Main Street Moxie
Feminine verve and know-how are a mainstay on Main Street, learn how women retailers revive downtowns.
It was early autumn and my second wedding was around the corner. The day would start quietly under an apple tree and peak late in the evening with a reggae dance party in the barn. All I needed was a smashing ensemble suited to a backyard bride.
I headed out with my mother, a certified fashion hound. We covered miles and miles, and I must have tried on ten outfits. None seemed right for a mid-life gal who wanted to indulge her quirks without giving up her dignity. We were slumped over a café table in near despair when she said, “Why don’t we go to Hannah’s?”
Soon, I was purring like a cat in front of Hannah’s mirrors on Erin’s Main Street. My shoulders were bare, but the rest of me was snugly wrapped in a flattering smattering of leopard-print spots. I had a little shrug wrapped at my elbows. Mom looked me over and said, “You don’t mind if I wear leather?”
It wasn’t the first time I’ve learned the lesson. You can look far and wide for the right thing – dress, décor or delicacy – but you’ll probably find it right on the main street of your hometown. And these days, it’s probably a woman who will sell it to you.
Main streets were once the automatic go-to for life’s necessities. They were anchored by independent retail stores – butcher, baker, hardware, grocer – run mainly by men and their families. But changing times were unkind to these downtown businesses as competition arose from retail chains and suburban malls. The number of farm families, once a dependable clientele, was diminishing, and many villagers and townspeople had become harried, dual-income households who commuted to work outside the community.
But changing times also brought in a new demographic, affluent ex-urbanites and weekenders, who not only had time and money to spend, but had moved to the country in a quest for the very sense of small-town community spirit and charm that old-style Main Street had traditionally offered. Their numbers were buttressed by “discovery shoppers,” day-trippers in search of unique gifts, home and food items. Opportunities opened up for a new kind of retailer to round out the street, and women leapt on board.
For many of these new business owners, a shop on the main street was an opportunity to add a second family income or launch a second career, one that allowed flexibility to accommodate family commitments or take on a new challenge when the kids had grown and flown. As a group the women brought their finely honed “feminine arts” to retail – a flair for service, marketing, presentation and event organization, along with a strong commitment to community.
Erin’s Main Street: From rural hub to retail powerhouse
When Jo Fillery moved to Erin in the late 1990s, Main Street was coming back into its own. Already, shops like Hannah’s, owned by Deb Shortill, and Audrey Devonshire’s twin shops Minerva’s (women’s fashion) and Tintagel’s tea room had sprung up alongside such venerable downtown stalwarts as Holtom’s Bakery and Steen’s Dairy.
“I think I was in the right place at the right time,” Jo muses. “There was a bunch of great women who owned the shops and things just seemed to come together. We’d go out to David’s Restaurant for dinner and over a bottle of wine we’d come up with ideas for events like Window Wonderland.” (Erin’s Window Wonderland, now in its tenth year, kicks off the Christmas season in mid-November with festive window displays up and down Main Street.)
Main Street sprouted a bouquet of boutiques, including such home décor and gift shops as Ellen Blefgen McKay’s The Weathervane, Shelley Foord’s Décor Solutions and Stephanie Gairdner’s Renaissance.
Jo opened What’s Cookin’ in 1999, offering fresh prepared meals and catering. Exhausted by two decades in the restaurant business, she took what she loved about those years and applied it to her store: hospitality, food, and bringing “over-the-moon happiness” to her customers. She thought the majority of her business would be people picking up hot dinners. In fact, it morphed into freezer entrées and catering.
“At the very least,” she thought, “it would be a paid hobby.” It became much more. Main Street was rebuilt in 2002, blocking traffic for ten difficult weeks. The resulting improvement, which included a beautification fund for such street furnishings as benches and banners, allowed the retail strip to blossom. “Soon, we were seen as a destination,” says Jo. “We were being asked to speak at tourism summits.”
Jo was very active in the Erin Village BIA (Business Improvement Area), serving as chair for several years until she became chair of The Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association. The marketing focus of the BIA, currently headed by Shelley Foord, was on groups of female day-trippers. Over time, couples on weekend trips and families on day outings have joined those visitors. The most exciting development is that local folks have also rediscovered Main Street. “Locals buying local” are once again Main Street’s mainstay customers.
Creemore’s Mill Street: Keeping it real
In the past decade, Creemore has experienced a similar transition from serving mainly the farm community. The downtown strip now serves a mix of clients that includes locals, weekenders and Georgian Bay commuters. And the face of the street is largely feminine.
“We’ve become ambassadors for our town,” says Laurie Copeland of Cardboard Castles “When you open that door, it’s an invitation and an investment in your entire community. The politics of the town get discussed on the street corners and inside the doors of the stores. You have to be open to that.”
Laurie opened her children’s toy and clothing store on Mill Street six years ago. Newly arrived from Toronto, she and her husband were starting a family and wanted a flexible, small-town lifestyle. She knew her energy medicine practice wasn’t likely to fly in a rural locale. So she turned for advice to neighbouring businesswomen, such as Norma Panzine at Affairs Bakery & Café and her former boss Janice Gooding, owner of As We Grow, a longstanding children’s and women’s clothing store in Orangeville.
“My mentors were other women,” Laurie says. “The BIA meetings would be mostly women.” The Creemore Village Pharmacy has been run by Jean Smart for more than 30 years. Cindy Gordon owns Victorian Values, offering bedding and linens. Denise Kacarevich has Seasons, which combines new and vintage home décor.
