By Jessica Wynne Lockhart
Cottage general stores trade in far more than just food and firewood, with their most important goods being priceless.
In the early days of running the Rosseau General Store, whenever co-owner Laurie McDonald answered the phone and was asked for a weather report, she was thrown off-guard.
“The first few times, it was like, ‘really?’” recalls McDonald, laughing.
It was a far cry from the corporate life that McDonald and her husband Brian had left behind in Toronto in 2017. It didn’t take long before they learned that a shopkeepers’ role in cottage country extends far beyond the written job description – whether it be acting as an informal post office; checking-in on customers they hadn’t seen in a while; or, yes, even acting as the area’s unofficial meteorologists.
“A lot more happens here than just the selling of groceries,” says McDonald. “The store has been here since 1874 and it’s the cornerstone of this community.”
The Rosseau General Store, while one-of-a-kind, isn’t unique in this regard. Local shops and general stores are far more than a spot to pick up last-minute s’more supplies – at their core, they’re the centre of our cottage communities.
Why is that, though? Well, for starts, we’ve all read the slogans about shopping local. According to studies completed by Civic Economics and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, for every $100 spent at local independent stores, $45 of secondary local spending is generated (including in the form of wages and more goods and services purchased locally). In contrast, only $14 spent at big-box chains is returned in this same way.
For stores in popular vacation spots where the population is in-flux seasonally, it’s all that more important to support local businesses.
“Locals and residents need to have services available to them and not have to leave town. There is a large number of individuals who are older and don’t get around as easily,” says Betty Jo Royce, owner of The Muskoka Station Store.
That’s part of the reason why, when she bought the gift shop in October 2017, one of her first acts was to open an independent Service Ontario location and make the store accessible in the process.
Her commitment to the community extends far beyond the store’s four walls, though. In the last year, she’s installed a Little Free Library, hosted a meet-and-greet with an Olympic medalist, launched an annual neighbourhood scarecrow building competition, and been elected as the chair of the MacTier Community Development Association.
Royce’s behaviour mirrors that of likeminded small store owners. Compared to big business, it’s estimated that small businesses donate an average of twice as much per sales dollar to local non-profits and community groups. Multiple studies also demonstrate that a higher level of civic engagement and overall well-being can be found in communities where a higher share of the economy is held by local business.
But while community stores may give back to the towns and villages they’re located in, the stores also take care of their owners in return.
Royce, who moved from Markham to be up north with her partner, says that operating The Muskoka Station Store has been instrumental to making friends – and a home – in a community that was new to her less than two years ago.
“MacTier is the greatest little town when it comes to people; they help each other out here,” says Royce. “Moving here was a little bit like going home.”
For new residents, seasonal cottagers and long-time locals alike, the sentiment seems to be the same – without our local community and general stores, cottage country wouldn’t be the same.