Yup, good man, that Peterson!!

Walt Otto, Tigard

Samuel John Klein said...


Firstly, thanks for commenting: most excellent of you!

So you were part of one of Tom's old crews, neh? How interesting that must have been...I vaguely remember the Muntz brand.

What you said about Tom makes a lot of sense. I guess that's why I'm fond of Tom's legend; it takes me back to a time when people were gentler and nicer to each other, and if someone did come in in bib overalls that meant he was a solid working sort who worked hard and paid his bills and made sure his affairs were taken care of. Those are habits that are the essence solid credit.

I didn't know he worked for Green Giant in Minnesota. That makes sense to; his plain-spoken, cheeful style seems very "middle-American", and his obvious sincerity had this way of winning people over.

Thanks again for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, a touch of nostalgia! I purchased my very first television from Tom Petersons. I think it was 1964 or 65 maybe. A big second hand black and white 27" in a blonde console cabinet. Tom Peterson seems an important part of personal history to me.
I was just looking at a 25th anniversary silver coin given out by his stores. I picked it up at a yard sale several yrs ago and was considering putting it on Ebay to see if it is worth anything. My research led me to your blog. Now I don't want to part with it.

Samuel John Klein said...

Yep, hang on to that old Tom memorabilia.

I regret that I was never able to go by Tom's when he was really big.

I remember being told by some people that when Tom's had those 24-hour sales. They'd go down just because they didn't think that the Wake-Up sales were for real.

I wish I could have gotten a Tom watch or a Tom alarm clock. That would have been sweeet!

Unknown said...

I live in south Florida and at a Goodwill I actually found one of those alarm clocks, I had no clue who Tom Peterson was or anything about it, but I bought it anyway because i thought it was strangely attractive, also it was only one dollar. Now that I know a little about it I like it a lot more. The only thing is, I can't figure out how to set the alarm.

Samuel John Klein said...

Well hannah, Judy, she of Persistent Illusion, supplied me with the sound file you can hear in this entry because she owns one of them clocks, so surf on over there...she can tell you how to set it, I bet.

You lucky business you!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

THE HOME OF THE TOM PETERSON SIGN IS FOR SALE... the owner is collector of all things Portland.


Samuel John Klein said...

Any chance we can get the search string on that? The link above has expired.