The retales: stories of resilience from Victoria's small businesses

It’s been a brutal year for small businesses. We spotlight just a few whose stories ring true for hundreds of others across the South Island.

By Emmalee Brunt
December 17, 2020

The retales: stories of resilience from Victoria's small businesses

It’s been a brutal year for small businesses. We spotlight just a few whose stories ring true for hundreds of others across the South Island.

By Emmalee Brunt
Dec 17, 2020
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The retales: stories of resilience from Victoria's small businesses

It’s been a brutal year for small businesses. We spotlight just a few whose stories ring true for hundreds of others across the South Island.

By Emmalee Brunt
December 17, 2020
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The retales: stories of resilience from Victoria's small businesses
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The lockdowns, social distancing, and safety measures that were put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 also put a devastating damper on Vancouver Island businesses. 

But through the challenges of 2020 came stories of resilience and creativity. Capital Daily sent Emmalee Brunt and photographer James MacDonald from Sooke to Sidney to capture snapshots of the work small local businesses are doing to serve their communities and survive through a trying year.

This page will be updated throughout the week of Dec. 14 with new businesses and new stories from across Greater Victoria.

Seaberry, Cook Street Village and Mattick's Farm

Address: 333 Cook Street, and Mattick's Farm

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

It’s like stepping into Santa’s workshop at Seaberry Garden and Flower in Matticks Farm: lanes of Christmas trees on display, wreaths, decor, shiny lights, a room full of poinsettias. 

You might be familiar with Seaberry’s Cook Street location if you live in town; however, the company has a larger more seasoned location at Mattick’s Farm, taking over Art Knapp’s old haunt in 2016. They followed that up with a second location on Cook Street in 2019, where John’s old veggie stand used to be. 

The first Seaberry location is known as “the mothership,” by owner Rob and manager Karen, who collectively have a lifetime of experience working in the nursery and plant world. While the Mattick’s Farm location has the primary nursery, a larger outdoor plant selection for year-round gardeners, garden supplies, and more, the Cook Street location offers a smaller selection of outdoor plants, a large selection of indoor ones, and floral designs. 

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

“When plants need some extra care and attention we ship them back to our Matticks Farm location and bring them back to life,” Rob said. 

When COVID hit, the team downsized due to the unknowns of the global situation. The owners, management and a few staff stayed on board, but with many people not travelling, this past season was a busy one for nurseries and garden centres. “It was our busiest year yet,” Karen said. 

By mid-summer all nurseries were experiencing stocking issues; however, unlike big box stores, businesses like Seaberry who buy seeds and plants from Island-based growers were in trouble. “We support Island growers, and over the summer there were challenges with the availability of plants. It was unprecedented,” Rob said. “We have people that say they think we're expensive. And I just always say to them, we're supporting the Island growers, and so it just costs more. We have a different business model than big box stores.”

Seaberry has a strong local following. “We always get locals on their bikes packing out gardening supplies, or they’ll stop in and run back to grab their car and be back within the hour, it’s a great community,” Rob said.

Paws on Cook, Cook Street Village

Address: 200 Cook Street, Suite 111

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Paws on Cook is a friendly local pet store in the heart of Cook Street Village, with shelves full to the brim of every pet food and accessory known to humanity—even ugly Christmas sweaters for your favourite fido. Plus, they offer the human equivalent of a five-cent-candy section, except for rover: jerky, pepperoni and other tasty morsels. One may feel awash with envy that they lack four legs.

Paws on Cook is about to get its decade badge, first opening its doors in 2011, filling a much-needed gap in pet supplies to the neighbourhood. Standing on Cook Street there are about as many dogs as people, and the further south you go toward the water, the fewer leashes in sight.

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

On Oct. 1, the team moved to their new and larger location on the 200 block of Cook Street, expanding to offer more services like a self-serve dog wash, grooming, and a larger selection of pet food and supplies. 

