Monday, September 7, 2015

Community - You Don't Know What You've Got Til It's Gone

Those of us who live in Old East Village experienced a huge loss recently when Victor Bax Custom Tailoring closed up shop.        

Recent unfortunate changes in Enrico Bax's life forced him to make the decision to close the doors to the little shop on Adelaide Street where for 30 years, he and his brother Victor created custom clothing.  When Victor (whom his brother referred to as "The Michelangelo of Tailors") retired,  Enrico took over the business and changed the focus to alterations.  I did not discover the shop until after I had been in the neighbourhood for several years - a friend recommended the place for the quality of the work and the reasonable prices.  I was able to get Enrico to alter a few pieces of clothing for me, and his work was top notch, and the price was much less than other tailors in London charged.  Unfortunately, this meant that he always had more work than he could manage, and he often fell behind.  The local police service and members of the military were amongst his clients along with those of us in the 'hood that needed a pair of pants or a dress shortened or taken in a little.  Many of his customers had been with him for more than a quarter century.  

His shop was featured in our local newspaper a few years back for the elaborate Christmas displays that Enrico's now ex-wife set up in the shop using the little houses she had collected for over 20 years.

You couldn't be in a hurry when you dropped something off to be altered because there was often a couple of customers ahead of you, and when it was your turn, Enrico usually had a story or two to tell.   It could be a story about when he lived in Italy, or his thoughts on why it is difficult for young people to find jobs and how the neighbourhood had changed over the years.   He was very "old school" when it came to how men and women dressed, which could be a bit of a challenge for his younger clients.  My friend Heather took a loose tunic top to him in hopes that he could add pockets to it, and we were treated to a very serious argument against it, which ended with Enrico stating, "I could do it, but you won't like it, and then you would throw it out".  He felt that pockets ruined the line of a woman's clothes, which was probably true with the styles of the 40's to the 70's, but not so much with the loose-fitting styles of today.  Heather could have taken the top to someone else, but instead, it became one of our favourite stories about Enrico that we titled "No Pockets for You".

Owner-run small businesses are the heart and soul of any city, and in smaller cities like London, are usually clustered in the downtown core.   London's downtown has lost many independent businesses over the last 30 years but thankfully there are still people brave enough (or foolhardy) to try to stick it out, and in doing so, forge a community of like-minded people by getting to know their customers through friendly chats or social events.    Here's a little tribute to the businesses that make up my downtown community - where I spend my money, time, and consider the owners to be part of my social circle.

Silk Road is the place in my neighbourhood where you can find a used couch or television, kitschy garden ornaments, an inexpensive party dress, dvds, or in my case, a ceramic cat for my porch and a metal toucan for my kitchen.  The owners are very friendly (the wife is a fan of my outfits) and they  have two awesome store cats - Smokey and Miss Kitty.  I assume most of their stock comes from estate and garage sales, and while there's lots of stuff that makes me wonder who would have bought such things in the first place, but there are also the unexpected treasures, which makes a weekly browse a necessity.

At least once a week I stop by UberCool Stuff and Jackpot Vintage to say hello and check out the new stuff.  Ubercool Stuff, owned and operated by Chris McGinnis, carries the latest board games, gadgets, designer toys, and some of the coolest greeting cards in town.  Jackpot Vintage, owned by Amber Smith, offers an ever-changing selection of men's and women's vintage and retro clothing and accessories, with some vintage board games and kitschy collectables thrown into the mix. 

Smith (in the blue dress) and her niece Olivia can be found in Jackpot most days of the week chatting with customers and helping them find the perfect dress, jacket, or Hawaiian shirt.  Shopping there is always fun, and in addition to the entertaining conversation, I've found a number of fun dresses and jackets to add to my wardrobe.   On the right is Chris McGinnis, wearing his costume for the Retro Electro Sideshow that he created for Nuit Blanche last year.   McGinnis hosts regular game nights at his shop, and he and Smith are active promoters of local artists and community events.  Smith and her partner John host a weekly Rockabilly-themed radio show on the local campus radio station and can are avid supporters of local bands.

The stock at The Sentimentalist, owned by Melinda Steffler, draws the young cool kids, and us older vintage-loving folks who appreciate a good 60's dress or Persian lamb jacket.  Her prices are very reasonable (she has a number of customers who come from Toronto) and guys can find that perfect pair of army boots, tie clip, or vest, while the ladies look for a vintage brooch to go with the fab 80's jacket they just found.  I've scored many a great piece from this shop, including a number of coats (my weakness).

