Building location and character complement the quality home furnishings sold by this Fergus area retailer.
"Exactly one hundred years ago, Stephen Leacock was a somewhat self-effacing, professor of economics and political science at Montreal’s prestigious McGill University. He wrote prolifically in his field, but his principal and most endearing fame rests securely on his gentle humour and the customs and mores of the quintessential North American small town.
His summer retreat, perfect for an observer of the human condition, was in Orillia, Ontario. It’s an unpretentious rambling, frame house on the shores of Lake Couchiching, now a museum housing artifacts of the writer’s life. Leacock’s many stories were reflections of an intimate Canadian version of the Victorian lifestyle, warm depictions of a much simpler time.
Fifty years before the appearance of Leacock’s “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town”, in the village of Fergus, Ontario, about 150 miles south and west of Orillia, similar tales based on similar values were unfolding. A sturdy four-square stone structure was erected on what was then and still is a much travelled crossroads, the intersection of St. Andrew’s and St. David’s Streets.
In 1855, the building housed a bustling general store that carried in its inventory everything from bedsteads and tables to tubs of dill pickles. There were items of hardware that filled a hardworking farmer’s needs, and elegant, beribboned Sunday hats, reproductions of Paris models, for the ladies to show off at Melville United Church on Sunday mornings. And from daybreak to sunset, the air buzzed with the lively goings on and gossip of the community.
One hundred and fifty-eight years later, the building still commands its position as an important centre of commerce. St. David’s Street (or Highway Six on the map) has become over the years the second busiest highway in all of the Province of Ontario. As the street names might indicate, Fergus is populated by the descendents of the original Scottish settlers, with a good admixture of Irish, Mennonite, Dutch and English thrown in to salt the pot. And since the town is only an hour and a half away from metropolitan Toronto, it has become a bedroom community for the affluent boomer demographic of all ethnicities.
The four, thirty-something entrepreneurs who now take turns charging the electric atmosphere of the charming old building are engaged in activities that reflect the sturdy pioneer spirit. And just as many people are flowing through the store every day, carrying with them their own stories. There are young professionals setting up new households, retirees looking for advice on downsizing and furnishings for condo living, and shoppers in search of that perfect gift.
Jason Kueper is the team’s visionary. He met his partner and wife, Kim, at a bible conference when both were teenagers and together they went straight to work after high school, very successfully buying furniture from independent builders and selling to retailers.
“It was about 18 months ago that Rob Hammond, my brother-in-law, discovered that this wonderful building was available. I always had a knack for working with wood and I love it. Kim’s father had a woodworking business amongst other interests. It seemed a logical decision for us to add retailing to our established career track of designing, manufacturing and distributing.”
The partners, Jason, Kim, her sister Juanita and her husband Rob, have an almost idyllic mode of operation. Their workweek is evenly divided, two to three days each. Once a month they all gather to “change the entire store, settings, lighting, accessories, pictures, everything!” said Kim.
Back in Nova Scotia where Kim and her five sisters grew up, the girls, all of whom had a flair for design, surprised their parents every Saturday “by moving every bit of furniture in the house. They loved it, we had great fun and Juanita and I are still doing it to this day. A job it’s not!
“Jason handles liaison with our small but select group of builders and our leather supplier and doubles as our marketing genius. I’m in charge of sales and accounting; I always did Dad’s books for him. Juanita buys all our accents and accessories and we work together on the store windows and settings. Rob is our website expert and he’s constantly expanding its scope. And he takes care of deliveries with his son, Luke. We’re all passionate about our work. Our only problem lies in hiring other people whose spirit matches ours!”
Mark Turner is one such “find”. His title, he told us, is “managing to make sales”. He also teaches at a local elementary school, grades five and six, and loves his moonlighting challenge with the Team. His pleasure in dealing with customers is probably enhanced by Jason's drive to educate.
Their growing website offers an encyclopedic range of solid wood crafting detail, dovetail joints, floating panels, kreg fastening systems. They address the differences between their 100 percent heritage quality solid woods and the veneer covered particleboard pieces often produced today. Finishes are extremely durable post-catalyzed lacquers. “The wood is sealed,” said Jason. “The finishing procedures take seven days. You don’t need to protect our tables with tablecloths and coasters.”
Leather has an extensive section on the website. The top grain quality, five grades and 60 colours are discussed in detail. “A friend recommended Leather Craft when we first opened in Fergus since their quality approach was similar to ours in wood products. We have a real, family-type relationship with the people of Leather Craft.”
The team continues to sell to other furniture stores in Sarnia, Windsor, Listowel (Jason’s hometown), Guelph and Tillsonburg, all towns Leacock would appreciate. “They are our friends. They come to the Fergus store to see what’s new and order from here. And we assist them with their store interiors. Of course, we don’t undercut them!”
Their marketing is carefully targeted. Jason paid attention to David Foote’s “Boom, Bust and Echo” theory, and directs his attention to the 35 to 65 bracket. “So many people in that demographic are buying properties in the Fergus/Elora area. Our geographic range is Toronto, Hamilton, Burlington, the Muskokas and right here in Fergus.”
In Toronto, he runs 30-second commercials on a continuous basis on CJRT, a jazz FM station, and locally in nearby Guelph, Magic 106.1 radio also carries 30-second messages, mostly event-based.
Print ads appear regularly in The Wellington County Advertiser, The Fergus/Elora News Express and, in Guelph, The Mercury and The Tribune.
We asked about mailings to their Preferred Customer List and Kim said, “ALL our customers are Preferred!” Jason assured us their list of “several thousand” will soon be utilized to promote both events and new product.
Kim and “anyone making a sale, even of a candle or other small accessory”, writes a personal “thank you note” to the customer within days of their purchase.
“We’ve opened on Sundays from the beginning. Other stores didn’t open then, but now they’re catching on.” Shopkeepers’ recognition of the year ‘round tourist trade in the region is growing, together with the advantages they can offer to more leisurely Sunday afternoon shoppers.
Jason believes, “The location of the building and its beautiful character work really well with the high quality of our furniture. Five years from now we’re looking towards possible expansion in other locations, bigger centres, but our game plan has not really taken shape yet. We’re doing very well. Whatever other people have to say about the economy, I’m convinced it can only go up from here.”
If Stephen Leacock should time-warp to Fergus 2003, he wouldn’t shop for pickles, hats or tools at the corner of St. Andrew’s and St. David’s Streets. But there are bedsteads and tables aplenty. He could occupy the big leather chair in the shop window and watch with pleasure the ever-changing scene, surrounded by the same ebullient ambiance he captured in his stories. The tradition continues at Wellington Interiors.