The dog holiday cookie selection outshines most bakeries and you can take your photo in the self-serve photo booth. Proceeds of the booth are dispersed amongst local charities including, Dog Bless Rescue, Beacon Hill Children's Farm (Petting Zoo), The Boneless Project or The Mustard Seed (non-perishable food items). The team also offers free delivery and curb-side pickup for people with busy schedules or who wish to avoid indoor spaces.

If you live in the local area or want to check out a new pet store, Paws on Cook will not only have what you need but a few extras as well.

tandt, Oak Bay

Address: 713 St Patrick Street

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

If you’re an Oak Bay local or visit the area often, chances are you’ve passed by tandt flowers & goods, previously known as Thorn & Thistle, nestled on 713 Saint Patrick Street. The three owners Nicole, Alex, and Audra design and create every floral arrangement with care and balance, and it shows. 

Tandt is a one-stop-shop for life’s little luxuries and a perfect place to stop by this holiday season. Flowers, home goods, cards, ceramics, books, and a healthy dose of sarcasm await you through their doors. If you’re looking for wreaths, wreath kits, swags, holiday arrangements, centrepieces and mantle installations, they have those too and can be delivered to your home for a flat rate of $16. The store also offers private shopping bookings for anyone who needs it during the pandemic.

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The store is rebranding from Thorn & Thistle, which included a cafe and a bigger space, to tandt, happened following the COVID lockdown in the spring. “We struggled with how we were going to move forward and decided we needed to simplify our business,” comments Nicole. “In order for us to continue, we made a hard decision to close the cafe side and our landlord gave us a smaller space in the building to rent.”

The change allowed the team to build out a bigger online presence, and Nicole says it’s been a change for the better. Whether you’re an Oak Bay local or not, tandt is a warm and welcoming shop to buy thoughtfully designed flowers and gifts throughout the year.

The Haunted Bookshop, Sidney

Address: 9807 Third Street, Sidney

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

If your family has lived in the Greater Victoria area long enough, chances are that second, third, and fourth generations have passed through the doors of Sidney’s Haunted Bookshop. “It's not uncommon to have people whose parents and even grandparents have visited us,” said William Matthews, the newest owner of this legacy establishment. “It's 73 years old this year; that’s a few generations’ worth of people.”

The Haunted Bookshop is Vancouver Island’s oldest antiquarian book store, first opening its doors in 1947 on Fort Street by the late Rosamond Rand. In 1986 the shop was relocated to Sidney where it resided for the past 34 years on Third Street. Entering the store, you’re hit with a profound desire to amble between shelves, keeping your eyes peeled for the strangest titles and authors that one could find, hoping to prove the shop’s name correct. (To my disappointment, no apparition appeared: the store is named after the 1919 novel by Christopher Morley and has nothing to do with ‘the other side,’ but hey, one can still dream.)

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

William Matthews, who recently took ownership of the shop, retains an incredible wealth of knowledge about rare and antiquarian books. Behind the front desk sits a Seneca printed in 1557, a hand-painted atlas from 1719, and maps from the earliest explorers of the BC coast. “We have many first editions of books, rare science fiction authors, books that were owned by famous people or signed by the authors, that kind of thing,” comments Matthews. “And then, you know, old books. Books with colour printing.” 

Matthews pulls out a large book with a four-inch image that has been meticulously painted by hand on crimped pages, so that when the book moves in a certain light, a beautiful image is revealed. Large sections of the store are dedicated to military and nautical titles, early maps of North America, charts, and atlases, with a huge alphabet of the literature of fiction, poetry, children’s books, literary works, and plays. 

While the Haunted Bookshop has been a brick-and-mortar store since the beginning, Matthews is working on cataloging certain collections for online sales, but for now you’ll have to search the old fashioned way. If you’re looking for rare and interesting titles, the Haunted Bookshop is your best bet.

Tale of the Whale, Sooke BC

Address: 2050 Otter Point Road, Sooke

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Walking through the doors of Sooke’s Tale of the Whale art and antique shop is a similar experience to visiting an eclectic art museum. Unique creations and old relics cover the shop wall-to-wall and you’d be hard-pressed to leave empty-handed.  