I wasn't able to get a new photo of Melinda, owner of The Sentimentalist, for this post (she cut off her hair and it looks amazing!), so I'm re-posting this photo of her from 2012 with Sophie, the shop mascot.

From Mars has been in business for 25 years and I've been shopping there every since owners and friends Diane and Laurie opened their little shop on Richmond Street where they sold the latest Raver styles from brands like Geek Boutique, Swear London (see some of the crazy styles from that era here), and Snug Industries

The location and stock has changed to reflect their older customer base, but Di and Laurie are still the same crazy, music-loving dames they were when I used to party with them in the 80's.  We have all gotten older, but they keep our rock and roll spirit alive with their funky clothing and accessories from small design companies.   From Mars is the only "Retail" store I shop at, and some of the most frequently worn and loved pieces in my closet have come from the store.  The owners have fostered a wonderful community of over-40 women who love to shop, and party at the fun events held at the store.  I attended a Poker night there to benefit Literacy London and the band Catl has played at a couple of in-store parties.   

Christine, owner of Renegade, recently celebrated her first year in business with another great party at her shop.  Her store, which specializes in flattering and fun clothing for plus size women, has been a welcome addition to the downtown core - she has created a very friendly and accepting space for women of all sizes and stripes to chat and shop (guys are welcome too!).  I had written a post about her store when it opened, and since then receive regular invitations to her in-store parties, which are chock-full of vivacious women wearing their favourite Renegade dresses dancing, laughing, and having an all round good time.  So far,  Christine has had a Sexologist, burlesque performer, and a funk band as special guests at her parties, so I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

London's used book and record stores have always drawn customers downtown, but the uncertain economy and passage of time have reduced the number of each.  Two of the best known used bookstores in London have been in business for decades, and each provides a very different type of shopping/browsing experience for book fans.
 I didn't get a photo of the outside of City Lights Bookstore so I borrowed this photo from their website.  It gives you an idea of the number of books on hand at any one time, and the Captain Kirk figure in the Sci-Fi section is a perfect indication of the pop culture sensibility of the owners, Jim Capel and Teresa Tarasewicz.  The shop has been in business for 40 years, with Capel and Tarasewicz as owners for the last 23.  I worked at this shop for a couple of years back in the 90's, and it is an eclectic, sometimes claustrophobic, but always entertaining haven for lovers of the printed word.  The shop also sells used CDs, DVDs, and LPs (that's vinyl records for you youngsters).

Attic Books was opened in 1976 by Marvin Post, and has occupied three different locations before its current home at 240 Dundas Street.  Customers that find City Lights too claustrophobic and cluttered will be at home in this well-organized, brightly lit space featuring three floors of books, maps, prints and paper collectibles and is still owned by Mr. Post.

Vanessa Brown and Jason Dickson, partners in life as well as business, both worked at some point at Attic Books, which I think is where they met.  Brave souls that they are, they got married and decided to open their own business in the same year.  Both are writers, experienced book sellers, and dedicated to promoting Canada's national heritage and culture.   Brown and Dickson, which specializes in books and ephemera related to Canada and Canadian culture, is the new kid on the block in London's downtown used book community, but they have already acquired a following of like-minded folks looking for a Lucy Maude Montgomery biography (Vanessa is a local historian and expert on the Anne of Green Gables author), a postcard of Storybook Gardens, or a copy of the hot-selling book Murder City, written by local criminologist Michael Arntfield.  They hosted an end-of-summer book party downtown which drew a crowd of book and art fans (myself included).  They currently operate out of their home, but plan to move the business to a brick-and mortar location downtown very soon.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list of the small businesses located in downtown London, but time and space limitations meant restricting myself to the ones where I had recently visited. Readers of my blog know that I will occasionally feature a new business that has taken up residence in my hood (such as the Boombox Bakeshop), but I don't want my blog to become a "Where to Shop in London" website (although I would create one if someone would pay me).  I do want to stress the important role that owner-run small businesses play in the creation, and maintenance, of a thriving urban core.  People are more likely to make the trip in from the suburbs to a downtown business when they feel they have a relationship with the people who are behind the counter.  When I am forced to shop at a big box store like PetSmart, it's because I need the thing they are selling (the smaller pet stores don't stock the kind of bedding I use) - I don't hang around looking for a conversation (although I do get to pet dogs).  When I stop by The Sentimentalist or Jackpot Vintage, it's a given there will be a show and tell of the recent thrift shop finds, a chat about a local art exhibit or other event, or a swap of pet stories.  The owners of these businesses know that the longer you spend in their shop, the more likely you are to find that one thing you can't leave without. 

