behind the scenes
Few industries have been as hard hit during the pandemic as the wedding industry. Couples have had to change dates on numerous occasions and constantly alter plans for invitation lists and so on.
It’s a fact known only too well by Julia Foley owner of Ever After Bridal Boutique which carries a wide selection of both new and consignment clothing, including gowns for special occasions.
“The impact has been devastating,” says Julia who has tried to remain busy while working at home.
“I took a seven week course through the Small Business Advisory Centre and took part in the Digital Main Street Program as well. But mine is a business where you really have to come in and experience the fitting of the dress and so on. It’s all about the experience. It’s their happy moment.”
While many retailers have switched to online sales, it isn’t really an option for Julia.
“Some of my items are on consignment, they’re not mine. What if I sent something out and it’s returned with damage? I couldn’t have that,” she maintains.
Julia has found the government regulations to be simply too restrictive.
“I feel that what we do is as essential as some other businesses. You take a large chunk out of the local economy when you eliminate weddings,” she points out.
“I don’t see any reason why small businesses couldn’t be open. We are far safer and take far more precautions than the big box stores do,” says Julia who grew up in the hamlet of Balderson just outside of Perth where her parents operated a vacation farm as a bed-and-breakfast.
“Growing up I learned how to make friends fast and the importance of hospitality,” she recalls. “I helped with the family business. Throughout the years it seemed I always had my feet inside a restaurant.”
It was these experiences that eventually led Julia to a career in event planning and management.
“Eventually, I enrolled in the hotel and restaurant management course at college,” she points out.
Along the way, she literally married the boy next door.
“Yeah he really was the boy next door and he’s been extremely supportive with my career,” reflects Julia.
Although she founded L.O.V.E. – Local Ottawa Valley Events - these days Julia does very little in the way of wedding planning.
“I’m still an officiant and can renew people’s vows for them etc. and I’ll still help with the planning, as a favour for a friend, but these days weddings are so small that there’s not a lot of planning needed.”
For Julia it’s been a double whammy since one of the other markets she catered to was the travel industry.
“I used to sell to women going on a cruise who were looking for something special to wear on the formal night on the ship, but, of course, that’s all been shut down as well.”
Julia recently hired two models and a photographer to do a photo shoot of her inventory, but she’s had to put them on hold.
“For me, it’s been a total pause. It’s tough to stay positive,” reflects the young lady from Balderson whose upbringing on the farm will no doubt help to see her through the challenge.
They say every cloud has a silver lining. While that may be a bit of a cliché, for Kim Kuhnle, owner of Balderson Kidz, it holds an element of truth.
“When the pandemic arrived and the first lockdown hit, we were looking for a way to stay connected with our customers,” recalls Kim. “That’s when we started our book club.”
“It was an opportunity for families to sign up and receive 3 – 5 books each month, delivered free to their home,” explains Kim. “Every two weeks I load up the car and head out.”
With many youngsters at home and parents looking to keep them occupied, the club became an instant hit. Before long, Kim’s arrival at the various homes became a much anticipated event. “It’s so cute. In many cases, the kids are sitting in the window waiting for us to arrive,” says Kim.
Kids love clubs. As a result, along with her book club, Kim began a Boredom Buster Club, a surprise pack containing a range of products for children again delivered to the door each month. The pack could include everything from activity books, crafts and how-to-guides and. Kim also has a Sticker Club.
Kim knows all too well what it’s like to be looking for something to do. She originally came from Osgoode a place she says is smaller than Perth.
“It’s so small, they don’t even have street lights,” she laughs. Looking to move somewhere bigger, without having to relocate to the city, Kim arrived in Perth in 2006. Prior to that she had worked in the retail industry since she was 14.
“I eventually went to college in the business administration program and got a job in an office, but it wasn’t for me,” she says. She left after less than a year.
Her heart belonged in retail and so she became the franchise owner of the Mac’s Milk on the corner of Gore & Craig Streets in Perth.
“That was hard. With a young family, it was tough to be on call 24/7 so I gave that up,” she says.
