Operation: Recipe Swap Status Update

It may seem like my Operation: Recipe Swap (herein “ORS”) posts have been lagging.  This is true.  I have many excusesreasons.  This  hierarchy of concerns has been on my mind, showed up in my shoulders and possibly affected my immune system.  How have I dealt with these priorities, the grandest of which is a half-finished Wesleyan theology paper due at the end of the month?  I’ve effectively procrastinated myself down to the lowest determinant on my TO DO list.

I find myself polishing my mirrors and plucking my eyebrows a lot lately in order to avoid finishing the things of utmost importance.   This means that hardly anything of intermediate value gets attended to.  But I’m working my way up! My windows are so clean, I am now forced to blog. I’ll finish the paper… tomorrow. Continue reading

The Business of Batik

The guest on the CBC radio show said that every time you recall anything from the past, the simple act of remembering alters the memory.  To bring the past to mind  is to change it to fit into your present.  This was a very smart guest (Ironically, I can’t recall his name at the moment. If you really want details I’ll get them for you, but not till after this trip) and I choose to believe what he said.   It explains nostalgia.  It explains why the halls in your high school look so small when you visit it years after graduating. It explains why we call the past the “good old days.”

I know the details can be important, but those are the things that tend to go missing from my memories of Ghana when I’m in Canada.

Visiting Ghana brings me back to the reality of Ghana: the smell of earth, moth balls and soap when you walk from the tarmac into the airport; the process of going through customs, baggage check, security and security again; brushing your teeth with bottled water; bartering for a taxi cab…  The good news is that there’s such a thing as muscle memory.  While I might not recall it perfectly back home, I remember it clearly when I get here.

Some things.

Everything else, I’m blaming on the rapid pace of change in Accra.  Since my visit last year, there are buildings I don’t remember, rates that have gone up, cedi value that has decreased, finger scanning at the airport.  There’s a KFC in Ghana, people!

So I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel some slight uneasiness this first full day in Ghana.  I write that just so I remember it for next time.  When Leisha or Karen ask me whether they should bring water, what the washrooms facilities will be like, what they should wear,  how much will it cost, sometimes I just say “Yes.”

Honestly, though, we’re having a great time.  Well, I am and I think they are.  We’re laughing lots, so that’s a good sign.

Today was a little bit about taking it easy, since our trip here turned us into extras from a scene out of Night of the Living Dead.  We revived ourselves to pay a visit to Global Mamas, an amazing NGO which trains and employ women to make batik fabric and create beautiful products from the fabric, such as clothing, bags, aprons, tablecloths and napkins and doggie bow-ties?  Yes, they know their consumer demographic – pet parents love batik too!

I might have had maybe a tinge of jealousy perhaps when Leisha and Karen met with Renee, the woman who runs the show, to talk about partnership and then picked out some amazing samples to bring home to customers.

Karen and Leisha pick out samples from Global Mamas.

I’ve already bought too many souvenirs.  Usually one would ask, Now what can I get for so-and-so?  This time I found myself asking, “Now who could I give this such-and-such to?”  (Sorry, hon!  In a case like this, budgets are meant to be broken.)

I honestly don’t know what’s going on in this picture – something about it being too hard to make a decision.

We then visited another business partner, Esther, who runs a small shop filled with miles of batik fabric.  This is the lady who has supplied me with most of my batik for Big Village for the past four years.   Whenever John-Mark comes to Ghana on a mission trip without me, I always send him to visit Esther because he has Thee Best Eye when it comes to picking fabric.  It’s a God-given talent.  That reminds me, John-Mark, Esther asked me how you were, told me twice to give you greetings and to wish you God’s richest blessing. I think she likes you.

Me with Esther’s gorgeous batik fabric.  Only one thing in this picture lacks colour…

I explained to Esther that Leisha and Karen are the new owners of Big Village.  Esther didn’t understand why I would leave my own business.  I came up against this too with Big Village’s other partners, TK Beads, when I made the announcement.  Owning a business is a very personal thing here.  There’s no selling of businesses, unless perhaps it’s code for closing your business.  When business is good, you are surrounded by family members working by your side, who will eventually take it over.  When business is bad, you work harder to keep it going.  Esther’s prices have gone up.  They do every visit and she always reminds me of the state of Ghana’s currency, the cedi.  “We are dying!” she says, “We pray for change soon.”  When we lived in Ghana, in 2008, the cedi was redenominated; four zeros were slashed off the end to make it on par with US.  Now, it’s 1.80 to the US dollar.  The cedi goes down, Esther’s rate goes up, the price stays the same.  I feel things are changing so quickly, Esther says things aren’t changing fast enough.

Tonight we’re setting our alarms for 4 a.m. to head up north tomorrow, allllllll the way to the top of the country, Bolgatanga, to visit the basket ladies!  So curious to find out what I’ve forgotten since my last visit. I will be sure to explain that selling my business to Leisha and Karen means something wonderful for them.

