Keeping the General Store Alive in Headwaters
Local shop owners lean on lattes and eggs Benedict, artisanal gifts and festive community events – even Airbnb suites – as they serve their communities.
On a warm Friday afternoon in early spring, Lisa Young runs from one end of Belfountain’s general store to the other, ear to her phone. Covering both the main food counter and the adjacent ice cream parlour, she is also motioning to an espresso machine repairman. This plucky entrepreneur may have bitten off more than she can chew in this moment, but it’s how she’s rolled ever since she hung out the sign for her Common Good Café and General Store a year ago.
Even the construction workers who have stopped in are excitedly multitasking, their mouths full of Lisa’s decadent chocolate peanut butter bars. “Is the ice cream vegan?” one manages to get out between mouthfuls. Lisa replies that she does carry vegan as well as regular, and chats with them about their drive through Caledon at the end of a long shift. “So you’re BFFs?” she teases warmly. One young man explains to the other it means Best Friends Forever, not boyfriend. “Oh yeah,” his friend replies. “This is my best buddy from way back, like 20 years.”
Just then a father enters with his two daughters and the young girls jump up and down, asking where this ice cream is. “I’m so sorry!” she tells me as she delays our chat for a moment to dash off to scoop. “It’s been crazy!”
This happy bustle is exactly what Lisa signed up for when she opened this handsome spot at the corner of Bush Street and Mississauga Road in the heart of the village. She has already made a name for herself with the light and airy artful décor and her honey lavender lattes – she makes all the house syrups by hand – and from-scratch shepherd’s pie and brisket, which customers can enjoy sitting at long unfinished wooden tables or take home.
The Art Institute of Chicago alumna is a sculptor, poet and creative writer – she’s also currently working on a long-distance master of fine arts in poetry from the University of British Columbia – which is apparent in her clever Instagram posts and her book-heavy displays. The Paris Review and classics such as Crime and Punishment mingle with artisanal cookies and tonics. Before this, Lisa lived in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood and owned a pair of cafés in Little Italy where she led and facilitated art, meditation and yoga-based workshops and retreats for women – something she’s doing here too. “This is a dream project where I could involve all my skills,” she says as she shows me around the store, adding she’s focused on “how people feel in the space.”
The long perspective
The lavender lattes may be au courant, but Lisa is banking on the currency of two other timely ideas. The first is the nostalgia she feels for the historic and social roles of general stores, which dates back to 19th-century European settlement. The second is the belief that small-scale local shopping can add meaning to our lives in an era when big-box and online shopping are pulling us in the opposite direction. “The general store was once the centre of town and a vital support. To have a physical space in a community is a treasure, or so I hope.”
As Settling in the Hills: Historical Reflections, Caledon East and District described it: “Nothing characterizes life in a small village more than the comings and goings of the general store.” The book, published in 2009 by the local historical society, covers the various incarnations of the general store in Caledon East dating from the late 1870s. (The Burrell family opened the most successful one on what is now Airport Road and Old Church Road in 1902 and ran it for 88 years. It “stocked just about everything the village needed … Upstairs, the ladies of the village could purchase clothing and hats, leaving the men below to discuss local affairs.” The building is now an LCBO.)
In some villages, such as Mono Centre and Terra Nova, former general stores have been transformed into bustling restaurants. The general store in Mansfield is now a conventional convenience store and LCBO. Others have disappeared. Inglewood, for instance, lost the latest, brief iteration of its general store, the Inglewood Village Store, this past winter. (The building has been sold and residents await news.)
There are thriving country clothing, gift and décor shops such as The Olde Stanton Store (where you must try the fudge) near Mansfield, Granny Taught Us How in Violet Hill, and It’s Roxies in Caledon East, owned by former longtime Inglewood General Store proprietor Roxanne Deabreu-Mountain. But there are only a handful of retailers keeping the general store flame alive, building on its history with such 21st-century attractions as yoga classes and Airbnb suites.
As these modern shopkeepers open their screen doors to let in summer breezes and ice cream lineups, there are more reasons than ever to visit Lisa and her peers in Rosemont, Cheltenham, Terra Cotta and Hockley – and soon, Horning’s Mills.
As her store name, The Common Good, implies, Lisa believes the future of the modern general store is rooted in communal purpose and she has been soliciting ideas for the red brick Victorian that has stood here since 1880. A registered massage therapist, a psychotherapist/sound therapist and others lead workshops and skill-share programs upstairs. There’s also a shared working space. “You’re coming here for bread and eggs, and lunch and dinner, but it’s about letting people know this space is for them as well.”