Gary Peterson’s passion for collecting began at age five when he and his mother would scour personal coin and stamp collections from fellow Texans in the 1940s. “I grew up in Houston Texas, where my folks had a bar. Back then it was a real frontier—with alligators in all of the bayous, tarantulas and scorpions under every rock.”

Over the years, Peterson’s adventurous spirit pulled him away from his Texan roots, joining the US Army, serving overseas in Europe and North Africa, finally landing in New York City in the 1960s where he graduated with an MA in Theater and Literature.

When Peterson met his soon-to-be wife, then a flight attendant with Air Canada, they eventually moved to Vancouver, BC, where he worked as a professor at Douglas College and started collecting once again. In 1975 Peterson and his family moved to Sooke B.C., where they opened Tale of the Whale, Art and Antiques, nestled in the heart of the town centre.  

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

“It has been fun,” exclaims Peterson, “I’ve met lots of great people, live in a nice community, love walking and bicycling, so it has worked out very well.”

Tale of the Whale, located at 2050 Otter Point Rd, in Sooke B.C., is an impressive collection of antiques, art, and everything in between. It’s Peterson’s personal museum of his life’s work, collecting items that are personally significant to him. Silver cowboy belt buckles, rare knives, African art from his time spent in Tangiers, Morocco, Northwest Indigenous art including carved poles, masks, talking sticks, paddles, rattles and feast bowls, among a diverse range of antiques and collectibles.  

“Covid has placed a real challenge on the business—keeping away my largest group of customers, who visit from the US,” says Peterson. Fortunately, over the 14 years, he has developed a strong community around the store, which has kept him going since the start of the pandemic. “Shop Local is a really important concept,” says Peterson, “especially in a small town like Sooke." 

SALT, Fort Street

Address: 813 Fort Street

Photo: Michelle Proctor / Capital Daily

Growing up on Saltspring Island Jessica Wilson had an immediate connection to the ocean. As far as the natural world is concerned, her ‘happy place’ is on or near the water—and paying homage to her second home on the ocean, her clothing brand and store are aptly named SALT.

At 16, Wilson began making her own silk-screened clothing selling it at the iconic Saturday Market to locals and tourists alike. “That's kind of where it all started for me,” she said. 

By 2016 she found herself at the helm of three of her own businesses, but she was continually drawn to clothing. “I'm not a fashionista,” said Wilson, “but I saw the ability to create a community around social change and sustainability; it was a tool for sending a message of something that was important to me.” 

Comfortable clothing that is conscious and sustainable is the backbone of SALT, made from organic cotton or tensile and cotton blends that are dissolvable over time and don’t leave microplastics behind. Everything is thoughtfully designed in house by the team at SALT and sewn in Vancouver. The brand is 100% West Coast Canadian, inclusive of their sourced lifestyle goods from local makers.

Photo: Michelle Proctor / Capital Daily
Photo: Michelle Proctor / Capital Daily

The Team at SALT in collaboration with other Fort Street-based businesses has teamed up this holiday season to host the Winter Wander. The idea behind the multi-week event is to encourage local shopping this holiday season with special promotions only found on Fort Street. “When the pandemic hit, we tried to become a resource for other small businesses—a support network,” said Wilson. “One of my mottos has always been collaboration over competition. If there's one good thing that came out of COVID for entrepreneurs and small businesses, it’s shown the larger community how important it is to support local. It’s astounding how many people they actually employ. And, you know, a big part of our economy is the small-business sector.”

The Winter Wander is a movement to support local shops. “A lot of people don't think about Fort Street as a place to come shopping,” said Wilson. Having found a new—call it third—home amongst like-minded entrepreneurs, Wilson is hoping the public will dive in as well.  