Increasing visitor and weekender traffic has made room for other shops as well, including Jackie Durnford and Sandra Lackie’s 100 Mile Store, a local-food emporium, and Charlene Nero’s Bank Café. They’ve been joined even more recently by Senka Bozik’s Moyaboya décor store and Suzanne Steeves’ Maplestone Gallery, among others.
Like all local retailers, Laurie learned flexibility and being open to customer feedback were essential. Her initial concept was a 60/40 split between clothing and educational toys. She had to change tactics immediately because, as she says, “You can’t compete when people can buy kids’ clothing with their tomatoes.”
She attributes much of the downtown’s success in serving visitors while keeping locals shopping at home to sensitivity to customers’ needs and an energetic core community that keeps Creemore beautiful and deeply communal. “Not having a Starbucks or Walmart is so vital to our survival,” she says. “I brag about Creemore because I love it. Creemore has one of everything. You can buy clothing here, food, toys, go to the hardware store or bookstore. We don’t want big box stores competing with an elite downtown strip.”
Orangeville’s Broadway: Does Main Street really matter?
Erin and Creemore are small enough that their retail blocks are concentrated in a compact downtown core. But what about a larger centre like Orangeville? With all of the neighbourhoods and retail areas on offer, does being on the main street really matter?
Partners and neighbours Shaye Robertson and Joanne Lewis at Urban dé.kore decided it does. Shaye bought The Home Shop on First Street in 2004. After first moving to the new development on the west side of town, she relocated to Broadway last year, and Joanne shifted from employee to partner. Moving downtown sharpened their focus.
“It was like starting fresh,” Joanne declares. In addition to a name change, “We’ve really had to assess the lines we carry because that’s how we distinguish ourselves on the street.”
Being part of the Orangeville BIA has allowed them to participate in joint marketing events such as Founders’ Day and Christmas Moonlight Magic. And their customer base has expanded from the mostly local ones who came to their west-end store to out-of-towners and weekenders.
Urban dé.kore has also helped make Broadway an interior design destination, a critical mass of complementary stores for people bent on sprucing up their living space. Other shops include Christine Janse’s Kamelyan, Margo Young’s Genesis and Tanya Hughes’ Pear Home.
Kim Webb likewise found a shift to Broadway a boon for her business. Euphoria, which serves fresh vegetarian and vegan light lunches and snacks, was originally located around the corner on Mill Street. “That location really didn’t allow for us to grow in the direction we needed in terms of space and prep areas,” Kim says, “and it didn’t have the visibility.”
Her move came about with the assistance of Evangeline Merkley, whose fashionable sportswear store Moguls in M’Ocean has been an anchor on Broadway for more than two decades. Evangeline had space available and offered it to Kim. “I had a lease so I ended up paying rent in both places for a year. It was tough but she was generous and gave us some flexibility while we got it off the ground.”
Kim was another woman for whom opening a store was a midlife switch. She had worked in human resources before opening Euphoria nearly four years ago. “I’ve always liked the people part of any job. And I decided that lifestyle and what we do for work should tie together.”
Now she is part of the party. “I do feel more sense of community being on Broadway. Most of the businesses support one another through advertising and word of mouth, and just having people to talk to about what’s happening in business, promotions and events.”
Being on Broadway has brought in a whole new set of regulars to Euphoria. “It’s really fun to get to know people and what they like,” Kim says. “You see the same faces every day – kids coming in barely on their own and next they’re off to school or working or living in the city.”
Across the street, Sigrid Wolm is thoughtful about her own leap of faith when she opened From the Kitchen to the Table 14 years ago. Sigrid’s first career was with an electronics multinational, but she wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I liked the idea of running my own business and serving customers, dealing with people. When I started in the late nineties, it wasn’t a very vibrant downtown. Some people didn’t think I would survive.”
Sigrid remembers her customers, their names and what she sold them. Although much of her fine kitchen and tableware inventory is fragile, she loves to have families in her store. “You build relationships with your customers – couples, weekend chefs and professional ones. You have to have products that are really one of a kind, something they really need.”
Well over two dozen women own businesses in Orangeville’s downtown core, and Sigrid, former chair of the Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association, notes that women are the staple of many small town centres. But she believes what really matters is having a diverse and attractive downtown. “That’s what tourists want. That’s what locals want.”
The women of Broadway are providing just that diversity. Along with a host of restaurants and cafés and several women’s and children’s clothing stores, the offerings range from handmade chocolates at Barb Chafey’s The Chocolate Shop and handmade beads at Anita Okada’s Manhattan Bead Company, to new and used books at Reader’s Choice, owned by Veronica Cvet and Sharon Thomas, and superb arts and crafts at Joan Hope’s Dragonfly Arts on Broadway.
“We have great buildings – beautiful and historical – and that’s what people are looking for when they come to downtown,” says Tanya Hughes, who has operated Pear Home for six years. Part of what brings people into her store for the first time, she says, is the lovely building exterior.
Once they’re inside, the individual service and relationship-building bring them back. “I have the best staff. We work together to do everything involving the store. It’s great to share that.”
This point is brought home to me in Creemore over breakfast at the Bank Café. A regular orders latkes and hits the coffee bar. On learning Charlene has run out of applesauce, she offers to run up to the grocery store. Charlene hands her some cash and turns back to the grill to whip up her sinful potato pancakes. In a few minutes, the woman returns and hands over the goods, which shortly grace the side of her plate. And everyone is happy.