General Storeest. 1840


A special look at general stores in Durham Region

News Feb 09, 2015 by Leeanna McLean DurhamRegion.com

If you ever happen to be driving down Old Scugog Road in the small community of Enniskillen, be sure to make a pit stop at the General Store. If you like ice cream, you’re in for a big treat.

Owners T.J. and Jessie Sheehan took ownership of the small town’s beloved landmark in April 2014 and have carried the long-standing tradition of big scoop ice cream cones. It’s a cold winter day in the middle of December and Ms. Sheehan has already had her first customer come in for a cone around 10:30 a.m.

As you walk in across the cozy wooden floor, you are greeted to the warm scent of apple pie and sweet vanilla as dozens of locally made candles line the shelves. The walls are painted with a friendly yellow. Mr. and Ms. Sheehan are in the middle of moving a few old things around to create more retail space.

Enniskillen General Store is 175 years old. It was once a Canada Post office which developed into a general store for the growing needs of the community. In April 2014, The Sheehan’s bought the store from pervious owners Doug and Linda Hann who operated the business for more than 25 years.

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Both T.J. and Jessie are small-town folks. Jessie grew up on a farm in Millbrook and moved to Durham to go to post-secondary school. T.J. was born and raised in Hampton. The two fell in love after meeting each other 10 years ago at a gym in Oshawa. They were married two years later and now have two children, Hunter, 6, and Keelie, 4.

The General Store has always had a soft place in T.J.’s heart ever since he was a young boy.

“We use to come here almost every Sunday night. We would ride our bikes up here.”

Over the years, Mr. Sheehan noticed the store was slowly deteriorating. There were holes in the floor and the walls were painted a stark white. T.J. had a vision for his childhood hangout and it was at the annual tractor parade in the summer of 2013 when he turned to his wife and told her he was going to buy it.

“I said no,” laughs Ms. Sheehan. “We are not, and in April we did.”

T.J. and Jessie didn’t waste any time. As soon as the couple claimed ownership they rolled up their sleeves and started renovations. Simplicity was the key ingredient to the overhaul, as they wanted a fresh update for the store while still maintaining its essential character. Mr. Sheehan says since they took over, customers have been supportive of the store’s changes.

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“While we were renovating, people would come in and we would tell them we were closed but they would just want to give us a coffee. People would share that they used to come in, or was last in a few years back.”

As people stopped in one-by-one, Mr. Sheehan could tell many visitors had a fond appreciation for the old store.

“I think people had their own vision for it.”

Entrepreneurship has been a career choice passed down from T.J.’s father. The Sheehan family has operated a string of Pet Value stores for over 35 years. His parents helped T.J. open a franchise in Bowmanville. Currently, he operates both the Bowmanville and Brooklin locations. It has been an adventure owning a private business and now the Sheehan’s have a place to experiment with ideas.

“I always wanted to sell candles, giftables and trinkets,” says Ms. Sheehan. “I told him if we were going to buy the store, I said I wanted to sell the girly things,” she laughs.

The store is a one-stop shop that sells anything from umbrellas and screwdrivers to eggs and milk.

“You really don’t know what’s going to sell, you almost have to bring something in, test it out, tell people about it, promote it,” says Mr. Sheehan.

The couple pride themselves on purchasing local goods to sell in their store and with 7,000 followers on Facebook, they often turn to social media to push featured items, especially when it comes to ice cream. There are 32 flavours and many of them are Kawartha Dairy favourites. Other locally produced items include: crystal soaps, purchased and sold in store from Timeless Essentials in Enniskillen, hand lotions from a supplier located in Hampton, and baked goods from Crumbs in Newcastle.

“I try to get as much Ontario homemade stuff as possible. I just like knowing that it’s supporting somebody local. What goes around comes around I think,” says Ms. Sheehan.

Next up on the store agenda, more ice cream. The duo are working with Maypole Dairy Products in Etobicoke to develop original flavours. Coconut, pina colada and watermelon are a few that have been suggested by customers. T.J. and Jessie used Maypole’s pomegranate flavour as a trial in the summer. It was a hit and it didn’t take long for the last scoop to go.

If the old rickety basement of the General Store could talk it would share many captivating stories. Through the 1900s it operated as a butcher shop. Customers would bring their cows to be slaughtered and stored in the large meat locker located in the basement, which still remains today. Licences dating back to 1966 hang on the wall beside the locker’s heavy steel door. There are customers who remember the meat shop days and share the store’s rich history with T.J.

“I love hearing the stories when customers come in. A guy came in once and told me he was 69 years old and used to work here. He would carry meat from the basement out to people’s trucks and load up horse feed,” says Mr. Sheehan with a smile. “He used to go down the hill and make go-carts out of scrap wood during days off. People tell me they have shopped here for over 30 years.”