Ash Refillery, Cook Street Village

Address: 200 Cook Street, #101

Ash Refillery is the new kid on the block. Opening in July 2020 in the heart of Cook Street Village amidst a pandemic, owners Adriana Tulissi, Seth Erais, and Heather Erais (get it? ‘Ash’) didn’t bat an eyelash. The three best friends relocated to Victoria in May and opened up shop shortly after. “What we've been focusing on is making accessible, affordable, and sustainable options for your home and yourself,” said co-owner Adriana. 

Refillers have gained momentum in the past decade with more consumers seeking to reduce or omit waste altogether while continuing to purchase products for the home. If you’re in need of soaps, room sprays, salts, essential oils, detergents and cleaning products, grab any sealable container from home and the team at Ash will fill them for you. Forgot a jar? Not to worry, you can purchase glass jars from the store, or pick through donated ones in their community bin. 

Candle lovers, pay attention; Ash Refillery will refill candles and customize them with their essential oil blends. “I'm not familiar with another organization that does this,” Adriana said. “Come and bring your own containers and we'll refill it. You pick the scent, pick your wick (cotton or wood), and now you have your very own custom candle.”

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Co-owner Heather admits they’ve been lucky with their store location in the sense that they are one of the first refillers outside of downtown. “Cook Street Village has been extremely welcoming. People pop their heads in and say ‘welcome to the Village!’” Local businesses have been welcoming too by collaborating with the team through tips and pointers. “The businesses on Cook Street have been incredibly supportive, encouraging us to put up posters about the refiller to drive awareness,” said Heather. 

The store offers small-batch organic skincare products, non-toxic nail polish, natural deodorants, shampoo bars and soaps. Everything in the store is environmentally safe and sustainable, hand selected for quality and integrity and made in Canada. For example, Ash is carrying Shiki wraps to omit the need for wrapping paper while maintaining the beautiful aesthetic of a wrapped present. “It’s like two presents in one since the Shiki can be reused,” laughs Adriana, “I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true!”

Driven by their collective passion for waste reduction and sustainability, Ash refillery has without a doubt added to the unique landscape of The Village. You can visit them for yourself at 101-200 Cook St, 7 days a week.

Robinsons Outdoor Store, Broad Street

Address: 1307 Broad Street

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Robinsons Outdoor Store co-owner Erin Boggs and her great grandfather have far more in common than one might expect; they are living a similar reality with a global economic crisis at their doorsteps, albeit nearly a century apart.

George Robinson boldly opened his business at the beginning of the Great Depression, despite the odds against him, as the global economy crumbled. Ninety-one years and four generations later, the store has thrived downtown yet it finds itself in a similar situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 1929 Robinsons, then a bike repair shop sold outdoor survival gear and guns. During WWII the company pivoted and found itself selling baby strollers as the demands of Victoria consumers shifted. In 2020, the owners faced a new challenge—how to grapple with a pandemic. On March 17th, Robinsons, like most businesses, had to close their doors, yet continued to pay staff until other forms of assistance kicked in.

Sitting across from Boggs in my deluxe camping chair, I can see the strain on her face from the tough choices she’s making; she and the two other owners care deeply about their entire team. Robinsons is a family store, with a chosen family working inside its walls.

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Robinsons is a brick and mortar store with no eCommerce component. Without an online store, the three owners had to get creative with how they would continue to serve their customers. Their solution was to offer personal shopping, virtual shopping over Zoom or FaceTime: they booked individual in-store one-on-one shopping experiences and delivered to customers’ homes. 

Following a busy summer season, with many locals turning to camping, hiking, and fishing, Robinsons is once again gearing up for the hustle of the holidays. If you have an adventurer on your list, Robinso’s undoubtedly stocks what you’re looking for. From Thermoses, tents, Patagonia fleece, Arcteryx jackets, fly fishing gear, that Yeti cooler you’ve been dreaming about— whatever it is, the team is ready to help you in person, or over the phone or FaceTime. If you’re into fly fishing or want to learn how co-owner Matt King has created informative how-to videos to help any level of fly fishing enthusiast out there as a way to build community without face-to-face interactions. 

