Let’s head up Main Street and past the street lights.
It’s still early in the morning on this particular day. Boutique Gwendoline just opened its doors and it is quiet inside, but for how long, well, that remains to be seen. Owner Katharine Summerfield is tucked away in her office, finishing up on some computer work.
Katharine’s path to becoming a business owner started with a tough job hunt in Ottawa. Eventually, she had a conversation with Marjorie Horner, the owner of Shawville Shoes.
“Why don’t you go talk to Myrna Palmer?” says Marjorie.
Katharine looks at her quizzically, “About what?”
“Well, her business has been for sale for over a year.”
Katharine replies, “I don’t know anything about clothes.”
Marjorie responds, “Well you wear them, you can figure it out.”
Katharine laughs at the memory, “I thought, well, it can’t hurt. I called Myrna and we met and got a tour of the store. They really kept the building up very well. So after talking to my husband and talking to the bank and six weeks later I owned myself a building and a business.” Boutique Gwendoline opened doors on May 17, 2007.
Myrna Palmer ran Palmers Boutique, and before that, there was Eades Boutique. You go back far enough to just throw a curve in the trend, the building use to be a butcher shop. “Wilson McCleary owned it and George Healey owned it,” says Katharine, who has been told this history one time or another. “The building was built in 1922 after the Great Fire in Shawville. It has been here ever since.”
The ‘Great Fire’ reference is likely the one which took place on September 12, 1906. Most of the men were gone for the day to the Ottawa Exhibition. The bakeshop of W.H Lucas was the location of the fire (now the United Church parking lot.) According to the Pontiac Archives, a quarter of the town was destroyed, including plenty of homes and trees. The only thing left standing of the United Church was the walls.
“I decided to call the business Boutique Gwendoline after my late Mom,” says Katharine. “She was well-known in town for her charity work, as well as being a well-dressed lady. It was probably an easily recognizable name. People didn’t know me but they certainly knew Mom. We enlarged a picture of her and made it the focal point of the store.”
Like Rhonda Meisner at Stedmans, Katharine realized the economy of a small town is very different. She figured out quickly a dress shop would be a tough market to sustain, just on the support of Shawville and the surrounding residents.
“I had to do something to attract people to Shawville,” Katharine says. “My husband, a sound engineer, audio guy…could do my own radio commercials. I started advertising on MYFM four years ago and it really helped. People are coming from Pembroke, Chapeau and Petawawa, Ottawa, Carleton Place, Carp, Stittsville and Almonte. We try to market the town at the same time, so they are not just coming for me, that they are coming for all of the features we have, including Ruth at Café 349. We say we feed off each other. Customers are at Shawville Shoes and Marjorie says ‘Have you been to the Boutique?’ And then people spend the day in Shawville. It would be nice to have more businesses on Main Street, but we do what we can do, with what we have.”
Boutique Gwendoline offers Ladies Apparel and Casual Apparel. There is also Special Occasion, which includes street length dresses to evening gowns, along with fashion jewellery to accessorize.
“I am one of the few places that you can buy an evening gown off the rack,” says Katharine. “Most places you go to, you have to order three to five months ahead of the date to get the dress in. I can order as well, but the lines I carry don’t usually take that long. It’s an attraction. You know I’d have people come in the week of the wedding and buy the dress. You can’t do that everywhere.”
The popular Spring Fashion Shows began, because Katharine wanted to get her name out into the public. She wanted to put the Boutique on display and demonstrate the business wasn’t just about high-end expensive clothing, but in fact there is something for everyone to find and to also give back to the community at the same time.
“A fashion show was a wonderful way to do that and teaming with Marjorie at the Shoe Shop, that gave her more exposure as well. Overall, the Spring Shows took in over $35,000 for the Pontiac Hospital dialysis project. Last year we raised $12,000 and a bit, it was $6,000 for CAP (Home on the Hill) and $6,000 for the operating room. One year, we had a fashion show at the agricultural hall and we sold 325 tickets. Lynn Lang gave me all the fair board people to help as a team to pull it off. We raised $13,000 that year for dialysis. She did something really big for us to help us with the fashion show and I wanted to pay it forward. We did it in memory of Lynn and the money was donated to the operating room because she was a nurse there. I happen to be on the board for CAP as well and so had my Mom.”
Through the seven years of fashion shows and business workings, there have been some changes as well. Remember those old cash registers? You know the receipts that tell you what you paid but not what you bought? Katharine sure does. About four years in, it proved a challenge for inventory and buying. Katharine set out on an entire year’s project to changing the store to a point of sale system for which she barcoded everything.
Another change and something Katharine is proud of, is a disability ramp which was installed at the back of the building just within the last few weeks. “I have many clients young, old and afflicted with diseases like MS. I had been accommodating them as well I could for them. A friend would come in and pick out outfits. They would take them home to the person and the person would try them on. The friend would bring them back and let me know what they are going to buy. It is much nicer for the person to come in, enjoy and pick for themselves and have that feeling of independence.”
Boutique Gwendoline is open Mondays to Friday 9 to 5:30 and Saturdays to 5. The store is closed on Mondays for the months of January to March. Groups can also call to make private opening arrangements.
“I learn something new every day and when I stop learning, I am in trouble,” laughs Katharine. “But the economy is always throwing curveballs at you. The fourth year I was in business, the grocery store went on strike. We didn’t feel it right away, but by the time the next spring rolled around, business was really down. People were going out of town for everything. I was really frightened. If they had not re-opened, I don’t think I would have made it another year. It was too much of an impact. The biggest challenge is just keeping up with the times and the changes in the economy, and to what women want to wear and need to wear. It’s changing all the time.”
Katharine hopes to keep working for at least another ten years. Whatever other business changes comes along, she hopes to keep three things consistent – fashion, fun and friendship.
By: Scott Campbell