By this time she and her husband Brett had three children – Josie age 10, Sophia age 9 and Blake who is 1 1/2. Their middle child Sofia has severe autism.
With a young family at her side, Kim decided that whatever she did next would have to involve her kids.
“I knew that whatever it was I did, I wanted to be able to bring the children to work. So when Balderson KIdz became available it just seemed like a good fit,” she reflects.
Having a retail outlet dealing in merchandise for children was the perfect fit for Kim and her family with her kids quickly becoming her quality control department.
“We test everything that comes into store,” says Kim who explains why the pandemic has been especially difficult for her business. “It’s hard to buy children’s things on line. People like to come in and try things out. It’s just easier for them to do exchanges and returns.”
While she missed her walk-in customers, Kim used her time during the lockdowns to strengthen her online presence through such programs as the Digital Main Street. She also looked to add to her line of children’s clothing. “I’ve really wanted to expand my selection of footwear since there isn’t really anywhere else that carries that.”
Having a child with special needs has allowed Kim to expand her inventory in different ways with items specifically designed for children who are developmentally delayed.
“These items are also tested by Sofia and her other children,” points out Kim “and have become extremely popular. We just started stocking them in June and since then we’ve had to re-order multiple times.”
With her children taking an active part in the business, it keeps everything in the family, just the way Kim wanted it.
“We have fun,” she says. And when work is fun, it hardly seems like work at all.
Having grown up in Lanark, Ontario, Angie Whyte was eighteen when she took a job placement at Shadowfax in downtown Perth. As fate would have it, she never left.
“I was in the Futures program at Algonquin College,” recalls Angie. “We were supposed to do three four month placements at different locations, but after four months Wendy and I decided I should stay right where I was.”
According to Angie, “Wendy and I just seemed to hit it off.”
At the time Wendy Laut, the founder of Shadowfax, was a well known figure around Perth, having served as a town councillor, a founding member of the popular Stewart Park Festival and a long-standing environmental activist.
“She was so special,” recalls Angie. “She was very generous with her employees. She had a natural way of building people up and making them feel good. She was my boss, but she was also part sister and part best friend.”
In Wendy, Angie found a kindred spirit who always took the side of the underdog.
“Even when renting the apartments above the store, Wendy would take in those who others would consider too risky,” explained Angie. “Everyone deserves a fair chance Wendy would say.”
Established in 1980 Shadowfax was very much a reflection of Wendy Laut’s personality.
“It was eclectic, funky and had a spirit of fun,” says Angie who started there in 1989 and had the store willed to her by Wendy who would pass away from cancer in 2009.
“I’ve tried to keep the spirit of Wendy alive,” says Angie who believes that to this day the store is still filled with her friend’s energy.
“The energy of the store is so important,” reflects Angie. “People come in just to soak it up. Sometimes they come to buy, but sometimes they simply come for a visit. This is my happy place they’ll say.’
The spirit of Shadowfax is very much in keeping with Angie’s belief that one must approach life with a positive outlook, an attitude that is uplifting rather than gloomy.
“You can’t take life too seriously,” she says. “As they say, don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Nowhere is this sense of fun more evident than in the greeting cards she stocks.
“There’s a bit of shock value there, no doubt about it” Angie laughs. “People will pick one up to have a look and then do a double take.”
Every Sunday from 11:00 – 4:00 the store hosts its “Physic Sundays” featuring different intuitive readers.
“These events have become massively popular,” says Angie, “and often those who come for them will end up buying tarot cards or oracle cards or crystals. The volume is up, no question about it. It’s part of a growing holistic approach to wellness. “
During the pandemic as people’s concern for their health increased so too did their interest in the healing property of such things as crystals.
It’s this spiritual aspect of the business that interests Colleen Lamontagne who started at the store in 2001 and remains a close friend and co-worker of Angie’s.
“Her loyalty, enthusiasm and genuine love of her job are unmistakable,” says Angie who points out that Colleen’s understanding of the different properties and benefits of each stone and its origins are facts she loves to share.
Leanne Dwyer is another important part of the Shadowfax team and is best known for her magical, whimsical flair with displays. She’s also the team’s master organizer.
