The Telegram (St. John's)
Made to last
The Newfoundland Weavery a downtown fixture
Gail Griffiths, owner of The Newfoundland Weavery, places a lot of pride in a vanishing art form: the window display. For 40 years, Griffiths has made her store’s display a trademark, even employing a full-time display designer. The “Weavery” in the title of the store was Griffiths’ focus early on, but she quickly learned that people in Newfoundland knit, not weave.
Who opened The Newfoundland Weavery, and when?
I opened the store, in ’72.
Forty years! When in ’72 did you open it?
Did you mark the anniversary with anything special?
No, no, I tend not to. (laughs)
What does The Newfoundland Weavery do?
The name makes sense in the context of what the store was when I opened it. In 40 years, there have been dramatic changes both within the business and within the environment, the retail environment. I had just moved here in ’72, and it was still the flavour of the ’60s. People were doing a lot of things themselves, and I had started weaving. When I moved to Newfoundland, what I wanted to do was to really focus on weaving, and there was no place to buy yarns and that sort of thing, and I thought that would be a great way to meet other weavers, and sell yarn.
So I called it The Newfoundland Weavery. This was on Duckworth Street, and at that time, Duckworth Street was pretty derelict. There wasn’t much there, and we got a very small space there. But I quickly found out that there were no weavers in St. John’s. There were knitters. Knitting was traditional, not weaving, which was a bit of a shock. But fortunately for me there was a lot of interest in weaving, which is probably why I had gotten interested in it a couple of years before. It was that whole wave of potters, weavers, silkscreen artists, jewellers — people were really doing things with their hands. So I was really part of a movement. I didn’t know it, but … and because people were interested, they wanted to learn how to weave, so what I started doing was teaching weaving. I bought a lot of looms and started teaching classes in addition to selling yarns. So we did that for quite a few years.
I guess any business that’s been open for 40 years is going to change over time.
That’s right, and what happened, really, was I had to make a choice. Because at the same time, all these other craftspeople, they didn’t have an outlet for what they were producing, so I was the only one with a store. So they would bring me their products, and I would start selling their products, and I realized that what I was really interested in was the business side. I loved that aspect, moreso than the weaving. So that’s really what happened, is that I became more involved in the selling of products as opposed to the making of them. At that point I had been weaving and selling what I wove, and people were more interested in buying the finished products than they were in the yarn. So the yarn faded away and it became a crafts store.
At that point, too, there wasn’t a lot available in St. John’s in terms of contemporary gifts. So in addition to the local products, I started bringing in other products, and I think I became more of a store that focused on Newfoundland, but also had gifts that were compatible and seemed to make sense.
I imagine the retail and craft market, the gift market, has gotten a lot more competitive since you opened up.
It’s changed, but the market itself stayed pretty constant up until, I would say, probably ’97. Tourism really took a big jump with Cabot Year, and that really brought in a lot of visitors. The oil industry had been percolating, and that brought people in, but the general market itself, from early ’70s to mid-’80s, it really didn’t change an awful lot. There was a middle class that was growing, and it became stronger, but in terms of selling, I really didn’t have to worry too much. It was a hungry market, let’s put it that way. It was a delightful market to sell into, because it was so hungry for things from away, from things that were here. Very supportive, which is not an easy thing to find, a market that really supports you, but Newfoundlanders love anything made in Newfoundland. They were hungry for things that were made here and they were hungry for things from away. Even though other stores came along, there was lots of room.
That has changed. But even then, up until the last 10 years, I think it was the healthiest retail environment for a small business. It was very forgiving. You could learn. You had time to learn. And it was appreciative.
Now, in the last 10 years, it has become more like a mainland market. For me — I’m talking in my experience. Certainly with the advent of the big box stores. That actually started creeping into the industry before you actually saw all the physical — you know, there’d be one or two for a long time. That didn’t impact us. It was when Stavanger (Drive) to begin with got a critical mass, where it had Bowring, and Winners, and Pier One, that whole thing. That changed the traffic pattern.
It sucked people out of the downtown a little bit more?
Definitely. We used to do tremendous business in the evenings. I would say our evening business, certainly, dropped. Interestingly enough, our overall sales did not. I have found it amazing our sales have been so consistent over the years. The only year that I can recollect where our sales took a dramatic drop was the year the HST was introduced, and that was a shock to the economic system. But other than that, there’s always been a range. We’re very weatherdependent. The weather affects our sales.
If you have a big storm, people don’t want to venture downtown so much.
That’s right. And conversely, poor weather is very good for tourism, because tourists don’t want to be out on the ocean in the bad weather, and they’re cold. And they come without being prepared, so they buy coats, and they buy jackets, and they buy sweaters (laughs). This weather (sunny) is not good for tourism, in terms of our business, in terms of sales. It’s certainly always a good business time of year.
What you learn is that you have to respond to the market, and you’ve got to respond quickly. So when the big box stores came on, definitely it affected my product mix. If a line lost its distinctiveness because it was being duplicated by big box stores, we would drop it. People don’t want to see things from us that they can see everywhere. They want to be surprised.
I suppose you’re fortunate in that there’s not a lot of big-box chains that sell Newfoundland-specific crafts.
Well, they couldn’t. They can’t do the volume. It’s great from that point of view. That’s actually one of the problems of selling crafts.
I’ve heard that from other places, that the number of people who are producing crafts, like knitting, is dwindling.
Oh, definitely. That’s true right across the craft industry. The whole craft industry has really changed a lot, because even for a potter — back when crafts were thriving, and I considered us more a craft store than anything else, people could afford to buy a house, they could afford to live, they didn’t make a lot of money, but they liked what they were doing. That’s a luxury that people really can’t afford today, so the craftspeople of today are more like artisans in the European sense. They’re involved in the design and creation of the product, but they will use technology or machines or whatever to attain the production that is required for them to be able to survive.