One of Lisa’s long-term goals is to help promote artists in the area, including creating an art gallery in a nearby garage as “a space for artists to do exciting and challenging stuff without it being sales driven. I think Caledon is in a unique position to grow its tourism around art.”
As far as her own challenges go, Lisa cites winter as a time when tourist traffic slows and when she needs to rely more heavily on regulars. Her predecessor, The Belfountain General Store, was closed in winter, so Lisa has her work cut out. “You have to let people know because we are creatures of habit. I am introducing something new. Locals are the strategy.”
As a newbie in Headwaters, storekeeper Lisa Young has company, albeit 50 kilometres north. Kevin Turner and his wife, Connie Tunney, are returning to their country roots for their “retirement” after operating an East Side Mario’s in Brampton for eight years. They’re opening a new general store in Horning’s Mills in Melancthon, called Market In The Mills.
“I’m kind of a country boy who moved to the city and waited years to come back,” Kevin says. This country boy grew up on a 100-acre farm north of Shelburne with his parents and four brothers during the 1960s and ’70s. “We’re country people, and giving back to the community is very important for us.”
The couple purchased an 1875 century home at the intersection of Main and Mill streets in the village, and set about renovating the 850-square-foot main floor while reconnecting with local history. “Lewis Horning cleared the way for several mills, shops and professional offices that became Horning’s Mills in the mid-1800s,” says Kevin. “One of those shops operated from our very location.”
Kevin says the idea of a country market-style shop has generated positive excitement among villagers, who have not seen a general store here since the 1970s (that building, across the street, is the subject of “At Home In The Hills,” page 94). “There was a storefront and people lived on top, which is what we do.” Watch for everything from morning muffins to hearty burgers, along with local products and produce, when the store opens this summer.
The Rosemont ecosystem
If Lisa, Kevin or Connie are looking for guidance, they would do well to take note of how Rosemont General Store has reinvented the model for the 21st century. Janice O’Born and her husband, Earle, bought the Rosemont General Store at Highway 89 and Mulmur-Adjala Townline in 2012. The pair, who own a Toronto printing company, has updated and restored it into a magnetic dining and shopping destination. More recently they bought The Globe Restaurant and the Rosemont Hall (a former Orange Lodge) to build out their dream of preserving the hamlet’s history and creating local jobs.
The couple had observed that the business was slipping and felt “badly for rural Ontario in that everything was closing down,” says Janice, an active philanthropist who has weekended at a nearby farm in Mono for more than 30 years. The board-and-batten store first opened in 1857. Since then it has been bought, sold and expanded by several families. After owning it for two years, the O’Borns bumped out the space to the north to add a café serving breakfast and lunch.
“People come in here and they gather … and share food and a coffee together,” she says of the 3,750-square-foot space they renamed Rosemont General Store and Kitchen. Not only is it a richer experience than lining up at a chain shop, she says, but it takes on a more serious significance come winter. Rosemont has a reliable generator, which keeps the washrooms working and the hot meals flowing during the winter power outages common in this windswept area.
Whatever the weather, chef Rebecca Latour and her team ensure those meals are built on quality ingredients, many from local and Canadian farmers. Rosemont is known for its sweet and savoury pies made by longtime Globe chef and former owner Beth Hunt – apple and chicken are the bestsellers – along with the fresh and famous Globe tea biscuits. Three stand-up freezers sell local and imported fare, free range eggs and dairy. (Vegetarians and gluten-free eaters will find plenty, too.)
Like other savvy stewards, Janice and her team have calibrated their offerings to the whims (and travels) of their customers. Friday Pizza Nights, for instance, are equally popular with locals and tourists. Locals have come to depend on Rosemont General Store at the end of a busy week, and people travelling farther north eat in or call ahead for pickup.
If visitors have time to browse, Rosemont is packed with imported and local goods, reflecting both Janice’s British roots and her love for rural Ontario. Finds include Drury teas, Vegemite, wooden children’s toys from Germany and Headwaters-specific brands, such as Bridlewood Soaps. “There’s an element of surprise when people walk in the door,” she says.
Why not an Airbnb?
For Glen Judge, who has owned Cheltenham General Store for more than a decade, the very endurance of his general store is itself a kind of surprise. He says his peers are “few and far between.” Glen juggles the shop and running the family farm three minutes north – also the location of his daughter’s business, Stephanie’s Country Greenhouse. He says he hasn’t “got a clue” why he decided to run a general store. “It was just a bit of a challenge, that’s all.”
