By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Alex Kurnellas remembers the first time he and Shawn Stackpoole said “I do.”
“I think, she was hesitant. I was really gung-ho … then I got really, really scared — like ‘Oh my God, what if this doesn’t work?’”
At the same time, Shawn was thinking this was the last chance to back out.
“Yeah, I couldn’t see what was in his mind. The idea he had. The passion. Not that I doubted him, but I doubted if it was going to work or not. You know, there’s so much beer already.”
On a January afternoon, there is a light snow dusting Southeast Division Street in Portland. Despite steel-gray skies, the glass-walled Imperial Bottle Shop & Taproom is bright and comfortable. And Shawn and Alex are telling their love and beer story.
Their “I do’s” involved signing a lease for their shop space.
“There was really only one moment when we looked at each other — right before we signed the lease and thought, we could back out now. That’s the only time we ever talked about it.” But they decided, “We’re so close, let’s do it. You live once. If it doesn’t work, we’ll learn from it. If it does work, we’ll learn more from it.”
Shawn and Alex were a reluctant couple to begin with. They met through friends while living and going to school in Santa Barbara, Calif. Their friendship was built on similar interests and liking the same music. But romance took longer. After several years, despite the prodding by friends, Shawn thought, “Why ruin a good friendship?” Eventually, she relented. “We enjoy each other. He makes me laugh and that was six years ago…”
The change in relationship status included the move to Portland; the couple was a little bored by Santa Barbara. The beer lovers also thought the Rose City beer scene was more diverse. That, along with Alex’s childhood, should have been a clue about what would come next. Raised in New Jersey, he had seen both his father and grandfather open and run diners.
“I grew up in a restaurant for the most part,” Alex says. His intuition for operating the taproom impressed Shawn and most likely led her to follow him willingly into an arrangement that can be treacherous for a personal relationship. People often advise against mixing business and love. But think of this way: the business is like marriage, the store is like a child.
Shawn admits, “It’s been a challenge, as is anything in life but…”
Alex, as what often happens with couples, picks up the thought. “Because not only are you working with that person, but all of sudden you got in an argument at work and you take that home because you are with that person. So it’s your whole life. At first it was hard for us. I was working 100-hour weeks, Shawn was working 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks, so all the time we spent together was at work. Our relationship really suffered. We had a work relationship, but not much of a loving relationship. But after a year, a year-and-a-half, we started to find time for us. I started learning to not talk about work when we went out to dinner.”
“But we’d get about 30 minutes into dinner and something would come up. We’d have to reel it back in,” Shawn adds.
Both credit their long, pre-romance relationship with laying the foundation for how well they work together. Alex says, “I could not imagine doing it without Shawn.”
Shawn sighs and says, “You’re going to make me cry.”
Success with the 4-year-old store has added something else to their lives.
“We are lucky,” Shawn says. “We’ve been accepted by the neighborhood. I enjoy hanging out with people I’ve met at the bar.”
Alex continues, “It’s been a really enriching experience for both of us. A lot of the people that are our friends, that we see on a daily basis, are people who we met here as customers — are people we would never have met because they are different ages, have different interests. But we got to meet them through the business.”
So, you’re probably asking — what about saying “I do” at the altar? Well, Alex says he’s ready. But Shawn? “I can’t commit to what I want for a wedding. Do I want to just run off? Do I want to have a big party? I can’t decide.”
*** When you go to Imperial, ask about the “Star Wars” mural inside the front door.
Imperial Bottle Shop & Taproom
3090 SE Division St., Portland
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.