Karen and Leisha in Esther’s shop

Esther’s sons sit at the sewing machines.

Esther’s grandson looks out the gate of the shop, where fabric and measuring tape are part of his world.

I didn’t sign up for this.

Word on the Street – Part II

Hard to believe that less than a week ago we were experiencing a snow storm and today the whole world is baring their pasty legs and BBQing their dinner.

Since my foray into said snow storm to check out our downtown (why didn’t I wait just one week?), I’ve since heard from other concerned Barrie citizens about why it isn’t thriving, including but not limited to the following reasons:

  • dirty
  • poor parking
  • expensive parking
  • expensive merchandise
  • unsafe
  • high turnover of stores
  • hard to find what you want

My fav comment of Word on the Street – Part I was from Rebekah Ferguson who said our downtown has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.

I would agree with every one of these comments. But there’s more to it than just the negative stuff.  There are some really great spots and it would be great to support those stores we do like downtown, that do not fit into the descriptors above.  Is it possible that patron-power can combat some of these problems?

Here are the places I visited last week.

MacLaren Art Centre

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time going into an art gallery without thinking how lovely the art would look on my walls.  Wouldn’t you know it, Maclaren is displaying all the art for their Benefactor Art Exchange.  This is an opportunity to borrow REAL art through a payment plan (which is tax deductible).  The program is so great for local artists to get their art out there and in homes (if you love the piece you’ve borrowed for a year, you have an option to purchase it).  I heard today that only 10% of the proceeds are kept by Maclaren.  The rest goes to the artists!

Most of the pieces are gorgeous.  Some are absolutely hideous.  They tell me it’s all art.

Simply Tea & Chocolate

I don’t love the name, but I do enjoy this little tea shop.  They teach you how to drink tea.  They have over 75 flavours of tea to choose from, but my favourite, and their most popular, is the Raspberry Champagne white tea.  It’s as rich as it sounds.  My love for this flavour made me buy a special tea pot to brew it in some time ago and I always go back for refills and some more tea training.

I often run into familiar faces at Simply Tea, which will always make me want to come back.

The downfall of this place is the unfortunate view out their window.  In the summer, you can see the whole bay… and the Hooter girls who serve customers on the balcony outside.

Page & Turners

I love Chapters, but I want to love somewhere else. I want to be a loyal shopper at an independent bookstore, somewhere to hang out and share the love of books with other book lovers.  And I wanted Page & Turners to be that place.  They have the structure for it: an old building, leather chairs, big bookcases.  What they do not have – or didn’t have today – is customer service, a friendly guy behind the counter. There is a guy, but he was on the computer and I suppose he was letting me browse as book lovers are wont to do.  The book shelves were empty, many books faced out I presume to take up space.  I purchased a book and got an arbitrary 10% off.  The guy didn’t explain why and I suddenly felt too lazy to ask.  This is not the place I will love.  Not today.

Update: Just got the word that Page & Turners will be closing its doors this month.  Not enough business.  Hard to know why, but I could take a guess.

My Paris Apartment

Heard some good things about this place, so I thought I’d check it out.  Another guy on a computer behind a desk.  I’m not a huge fan of antiques, but there were some nice pieces in there.  At least the prices made me think they were nice.  The way they were set up felt like they’d just been dropped off and were about to be picked up.  No information was offered about the antiques.  I could have become interested in a couple lamps in there, but they’d need work.  Most of their furniture needed work. They’re called “Project Pieces” for just such a reason – but I had to look that up on the internet for find that out.    I am not a Do-It-Yourselfer and I have a few unfinished projects of my own in the garage to prove it.  Shabby chic-ers should check this place out.

Our House

Our House is jam-packed with great gift ideas, including jewellery, candle-holders, kitchen gadgets, dinnerware, clothing accessories, and bath and beauty products. And what’s this? It’s also jam-packed with people!  It was all abuzz when I ducked into the store to get out of the snow storm.  I had to ask if it was always like this.  Yes, always.  Ever any slow times?  Never.  And they’ve been around for 18 years!  While I was there, I watched a woman spend $250 on a Pandora charm and figured they were “making the rent” pretty easily.

Red Tulip #2

Red Tulip recently relocated to the South End, but have kept a small boutique on Dunlop Street East.   In fact, this store is Red Tulip #2.  When the sales clerk suggested I check out their store in the South End, I wasn’t sure why. Because I was already right there. In her store. Downtown.