The 1887 stone building, with its cream-painted wood porch, sits at the bottom of a valley on Creditview Road, the village’s main drag. It has been a general store from the start and has served as a bank, a boutique and a pizza spot. Glen is researching whether it was also, as local lore has it, once home to a distillery producing Cheltenham Whisky.
Today, a Canada Post office takes up about a quarter of the 2,400-square-foot space. The rest comprises a lunch counter, grocery displays – “We carry most of the essentials, basically what you need to survive,” he says – along with gifts stocked by Glen’s wife, Sherry, and Stephanie. Look for locally made knits and tin signs, among other finds. There’s a newly refurbished backroom coffee shop which fills up Saturday mornings with locals and farmers stopping in for a cup or two. On Sunday afternoons a jam session takes over the back room or the lawn outside. Summer tourism, especially the perennial Cheltenham Day celebration, boosts traffic and reinforces the store’s role in the village. Together these elements have added up to a “pretty steady” increase in business year over year, he says.
Still, as Lisa Young is finding over in Belfountain, Glen does see a slump when the snow flies. He describes winter as “just something you have to live through,” admitting the postal business carries much of the load (as it once did for most general stores). Though Glen gets a boost in the warm seasons from tourists driving through, he relies mostly on the 500 hamlet residents as “the ones that keep us going all year round.”
But Glen has found an intriguing way to attract tourists – invite them to sleep over. He renovated the upper floor of the building into two cozy Airbnb suites, which he says, “has worked out well for us.”
In keeping with his aim of being a community focal point, Glen hopes to rent out the restored back room for meetings and events, too. The contractor working around us finishing it up, a local named Blake Madgett, pipes up that when “everybody comes in here, it’s like Cheers. Everybody knows your name. And everybody knows everybody else’s business. I didn’t know there were this many people in Cheltenham!”
The seasonal model
Visit Terra Cotta Country Store on King Street west of Winston Churchill and you’ll experience a sense of warmth permeating the air as strongly as the scent of the daily-made fresh brownies and cookies. Sure, it’s a business, but owners Judy Vella and her husband, Bob McCloskey, live right next door on the same property. They consider themselves Terra Cotta residents first and “business proprietors second,” Judy says. “We’re here for the long haul. We raised our kids, Margie and Isabella, here. We love it.”
The years may have added gravitas to the new build, but the origin of this 500-square-foot space was downright impulsive. Twenty-three years ago the couple “had gone to an antique show in November. Bob bought this decrepit cash register and joked about why he had bought it,” says Judy. “That Christmas we told our families we were going to run a store next to our home.” By June they’d just about finished the building – made of upcycled materials that lend it a been-there-forever look. There was a definite need in town, Judy says, as the original general store had burned down years before. “People have been really, really good to us. We feel blessed here.”
The family deals with seasonal ebbs and flows by closing up shop after Christmas to mid-March, when they put the fair trade coffee back on and start baking again. The store spotlights well-made local goods and ethically sourced international finds. Most of their packaging (including veggie-based straws) is compostable too. Judy and Bob also organize two community events each year. This September, their seventh annual weekend Buzzfest celebration honours the importance of the honeybee in the world’s ecosystem, with local artists and musicians who draw a crowd.
In mid-November they host a Christmas fundraiser with Santa and Mrs. Claus for the local charity Choose 2 Be Resilient. After a neighbour’s son and his girlfriend died kayaking on the Credit River, the families started the charity, raising money for annual $2,500 scholarships. The store also sells jewellery made with the Celtic symbol for resilience, the tree. Between the fundraiser and bracelet sales, they paid for two scholarships last year. Judy says she’s pleased something positive has come out of grief, and says that’s how tight the community feels. “We’ve gotten to watch the entire community grow up. We remember women coming in with strollers or pregnant, and a minute later the kids are coming in with their own debit cards. I think it speaks to the longevity of what we’re doing here.”
At Hockley General Store in the centre of Hockley Village, Lynda Wookey and her husband, Ian, have also been playing the long game. In 2002, after owning the store for about three years, they completely renovated the original one-room general store after stripping it back to the original posts and beams.
Although there was local fondness for the creaky old spot, Lynda says an unmet demand for a lively breakfast spot eventually won them support for the upgrade – and continues to be one of the village’s main attractions. The shelf-lined grocery room sits on the footprint of the original structure, with an LCBO outpost, walk-in beer cooler, open kitchen and two indoor seating areas boosting the layout to 2,500 square feet.
