When he was a kid growing up in Barachois, a coastal village on Quebec’s rugged Gaspe Peninsula, Harris Thompson says the general store was the heart and soul of the community.
“It was a bustling place,” recalled Thompson, a 74-year-old retiree who’s spent his adult life in Ontario where he ran—and recently sold—a successful dehydrated vegetable distribution business. “People gathered there to talk and to buy pretty much everything they needed.”
So when the store was shuttered in late 2005 following the bankruptcy of its owners—Robin, Jones and Whitman, Canada’s oldest retailer after the Hudson’s Bay Co.—Thompson had both the will and wherewithal to bring it back to life.
“It took me a year to buy it from the trustee and get it reopened,” Thompson said this week from his summer home in Barachois, which is within eyeshot of Percé Rock.
“I did it for the people here. Without the store, the village was finished.”
In addition to rehiring the store’s four full time employees (the most senior has now been there 50 years, the most junior 27), Thompson gave the 5,000-sq.-ft. store a $400,000 makeover.
In addition to a new sign—Magasin Général Thompson—and a historical restoration to the store’s outer appearance when it first opened in 1909, much of that investment went into new fridges, freezers and counters for the grocery side of the business, which takes up most of the main floor, along with hardware.
The second floor sells furniture and appliances.
“It’s a real old-fashioned general store,” said Thompson, who for 33 years supplied the likes of Lipton’s, Heinz, Campbell’s and Nestlé with dehydrated vegetables and chili products for California-based Sensient Natural Ingredients. “People love it.”
Thompson said the store’s fresh and salted cod are big sellers, as is baloney.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of baloney we sell,” he said. “People drive 40-50 miles to buy whole rolls of it (at $26 apiece).”
He added that the store buys much of its centre-aisle food products from Metro’s wholesale division, and has a mix of local and national suppliers for produce and meats.
Though the store has enjoyed a small but steady increase in sales every year since it reopened, Thompson says it remains more a labour of love than a money-making venture.
“It’s really a break-even operation,” said Thompson, who helps with paperwork when he’s in Barachois.
“We do very well during the summer months, because lots of people have summer homes here and there a lot of tourists. But the winters really kill us.
“If we could close from January to March we’d do much better. But then we’d lose the jobs (and) people would have to drive to Percé or Chandler for food. We don’t want that we have our own great store here in Barachois.”