I kinda like that although she was microwaving her lunch when I came in, she refused to eat it in front of me.  She insisted on giving me her undivided attention and even filled me in on the neighbourhood goings-on.  Here’s the scoop:

  • Sobey’s is going into the Foodland Location at the corner of Collier and Mulcaster.
  • Zest left because of personal reasons not because business wasn’t good.
  • Paper Merchant left possibly because it’s a specialty store and people aren’t using paper anymore.
  • A downtown business can be quaint, but it’s a lot of hard work.

She also assumed that parking was the biggest barrier for customers.  I almost agreed with her till I eyed a shirt for $175.  Does our downtown have the clientele to buy clothing at these prices?  If you appreciate the customer service, it might be worth it to you to pay extra.  But if you hate the parking, you can always go to the South End!

With the sales clerk’s help, I did find a t-shirt in my price range, which she called as “cheap as chips.”


Lakeshore mews is a little road that runs behind Dunlop Street, which once again is unfortunately landmarked by being across the way from Hooters.

Awkward Stage describes itself as “an environmentally conscious clothing design house.  Nostalgic with a modern twist, the line captures the imagination of art nerds and pin up girls alike.”  Alana, owner and operator, is the “Queen of all, maker of things.”

I bought a dress from here last year in the summer.  So perfectly pretty, made out of retro bed sheets.  I was wearing it one day and my mom asked me where I bought it.  I said “Awkward Stage.” My mom thought I was referring to the fit of the dress and said, “Don’t worry, just lose 5 lbs. and it will fit better!”

The place felt empty last week during the snow storm, but I’ve seen it full of clothes and people.  A friend had an art show in their small gallery.  I felt cool just to be there.  I’ll feel cool in that dress once I get out of my awkward stage.

Le Petit Chapeau

Why don’t I wear more hats? I wondered when I walked into Le Petit Chapeau.  There’s romance to it.  And the woman does beautiful work. This milliner has a special kind of snobbery which is the impetus for her success.  Admitting to how-could-you-leave-your-house-like-that!? inspiration for her work, proven by a recent blog where she wrote four long paragraphs of the atrocities people wear when they go out in public (i.e, jogging pants to a bridal show).

While there, I tried to figure out how to get invited to an occasion that would allow me to wear one of her cocktail hats.

The magic is where the hats reside.  I didn’t feel as compelled to own one once I left.  But I did feel that I should dress up a little more.

Since that day, I’ve been back downtown twice, where I went to The Magpie Bead Co., back to Simply Tea & Chocolate and checked out Anchique, the already done shabby chic decor store, which took over the lease where Zest was.  Highly recommend all three.

On my downtown TO DO list for another day:  Absolutely Fabulous – Upscale Consignment store and Old Forester Book Store – maybe THIS will be the book store I’ll love?

What do you love about Barrie’s Downtown?

This article, Buying Local:  How It Boosts the Economy, has great suggestions that anyone can put into practice.  We are buying more than a product when we buy local.

Word on the Street – Part I

I decided to give our downtown a little love yesterday.  I’ve been neglecting it for some time. I know it’s harder to appreciate store-to-store shopping in this weather, but there are advantages to being inconvenienced. There are the wider-reaching benefits of supporting local business… but even that seems to be shifting as retailers relocate to the large plazas in the south end where the world shops. On a personal level, however, those big plazas don’t give you the unique shopping experience of these old century buildings with their creeky floors, and exposed brick, with unique shopkeepers and their stories.  Our downtown core is also our cultural and community centre. It’s where you hear about what’s going on around town, including business seminars, live music events, festivals and art crawls.

But yesterday, after taking a three-hour tour (and returning), I left with this question: why isn’t our downtown thriving?

Photo from mikey_e at virtualtourist.com, who describes downtown shopping as “interesting to walk along for a bit, but unless you’re into paraphenelia it’s unlikely to retain your interest…”

It might be that it’s March. It’s the worst time of year for most retailers, whether downtown or not.  Until that sun starts shining again, people aren’t out in full force.  There could be several reasons for that: vacationing, catching up from Christmas, too cozy inside to go outside…  I have to keep in mind that I went out on a weekday in the middle of a snowstorm.

Does that explain the rotating FOR LEASE signs in the windows and the empty shelves inside the stores, though?  Is downtown itself to blame for the lack of interest?