The dining area just outside the main shop doors was at first an open breezeway connecting the store with what is now local sports muralist and artist David Arrigo’s studio. The space was covered and weatherproofed once the breakfast idea took off. “It got really busy,” she says. “We needed extra seating, so we closed it in and added a stove.” In the summer high season, all the seating indoor and out (three spaces in total) are packed for breakfast and lunch on weekends.
“We serve the best eggs Benedict you’ve ever had,” Lynda says. “Our chef Philip Pearce makes the hollandaise sauce fresh. It’s a classic – we use our own free-range eggs and peameal bacon.”
Customers can linger over temptingly merchandised country gift items such as scented candles by Caledon East’s June + Rose Candle Co., honey bottled for the shop, curated cookbooks and premium groceries. Lynda credits Mono artist and designer Jane Fellowes as “responsible for creating the wonderful feeling in here.”
Stand-up fridges and freezers are filled with local brands Sheldon Creek Dairy and Am Braigh Farm. Hockley’s LCBO stock pairs well with these foodie offerings. Lynda says customers should be able to put together a great meal, complete with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, in a one-stop shop.
Over the years, she says, the remote location, away from nearby thoroughfares Airport Road and Highway 9, has become less of a disadvantage as locals and in-the-know tourists make repeat visits. “People have found us. This place is like a gift to the community. Here you’re pretty well guaranteed to bump into someone. That’s what I feel really best about in this place.”
Where to find them
Cheltenham General Store
13486 Creditview Road
Open: Seven days a week
What’s available: Coffee, baked goods and desserts, lunch counter takeaway and full-service meals, gift boutique, and some groceries.
Services: Canada Post, an Airbnb and lottery tickets
Can I buy milk and eggs: Yes
When it’s hopping: Lunch and early dinner
Don’t miss: the refurbished backroom coffee shop
Stay for: Sunday afternoon jam sessions
The Common Good Café and General Store
758 Bush Street
@thecommongoodgeneral on Facebook and Instagram
Open: Seven days a week
What’s available: Coffee, baked goods and desserts. Artisanal ice cream, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, takeaway, picnic baskets in fall. Books, décor and gift items, art supplies, health food, fine food and eco products.
Can I buy milk and eggs: Yes
When it’s hopping: Lunch
Don’t miss: The shephard’s pie, the brisket sandwich, or the honey lavender latte
Stay for: Wellness workshops, art classes and shared work space upstairs
Hockley General Store
994227 Mono-Adjala Townline
Open: Seven days a week
What’s available: Coffee, baked goods and desserts, specialty coffees and teas, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, takeaway and full-service meals, specialized books and artisanal products, health food, fine food, eco products, local wares.
Services: The Beer Store and the LCBO
Can I buy milk and eggs: Yes
When it’s hopping: Sunday Brunch
Don’t miss: The cowboy cookie, carrot cake, cggs Benedict (Sunday Brunch)
Stay for: The summer patio
Market In The Mills
164 Main Street
When it’s opening: Summer 2019
Rosemont General Store and Kitchen
508563 Highway 89
Open: Seven days a week.
What’s available: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare, take-away or full-service, Drury teas, Spirit Bear coffee, honey candles, children’s toys, Bridlewood soaps, imported household items, local and imported groceries.
Services: Lottery tickets, emergency back-up generator
Can I buy milk and eggs: Yes
When it’s hopping: Friday Pizza Nights
Don’t miss: The famous Globe tea biscuits, daily quiches and soups
Stay for: The famous sweet and savoury pies, sold by the thousands every year
Terra Cotta Country Store
119 King Street
Open: Weekends and holiday Mondays from mid-March until Christmas.
What’s available: Fair trade artisanal jewellery, coffee, chocolate, women’s clothing and accessories, gourmet jams, jellies, dry soups, rubs, salsas, relishes, butter chicken sauce, maple syrup, milkshakes, fresh fruit frozen yogurt, ice cream
Can I buy milk and eggs: No
When it’s hopping: Buzzfest in September and the November Christmas Party
Don’t miss: Flavoured tea and coffee lattes and gourmet shopping.
Stay for: The Triple (Belgian) chocolate brownies
In the Waldemar store, pop was five cents in the 1940s (seven cents if you took it outside, but there was a two-cent bottle return).
Here’s how to find the log cabin, country estate or yurt of your dreams – for at least one night.
Soak up some fascinating local history and stroll the sidewalks of our towns and villages.