History of Our Store
It's 1972. 24-year-old Gerry Demers is getting ready to leave Brantford, Ontario to return to the wild Northern landscape of his youth. His memories of Superior's North Shore are as thick as the tangled brush behind his grandmother's cottage, and the untouched wilderness and raw power of this Greatest of Lakes call to him now as convincingly as they ever have.
So he packs his bags and heads North.
At this point in Ontario's history, the strip of coastline between Sault Ste. Marie to the east and Thunder Bay to the west is still considered 'frontier country' by those lucky enough to visit it. Small populations exist around larger mining and logging operations in the interior, and a few isolated spots along the shoreline are home to small fisheries. But Gerry believes that the North Shore has a bright future. The provincial and federal governments are working with the existing resource companies to protect the natural beauty of the area. Pancake Bay and Lake Superior Provincial Parks already attract adventurers from all over the world. Most importantly, the recent completion of the TransCanada Highway is certain to deliver more and more people to the majestic mountains along Lake Superior's shoreline.
There's business to be done!
Gerry obtains a lease from Gulf Oil for a service station at Montreal River Harbour, about 75 miles northwest of Sault Ste Marie. He knows that people will have to stop for gas, but he wants to build his business by providing more than just a fill up - he and his staff will deliver unmatchable customer service at the pumps and provide customers with an opportunity to purchase unique (and authentic!) arts and crafts from the tiny gift store attached to the station. With a solid business plan and a lot of enthusiasm, he secures a $1000 loan from the bank, and goes right to work.
The first few year in business are a rough go. Gerry jokingly tells stories about how he got by some weeks on bear meat, and how he chased off various road warriors looking for an easy mark with only a shot gun and his two loyal Irish Setters, Leah and Red Dog. As is common with business pioneers, Gerry works harder than anyone else at his fledgling Gulf station. Chatting with Don Steer in 1973, he says "I do a lot of running on the gasoline pumps; I wore right through the soles of two pairs of Greb boots last summer!"
His first loan doesn't last him as long as he hoped it would. After making deposits with Gulf Oil, Great Lakes Power, and Bell Canada, Gerry is left with only $100 to purchase merchandise for his gift store. He starts off by handling goods on consignment, which means that most of his gift items are imported from overseas. He still winces when he recalls the arrival of his first box of plastic beavers from Japan. As soon as time and money allows, however, Gerry makes good on his promise to deliver authentic, high-quality handicrafts to his public. In the winters, he starts traveling through Ontario and Quebec in search of Canadian and First Nations artisans and begins to establish relationships with them built on mutual trust and a shared appreciation for art. These connections allow him to start gathering a collection of some of the finest work that our country has ever produced.
As the collection grows he decides to resurrect the old notion of the frontier "trading post" to showcase the talent and the wares of his new-found friends. He starts travelling even further afield to find even higher-quality items. Those early journeys provide their fair share of challenges. On his first visit to Quebec, the French lessons from his childhood seem to escape him entirely, and he finds himself struggling to have even a basic conversation with many of the artists he discovers in the small towns and rural countryside of the province. But Gerry forges ahead, using a lot of pointing and gesturing to fill in where words cannot. "Sometimes I had to make an absolute fool of myself," he says, recalling the mix of incredulity, amusement and encouragement on the faces of many of his earliest victims. Over the years, however, his French improves mightily, and his relationships with both First Nations and French artisans grows steadily stronger. By the late '70s "Agawa Indian Crafts" has already become well known for the quality and authenticity of its merchandise.
Gerry quickly starts gaining a reputation all his own. People in the community learn fast that Gerry is a genuine Good Samaritan- a man who doesn't hesitate to rush to the aid of a neighbour facing a middle-of-the-night bear-break-in - a guy who will race to the scene of a nasty car accident and start pulling the injured out of their vehicles or put fires out on burning transports. His selfless courage in these situations is ultimately rewarded when an icy patch of road introduces him to the woman who will become his wife.
June Middleton, a young nurse from Manitoulin Island, is driving back from a mid-winter's visit with her sister in Thunder Bay when she hits a slippery spot on the road, loses control of her Gremlin, and lands up in a snowbank not far from where Gerry's little business lies. Once Gerry has her fished out of the snow bank, he sets to work on wooing her away from Manitoulin and up to Montreal River. With that little piece of luck and a lot of charming and cajoling, Gerry wins June's heart and, eventually, her hand in marriage. As June always says, she is a very responsible driver, and it is still her only "real accident". Turns out it was a fortuitous one! June throws herself into the little business that her husband has started with tremendous enthusiasm.
The young nurse immediately sets out to teach herself everything she needs to know to run the administrative side of things, and quite quickly proves herself more than capable of the task. As Gerry says "although I started the business, it didn't really start to take off until June got involved." A third character is added to the equation when, in 1975, Gerry and June become the proud parents of a healthy, happy baby girl named Linette. Laura arrives next in 1977, and then a son, Robert, in 1980. All three children are raised in and around the business, as June wants to have them with her as often as she can. Thus it becomes quite common for visitors to discover a bassinette or two underneath the cash register, the occupants sound asleep amid the hustle and bustle of an increasingly busy store.
As business grows, so does the need for more space, and two new buildings are added to the Montreal River location - one on the east side of the highway (the Agawa) and the other 'across the street' (the Canadian Carver). Both have gas stations attached to them. Eventually, June and Gerry are able to acquire some property 30 miles east at Pancake Bay, where they open a third store, called The Trading Post. With three young children, three stores and three gas stations, Gerry and June certainly have their hands full. But once Linette is ready for high school, Gerry and June decide to give up their stores in Montreal River and move the family to Pancake Bay, which happens to be at the very end of the high school bus route to and from the Soo.
In 1987 the Montreal River operation is shut down entirely, and the family moves to Pancake Bay. And it isn't just the family that makes the move! Many of the buildings and warehouses from Montreal River are moved as well. They're picked up and depostied on huge, flat-bed trailers which slowly haul them 30 miles to the east. The business at Pancake Bay flourishes. Together with their daughter, Laura, and a wonderful staff of 50 (who range in age from 15 to 75!) Gerry and June continue to make customer service their top priority, while remaining fiercely committed to showcasing unique, Canadian-made art and crafts.
From all of us, to all of you: Thanks for 33 years of patronage and friendship! Come on up to see us any time!