Angie, Colleen and Leanne aren’t the only ones that visitors come to see at Shadowfax. There’s also Piper, their beloved English Budgie, who came to them as a baby in 2012 and now commands a vocabulary of over 200 words.
“He’s a very cherished and important member of our Shadowfax family”, says Angie. “Many pop in to visit him, often bringing him treats and are anxious to hear what new words or phrases he’s learned.”
For Angie it’s one more indication of the kind of connection that has drawn people to Shadowfax over the years.
“People need to feel welcomed and to be heard. Otherwise, they’d just go to Wal-Mart,” maintains Angie who has worked hard to ensure that Shadowfax has remained true to its roots.
Keeping people happy, healthy, laughing and inspired has been the key to the store’s success since the beginning.
Forty-one years later it still is and one senses that Wendy knew it would be when she handed things over to Angie in 2009.
Tina Gateley’s mom had always wanted to be a librarian.
“But marriage and children came along and that never came to be,” laughs Tina.
Despite getting sidetracked from her chosen profession Barbara Gateley managed to pass her love of books along to her family.
“Books were always important for us, “reflects Tina. “Both my parents are avid readers, as am I.”
Originally from Montreal, the Gateley family moved to Perth when Tina’s parents began to look seriously for a place to retire.
“They wanted to get out of the big city and looked at a number places, including Peterborough and Picton, but they fell in love with Perth,” she explains. “There’s something about the town that lures you in, so much so that my parents bought a house here sight-unseen.”
Then in 2001 Tina’s mom bought The Bookworm.
“It was a small, rather messy and dark establishment situated in the lane across from the Chipmunk Chippery,” recalls Tina.
It wasn’t long, however, before Tina’s mom had used her “librarian’s touch” to clean it up and get it organized.
Over the years, the store moved to various locations in downtown Perth.
“We were always at the mercy of the landlords,” recalls Tina. “Rents kept going up or we had to move because they wanted the space for another purpose.”
In 2007 the Gately’s decided to sell their home and buy the building at 76 Foster St. that housed their bookstore. In so doing, they made the apartment above the store their permanent residence.
Growing up Tina had always helped around the store cataloguing and filing books. So it was natural in 2011, with her mom looking to retire, that Tina decided to move back to Perth from the west, where she was working in the theatre industry, to “run the joint,” as she puts it.
“I went from being backstage to being on stage,” Tina says with a smile. “I love it. I meet the most incredible people and we talk about the most interesting topics. When you talk to people who read books, the discussion just seems to be that much more informed.”
It’s a relationship that extends beyond the confines of the bookstore.
“I will see a customer at the grocery store or wherever and they’ll recognize me. They won’t always remember my name, but they’ll recognize me as the ‘book lady.’”
It was shortly after Tina took over the store that the book industry entered a difficult time.
“The internet was taking off and eBooks were becoming big. Many of the larger book stores began to close down,” recalls Tina. “Retail can be tough.”
Despite the challenges, the Bookworm survived.
“There’s something about books,” says Tina. “Many readers who switched to EBooks returned to a paper copy because they missed the look, the feel, the smell of an actual book.”
During the pandemic, books took on an even greater importance.
“Books allow the reader to escape the world around them,” she says. “That’s the thing. They take you to another place, another time. You forget about the world you’re in.”
According to Tina that’s why people are often disappointed in the movie version of a book.
“It’s not the way they had pictured it in their minds,” she says. “The characters aren’t right or something is out of place.”
Tina’s stock is constantly changing with her customers bringing in books for her to sell. Seeing what they bring always gives her a feeling of anticipation.
“Looking through the boxes is like Christmas all over again. Oooh what’s in this box?” she laughs.
Sometimes she simply gets too many boxes.
“That’s when I have to put up my ‘cranky sign’ telling people I’m not accepting any more books at the moment. It’s supply management,” she explains.
With her mom spelling her off occasionally, Tina continues to love what she does and where she does it.
“Perth just makes you feel at home,” Tina explains, as one who knows the feeling first-hand.