“By choosing to shop local, every person is involved in the 10% shift,” comments Boggs. “If you spend even 10% of your money locally then that comes back directly to support the community. From the people you pass on the street to local grocery stores, it helps in some way.”

Still Life / Goodnews, Lower Johnson Street

Address: 560 Johnson Street, Victoria (#108, #118, #120)

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Matt and Kim are the owners of three Lower Johnson Street stores: Still Life for Her, Still Life for Him, and, sandwiched in between, Goodnews Skate shop. Each store is draped in ‘cool’ with an overpowering sense of style. Streetwear, shoes, bags, hyper-trendy pieces, denim, hats, dress-up, dress-down, skateboards—the three stores are immersed in interesting collections of pieces and accessories that you’re not finding anywhere else in town. 

The pair have a history in retail, lifestyle brands and fashion. Kim was previously a product developer with Aritzia and Matt came from the skate and snowboard industry. They purchased Still Life from Robert Kidd in 2007 and expanded into two stores on Johnson Street in 2011, then opening Goodnews in 2017 as a side project. Matt has been skateboarding since 1986 and has always wanted to open a skate shop.

“Our stores all have an honest feel to them”, Matt said. “We have put as much effort as possible to make our stores warm and inviting.”

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

“We always have lots of gift items in both the men’s and women’s shops at many different price points,” Kim said.  “Wool socks and merino wool toques and leather gloves. Swedish designed clothing steamers and sweater shavers.”

Goodnews Skate Shop started on a whim as most of the men’s store staff were skateboarders at the time. The concept evolved around how people communicate and the science behind communication, and that theme stretches even to the furnishings: the counter, which stretches the length of the store, is coded lyrics for David Bowie’s track ‘Space Oddity.’ 

While retail is never an easy business, Matt, Kim, and their team are very resilient. This past year the couple has put an emphasis on their online store and made changes to their brick-and-mortar locations to make it safe and welcoming for costumers.  

The next time you find yourself cruising around downtown, stop by Still Life or Goodnews, you’ll emerge a little bit cooler than you were going in. 

The Papery, Fort Street

Address: 734 Fort Street, Victoria

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

If you’ve ever needed a birthday card for your llama or a quill and ink, then you’ve most likely stepped into The Papery, arguably the most wondrous Victoria-based merchant of rare cards and elaborate stationery, and the largest selection of pens known to humanity.  Sourcing eclectic paper products from around the world is a family tradition: Michael Rogers opened his independently-owned Papery in Victoria 25 years ago, following the successes of the flagship store opened by his mother in Toronto in the early 1970s. 

Now, don’t be alarmed if you swing by The Papery’s long-standing location near Fort and Douglas. When COVID-19 hit, Rogers was faced with a very real problem: he was allowed a mere four customers and two staff in the store at one time, a challenge that many brick-and-mortar retailers are enduring. With the old Russell Books space vacant since their move in 2019, Rogers saw an opportunity to move into a larger space, less than two blocks away from the original location.

The new location has quintupled the number of customers and staff allowed in at once.

“And wow,” Rogers said, “It's a big difference. We’ve grown a little bit over the years, but we weren't planning on growing this big!” Rogers admits that if The Papery had stayed at its original location, the store would have likely closed its doors due to the pandemic. “We knew we had to do something.”

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The Papery is full to the brim with Christmas cards, ornaments, wrapping paper, stationery, pens, and advent calendars. “This year I really made an effort not to have any plastic or resin ornaments,” said Rogers, “They're all either wood or glass, metal or paper.”

Local shopping, now more than ever, is vital to the survival of the businesses in our neighbourhoods. It can also be rewarding as a shopper. “Independent shops have unique products and you’re not paying a crazy shipping fee,” comments Rogers. “If there's a problem, you know where to take it back to.”