 In case you were wondering, I did not receive any compensation from any of the businesses mentioned here for writing this.

How engaged are you with the small businesses in your neighbourhood?


  1. I feel the heart in this post, Shelley. How lucky is the city to have someone who cares so much for her community. The story of Victor Bax shutting his doors was very moving, especially with your background - "No pockets for you!"
    During the blogger meetup recently in Vancouver it was surprising to hear women from other countries saying they have the same stores at home - I tend to forget how globalized selection can be. I love independents for their cool unique stock and I wish them the very best!!

  2. Wonderful post! I feel that kind of sadness when a local store closes up - in Victoria it was Leather World. They sold handmade in the shop leather belts and goods, including the biggest selection of buckles I've ever seen. Their windows were dusty and full of bugs, lol, but they were an institution. I always try to patronize local stores - I support my downtown business store owners, from comics to books to clothes.

  3. I too hate it when an independent store ceases to exist. Feels like I'm mourning an old friend.

    All of these featured stores make me want to visit London.


  4. What a fantastic post! You've got some indie gems in London.

  5. This is a fabulous piece of writing and tribute to the small businesses in your neighborhood. It makes me think about the businesses that I depend on, and those that I miss because they're no longer open. I agree with Vix. You are surrounded by gems!

  6. It's true that being an independent trader is a challenge in these days of cheap fast fashion (and fast everything else too.) I love the No Pockets For You story, but I suppose it illustrates part of the problem - small, slow businesses which may not offer quite what you want are going to struggle in this tough climate. For every customer who finds stories like this funny and charming (which would include me), there will be another several who would just take their business elsewhere. But what I appreciate so much about independent traders (the good ones at least) is their passion, knowledge, and the personal touch. You don't get that in H&M. xxx

  7. With the rise of 30 storey condominium buildings in my neighborhood, with starting prices of $1m targeting foreign investors who will never live here or contribute to the vibrancy of the community, I am also bemoaning the loss of small independent shops. You can barely swing a politician by the feet without running into another branch of a drugstore chain or another branch of a too big to fail bank, because those are the only entities that can afford the rents on the first floors of these eyesores. I' wish we could pass a law in NYC forcing these buildings to rent their first floor at reasonable rates to independent shop owners. They've already taken away our sunlight, our quiet, our neighborhood color and our trees. That would at least be one small way they could give back.

  8. oh yes, I've enjoyed this report on local interesting business, such an amazing downtown to go for a walk and watch what's going on!
    I love my own city with its old style commerce and really love little shops, many of them are owned by same family for ages!. I always gravitate around old market, to buy groceries, but also to go chatting with some sellers.
    Missing some vintage shops here in my neck of the woods, but I'm enjoying what I have!

  9. Living in the suburbs I don't have this rich experience. But I do try to support my local shops (supermarket etc.) xo Jazzy Jack

  10. Great Article! I'd like to send a personal 'Shout Out' to Bobbi & Tracey @ Style 360 Selective Consignment @ 360 Springbank Dr. Congratulations for 6 wonderful years of splendid service,friendly and caring,and the quality women's clothing and accessories. Best Wishes,Kathryn

  11. Even though I don't live in London or frequently go there, I still loved reading about it. Indeed the little quaint shops make a neighbourhood. Or break it with their absence. We have the Nine Little Streets in Amsterdam with shops like this. F.i. One in haberdasheries and curtain accessories. Beautiful shop. Together with the thrift shops and some boutiques made the neighbourhood very popular. Which meant: price of real estate went up and as soon as one shop owner packed it up, the premises were snapped up by a chain. It won't be long until this lovely piece of Amsterdam is ruined.
    By the way, I knew about your Canadian life, but London as a base is new to me. That is my fault of course. If I were to visit your blog more regularly I would have known.