The quality has improved over the years. The artistic level has risen, and it’s not like a homespun market anymore. It’s a very sophisticated, contemporary product. Those are the crafts that survive today.
But even though that was our origin, it’s the core of our business, but in terms of sales, it would be maybe around 30 per cent. But it’s the core identity. The rest of it changes. I used to almost turn away (crafters) because we would have a lot, and now it’s the reverse. If there’s a new product now and it meets the level that we need, we’re just (whew).
How many people work here?
In the last few years, I would consider myself semi-retired. I have three core long-term employees, I call them my right hands, who — I’m not involved in the day-to-day business anymore. I still do the buying and look after the finances, and I problem-solve. I know the store so well, that kind of thing. General direction. But I have Shirley (Thorne) — she’s the face of the Weavery. She handles the floor and the customers. And Patty Godden, she’s my manager, the manager. And Keith Lamkin is display, and a very important part. Display has always been our trademark, and it’s a lot of work. We have a lot of merchandise. Huge job, and he’s fantastic.
This is what I hear from people who have been in St. John’s for a long time — they talk about walking around downtown and being entranced by the window displays, and that has vanished a little bit.
In my view, the reason it’s vanished is it’s an awful lot of work. What people try to do now is either make their windows look extremely simple, or almost have the window as part of their store so it doesn’t have to change. But for us, I question it because of when I started and how I started. I had no idea. I think it probably took me 10 years before I realized I was part of an industry, that there was such a thing as retail. I thought I was just doing my own thing.
So I’ve never gone with the way you’re “supposed” to do things, I’ve just gone my own way. And particularly in St. John’s, less now perhaps, but certainly up until a few years ago, I would say your most powerful marketing tool was word-of-mouth. By far. And this town is very interconnected, and people talk to each other, and if you have something they want, they will find you, and they will come back. And if you keep them happy, they will come back.
Our windows, and our display, I’ve always viewed it as money that I would have put it into marketing, advertising, and I focus it in the store. Not many stores my size can afford a fulltime display person, especially a senior one, and I always have because I used to do it myself. You can buy the best product, but if you don’t present it well, you’re not going to maximize your sales at all.
When did you move down to Water Street?
In ’89. I started with a very small store, and then a couple of years later, Clouston, they had a big store and they closed. These were all very old businesses that were just sort of staggering around. When I took the building, when I got my space, it had been vacant for seven years. There were dead rats everywhere. There was no heat for the first year or two. In the winters, I wore my coat and gloves, literally. Would you believe that? Now?
So after a couple of years, Clouston’s closed. They were an old family business, appliances, and that kind of thing, and they closed and we took over their space. It was gorgeous, had big windows like here, gorgeous space, and it was huge. It had about 400 square feet and then we went to 2,500 and there was a second level, 1,500. So the store expanded.
One of the reasons I was able to expand is a couple of years after, when I was still really into the weaving — I was teaching weaving. People actually called me “Gail Weaver” — what happened was there was a fellow at the Department of Education, Ken Pittman … he came to me and asked me if I could come up with a kit so that teachers could teach weaving to their kids. So I said sure, and he ordered kits and the order was about $40,000.
This was in 1974. I’d been in business maybe two years, and I’d opened on almost nothing, and that $40,000, most of it was profit because I did the work myself. I wrote a manual for it, we designed a little loom to put in it. It was all our work. So that gave me a cash flow that a young business like that would not normally have.
That’s what people go on Dragon’s Den now for!
Yes, exactly! (laughs) Only this was better because I learned so much while I was doing it. So I had the wherewithal to expand quite early, and we stayed there until ’ 89. And in Thanksgiving of ’ 89 there was a terrible, tragic fire. Three buildings burned, a young man died. These buildings were derelict buildings. So there we were. All our Christmas stuff was in. The whole upstairs was a Christmas shop, and everything was in. We lost everything. I had one of those unusual experiences, apparently, of having a fantastic relationship with my insurance company. The money was just there when I wanted it, how I wanted it, totally fair.
The first thing I needed was a location, and this was an empty block. There had been a restaurant in here, but it had the windows. I had to have big windows, because the old store had it. It was our trademark.
So we came in here and we opened in about six weeks. I phoned all my suppliers, they sent stuff, and we got open. There was a huge difference from being downtown from Duckworth. Because the heart of the business community, even what it was in those days, and this was ’89, so there were banks here, lawyers here, not so much on Duckworth. It was the lunch hour trade. We used to get a lunch hour trade from the Sir Humphrey Gilbert building up on Duckworth, but we wouldn’t get it from people working downtown. They don’t have time to go and have lunch and then walk all the way up to Duckworth Street. And there weren’t the restaurants. Now you see Duckworth Street has tons of restaurants, so people might go up there and have lunch, and drop in, but that wasn’t the case.
…It was such a supportive climate. Like when the store burned down — people that I had no idea who they were, found out where I lived, and left food for me. We reopened Dec. 1, and I had so many people tell me they hadn’t done any Christmas shopping because they were waiting until I reopened, and they would do all their Christmas shopping from me this year. However little merchandise I was able to put together, they bought it. I mean, where do you find that in retail? You don’t.
You mentioned that you’re semi-retired now. What is the plan for The Newfoundland Weavery after you?
I have no family. As I said, I have long-term staff. At the moment things are very good, and everything’s chugging along very well. I continue to work less, as my staff takes on more responsibility. There’s going to have to be an exit strategy for me at some point, and certainly I’m aware of that and think about it, but I don’t have anything in place at the moment. Things are going well, so I’ll continue on and see what happens.