Everything Old, Brentwood Bay

Address: 4-7120 West Saanich Road, Brentwood Bay

Seven years ago owners Andrew and Amber were barely making ends meet after losing their jobs when their former employer went belly up. The couple slipped into poverty, forced to sell off the majority of what they owned so that they could make rent. “We traded firewood for fish just to eat,” Andrew recalled. 

Over time, with some help from an understanding landlord and community support, the pair slowly got back on their feet, finding odd-job work where they could and living on the cheap. “When we got back on our feet, we couldn't afford new things, so we bought old things. We've always appreciated old stuff.” Andrew points to a coffee grinder. “This coffee grinder was made in 1890 but boy, nothing can produce a grind like this and it doesn’t make a horrible sound.”  

Observing Andrew in his office surrounded by antique bits and bobs, it’s clear that he has a sincere affection for everything old. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it’s stood the test of time, then it’s proven itself.

Needing to build their life back up again, the pair sourced furniture and household goods from garage sales and flea markets. They had an eye for interesting pieces that were in good shape, and that had a neat back story. 

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

At one point, running out of space, the couple decided to list unused canning equipment online. The first round of purchasers were intrigued by their personal home collection, which they took as subtle encouragement to pursue the repurposing of old stuff. “At first, we ended up converting a little 10-by-10 room into a display room in the old house,” comments Andrew. “The next thing you know, our entire home was a display room, and we moved into the attic!” 

Everything Old officially came into existence, even if they were still living amongst the goods. “We would literally be baking bread with people coming and going from our home. We quickly built a community around what we were doing.” 

When their landlords sold the property, they moved into their current, larger, residence on West Saanich Rd in Brentwood Bay, which can handle the 30,000-some unique categories of items in their inventory. 

Everything Old is not a business based on ‘picking.’ Andrew and Amber do not scour local garage sales and estate sales; while they did it out of necessity to get back on their feet, their business model is now exclusively word-of-mouth. 

A steady stream of customers came and went on a lazy Wednesday afternoon. However, much of their business is online. “We were excited when we got our first 100 followers on Facebook. Now we have over 126,000 from all over the world.”

The world of antiques and collectibles is alive and well, and you’d be hard-pressed not to find something of significant personal value in Everything Old. It’s an antique store that wants to be a museum, and accordingly, they take the time to trace the history of many of their pieces with the Royal BC Museum and others.

Everything Old is pure nostalgia. It breathes life and dignity back into old things.

“I wonder what child played with this,” Andrew said, pointing to a toy “I wonder what it was like to get this as a gift at Christmas.” 

When asked about the most bizarre items he’d encountered to date, he mentioned that they sold a hermetically-sealed can of tobacco from 1860 to a collector in Japan. “The guy said he was going to smoke the damn thing,” Andrew marvelled. 

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

When the shop came into possession of a 75-millimetre shell from a WWII Sherman Tank, a guy called Andrew from a satellite phone in the middle of Tasmania and arranged it to be shipped to his grandfather who drove a Sherman Tank when he served in the war.

“I'd say one of the weirdest things was when a sailor on leave came into the shop and asked for a manual coffee grinder,” Andrew said. “It turns out that he couldn't use an electric grinder on a nuclear US submarine because the sound would disrupt other equipment—something to do with frequencies. So somewhere out there in the world is a sailor with an 1890s coffee grinder floating around. I think it's marvellous.”

You see all sides of human history in the antique business. Racism, the destruction of wildlife, the extinction of certain species. And you see the most wonderful and touching things. “There are moments when we've had people break down into tears because they see something that reminds them of their childhood, an item that transports them back in time to a moment they’d forgotten.” 

Everything Old, while paradoxically a young business, feels as though it's been around for as long as some of the cast-iron pans hanging from the walls. Andrew attributes their success to their community, to all of the people who helped them along the way. As he says this, humbly with subtle emotion coming through as he speaks, I understand why the couple has received an outpouring of support. There is no denying that Amber and Andrew are a rarity, perhaps the rarest amongst the backdrop of the thousands of pieces that you can find at Everything Old.

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