Here are some things that people have to contend with, when shopping downtown, which might be a hindrance:

  • Parking is a hassle.  You probably can’t find a convenient place to park and/or you have to pay for one. And you have to PARALLEL PARK, which brings back fear-filled memories of your Driver’s Licence Test. I’ve been known to decide not to shop downtown because of lack of parking space.  Again, come the warmer months, this becomes less of an issue as it is enjoyable to walk to where you shop.  The walk becomes part of the experience, especially with all the work Parks & Rec put into beautifying downtown in the spring.  In winter, though, the parking sucks.
  • Inconsistent hours from store-to-store.  Downtown shopping usually means Saturday shopping for the average person who works 9-5, unless you plan to go straight from work to fit in shopping within half an hour to an hour.  There are some people who stay open later, but you cannot expect to experience everything downtown offers when there are no guarantees if and when a store is open.  You’ll see lots of handwritten Be Back in 10 Minutes signs.  Even went to a store today that posted a handwritten sign in the window, closed for two days.
  • More expensive. In order to support an independent retailer, you’re probably going to have to spend more money than at a big box store.  That’s just the logic of economics.  Buy at wholesale quantities, get wholesale prices.  As a consumer, it’s harder to pay more for what you know you can get for less. As a business owner, you must make it worthwhile for the customers to pay extra, either with unique products, better customer service, or more of an experience.  We will gladly pay this “Downtown Tax” if you provide at least one of these things for us.
  • Hooligans. What a great word that is. What about riff-raff?  There aren’t enough opportunities to use those words, except when you’re referring to downtown. Of course, I have no problem with anyone at all enjoying our downtown.  It’s free and lovely space to be enjoyed.  But there is something to the notion that if downtown shops share space with bars and restaurants, there is the consideration that things can get out of hand after closing time.  I spoke with a shop owner last year who told me she can no longer get insurance for her display window, which has been broken so many times, her insurance company ditched her.  A  couple years ago, I was considering renting retail space downtown, but I was told by customers that they would have a hard time supporting the idea, especially in the evenings. I wasn’t afraid of potential hoodlums, but my customers were.  Which might also attribute to the early closing times of the downtown business.  If no one is coming, why remain open past 5?  Actually, I’ve had an ugly experience of a man making violent and rude gestures at me and a friend when we were in a store downtown after dark. Thank goodness we were able to lock the door just before the man tried to get in.  He was obviously drunk.  He eventually got bored with us and left.  But I didn’t feel great about having to walk to my car after that.
  • Confused identity.  I wonder what our downtown is trying to be.  Is it a restaurant and bar district? Is it a shopping district? An arts & culture district?  Something altogether different?  One thing I do know is that I walked past a lot of payday loan places and convenience stores in order to find something of interest.  This identity is determined by two sets of people: customers and owners of the buildings.  The owners obviously want someone who can pay rent faithfully, but they have become indiscriminate about who that should be.  The customers determine the identity by which stores they support.  Strip clubs, loan sharks and bong stores don’t seem to have a problem garnering business downtown.

What about you?  Do you feel our downtown is thriving?  If not, why?

Thunder in the distance

It’s never a good idea to post when you’re emotional.  Ah well.

Tonight I’m sad for a couple of reasons and they’re both tied to Africa.  The first is for the same reason you might be sad and shocked – or soon to be – by the video put out by Invisible Children about the war criminal, Joseph Kony, and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, made up of over 30,000 kidnapped children.  Hard to stomach, hard to believe.

I know this is one atrocity of many in our world and a sober reminder of the evils we don’t often witness firsthand, just by video.  I’m so glad there is an action attached to this awareness campaign.  The work has just begun.

I’m also upset about my business.  Yes, the one I sold.  I’m not sad because I sold it – I totally love the two women who bought it and am excited about their vision for growing it.  But someone has put a damper on this time of celebration for the new owners.

Another bead store in our own backyard has ridden in on the coat tails of Big Village. For 3 1/2 years, Big Village worked hard to introduce Canada to these cultural beads from Ghana and spread the word about them and the amazing, resourceful, ingenious people who make them.  The business was built on relationships and fair-trade principles.

But another bead store – in town, no less – has used that hard work to their advantage. Unfortunately, we might have marketed too well!  Customers loved our beads and so they asked this particular bead store to bring them in.  But they chose not to go through Big Village and purchased the same kind of beads from another supplier. As the new owners host their first Open House, the other business is doing a big promotion of their new African stock.

But that’s business, right?  Nothing personal?

Of course, they had every right to!  But it seems unkind and uncool-operative.

I won’t go on, other than to say that the bummer of it is this heavy rain on our parade.  Big Village will go on and continue to build business, of course it will!  But the timing sucks.  RIGHT NOW, when we are celebrating the continuation of this great partnership with our guys in Ghana, the other business is crashing our party and taking a piece of pie for themselves.

I leave for Ghana with the new owners of Big Village in April – perhaps my last trip for a while.  I’ll savour every moment.  It will clear my focus too.  Whenever I go, when I see my friends and the hope that absolutely fills that place, I can’t help but gain a brighter perspective.

You know, Ghana has so much to offer.  Even in terms of what Uganda is going through right now, as a fellow African country, it can demonstrate hope to them.  Ghana can show her sister what it looks like on the other side of adversity, to live peaceful and productive lives. All the hard work happening here and over there, now and in the future, will be worth it.

If that’s true, then SURELY both businesses can share a piece of Ghana.

The storm clouds are lifting.