How a Veteran’s Dude-Forward Baby Store Became the Club for Portland Dads
Toys. Tunes. "Dadiator Games". Portland's Seahorses is less of a shop and more of a community for men with kids.
Don Hudson has seen some stuff. A 13-year member of the armed forces, the former elevator repairman has worked as a line cook, a railroad welder, an electronics technician, a ranch hand, and a stay-at-home-dad. He rides a motorcycle, uses his Leatherman to thaw breast milk under hot water, and has a cool-headed demeanor that suggests there hasn’t been a blow-out yet that’s made him gag.
But the one thing that put Hudson over the edge was shopping for diaper bags. “Everything that I found was very feminine,” he says. “Even the ones that I found that were supposedly more dad-friendly still looked like a purse — with the design of a Gucci bag or something.” While scouring baby boutiques and websites for a dad bag that would carry its weight, the now-owner of Portland, Ore.-based Seahorses ultimately found something much more valuable: a market opportunity.
A hip store for young dads on Portland’s coolest street, Seahorses is more than a baby boutique, it’s a hangout for dads and their kids. And if Hudson has his way, it will ultimately be a movement that, as he says, puts hair on the face of parenting.
Jammed with every cool kid’s product a hip dad could want — from the store’s best-selling item the Yoee Baby Puppy to Thule Chariot strollers to breathable hiking raincoats for dad (this is Portland, after all) — Seahorses uses daily events to suck in foot traffic. As a result, Hudson has created a community of dads engaged in parenting like never before.
The space itself is a re-imagination of your typical boutique. Up front, you find aisles and racks full of product, of course. But as you walk to the middle of the store, a curious bank of short walls juts out, framing out a giant, gate-less playpen full of toys. The idea is that dads (and moms) can drop their kids in there while they shop, and almost feel like a human being again. Hudson serves up complimentary coffee, tea, hot cocoa, water, and WiFi — no beer, alas, though this is Portland so that may change — and encourages parents to zone out and check their Facebook for a spell. No judgment.
Hudson gradually refined his concept over a span of years while serving as the family’s stay-at-home parent and general manager. And as he tried to get involved in parenting groups like Music Together and Baby Sign Language, he became painfully aware that the other stores were mom driven. And that he was the token dad.
“Friendships and relationships were very hard to build because that big, ugly, green monster of jealousy will raise its head if you’re friends with a female, both from my wife and their husbands,” he says. “It was uncomfortable, awkward, and very isolating.”
So Hudson began working at a baby shop that he frequented with his kids. “I had absolutely no retail experience other than being a shopper,” he says. He lasted nine months there — a stretch he now terms as “market research” before having to leave because his youngest child (who was allowed to go to work with him) was growing too big. But eventually, the baby boutique that previously occupied the space where Seahorses now resides went up for sale — and Hudson’s wife, a surgeon, suggested they buy it.
The plan to open Seahorses wasn’t just an investment in Hudson’s dream of a dad-friendly shopping experience. It was also a gamble on one of the few work solutions on which the family was willing to embark. “I didn’t want to go back into building elevators or welding because I don’t need to put my life on the line,” he says. “I need flexible hours because I’m still the primary caregiver for my kids, and owning my own business was the only way I could come up with to achieve that.”
The father of four opened Seahorses on Father’s Day 2015 and quickly turned the store into a neighborhood hotspot. There’s a toddler dance party almost every day. The Sunday New Dad’s Group is so big that Hudson is thinking of adding another one. Live music, ranging from acoustic jam sessions to kid-friendly Ska fill the store’s event space several times a week. A weekly visit from Olive & Dingo, a pair of bright, cheery cartoon-like characters, brings face painting, balloon animals, and kids a plenty to the shop. And then there’s the weekly babywearing playdate where dads can do their thing without all those moms getting in the way.
But the biggest day of the year at Seahorses is Father’s Day, of course, when the shop holds its ‘Dadiator Games.’ The competition pits dad against dad in an array of events such as a blind-folded diaper change and a stroller obstacle course race. And not just anyone can participate — dads need to be nominated and are chosen from a pool of ferocious fathers. “It’s not painting dad in a bumbling idiot kind of way,” says Hudson. “It’s more like, ‘Let’s put your skills to the test, chief, and see what you’ve got.'”
Between this annual event and the store’s general year-round vibe, Hudson is building a movement he calls ‘normalizing fatherhood’. And one that he hopes will expand across the country. “It’s so important to recognize dads for what they are,” he says. “They’re not a substitute for moms, they parent differently, and that’s not a wrong or bad thing, and that needs to be recognized in society. Dads are capable and competent.”