John is one of the General Store’s regulars. He has been selling farm equipment in the area with GT Green Tractors for 35 years. Like the Sheehan’s, John was born and raised in a small town and enjoys the vivid sense of community in Enniskillen.

“I love the coffee here and they are nice and friendly. It’s a nice hometown little place to come to. I talk to the farmers around here and I like to keep my face in the community.”

Maria Gibbs stops in to play lottery every now and then and if it isn’t lottery tickets she is purchasing, it’s either milk or bread.

“It’s handy, friendly and convenient. If I run out of something, I just come here and get it. The outside is nice. I like seeing people outside and socializing, eating ice cream in the summer.”

The General Store is also a pit stop for cyclists during the summer. T.J. and Jessie will often get groups ranging from five to 30 people. Most will request power bars and water and, most importantly, a washroom. The public toilet is located in the front room of the store which is attached to a house. A house, that the previous owner once lived in before T.J. and Jessie took over the business.

“Before, the old owner wouldn’t let anyone use the washroom because it was personal. But the first thing we did was open the bathroom and the cyclists were the biggest to really appreciate it,” laughs Mr. Sheehan.

The public washroom is a big step up from the unholy outhouse in the back.

Mr. Sheehan looks over to his wife behind the store counter, “I could convince her to own the store, but not the house,” he laughs.

Although competition seems like a classic David vs. Goliath matchup, convenience and homegrown products work to the General Store’s advantage. The closest box store is Walmart, located in Bowmanville approximately 15 km away.

“Walmart is in a league of its own. We can’t compete with the good prices but we are still surviving against them. The store is still here. The previous owner survived against them,” says Mr. Sheehan. “I think as long as we provide good service and the products people want, I think they will be willing to pay a bit extra for the convenience.”

The school day is over and Hunter and Keelie are hungry for a cone.

“What do you want bud? Cotton Candy,” asks Mr. Sheehan to his son. “Keelie, come and get it!”

“I want orange sherbet,” yells the young boy.

“He’s our taste tester, that’s for sure,” laughs Ms. Sheehan.

While passing down the family business is something T.J. often thinks about, it is an idea he would never force upon his children.

“I think family is important to be around. If they want to carry it on and we can keep it going for another generation that would be great.”

Built in 1847, Claremont General Store is believed to be one of the oldest continually operating stores in Ontario.

Every time a resident walks through the door, they are sure to be greeted on a first-name basis. Owner Daniel Park is a prominent figure in town and is known for writing down the names and remembering the many faces of his customers, as well as dropping an extra candy or two into kids’ candy bags.

Mr. Park and his wife Julie Sung moved from South Korea to Toronto in 2000. He has two children, a son who is 23, and a daughter, 21, studying nursing at Queens University. Mr. Park previously owned a flower shop downtown Toronto. After some financial difficulty, the family moved to the small community of Claremont in December 2002 and took ownership of the 168-year-old store.

“The city and the country are different. In the city, it’s harder to make friends and customers, it’s harder to get to know someone. But here, there is a real sense of community.”

Mr. Park is often involved with many community events including Claremont’s annual winter carnival that marks a week’s worth of events in January or February. The most popular of these events include a winter parade through the town, a teen dance at the local community centre, and the highly anticipated Trapper’s Ball. And with a population of less than 2,000 people, it’s no surprise that Mr. Park knows everyone.

“You are greeted by your first name every time you walk in the store,” says customer Susan Britton. “I love the people, you end up chatting half the time,” she laughs.

Ms. Britton’s husband was born and raised in Claremont and she has lived in the town with her family for 15 years. She stops into the General Store once or twice a week, but her kids are in on a daily basis.

“Our kids are here all the time,” she laughs. “Sometimes it’s such a little thing you need and you can just zip here and grab it.”

Mr. Park says he will forever be indebted to his cherished town for helping him during a dark time. It was a Sunday morning in the middle of July 2009 when his life took a turn for the worse.

Derek Budarick, a tenant living in an apartment located in the building adjoining the store, was sitting outside with friends and noticed flames in the area where the store and the Canada Post outlet joined.

Firefighters were called to the scene and fought the blaze for more than three hours. Fortunately, no one was injured and though some walls remained standing, both the store and apartment building were destroyed.

In the words of American psychiatrist and best-selling author Morgan Scott Peck, “There can be no vulnerability without risk. There can be no community without vulnerability. And there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.”

Mr. Park took a risk by opening a General Store in a small town and became deeply vulnerable after the blaze damaged his hard work and pride. But what Mr. Park soon realized was that generosity goes a long way and community pulls together.

A nearby store owner offered Mr. Park the use of an unoccupied garage as a temporary store location, on the southeast side of Central Street and Old Brock Road. The community pitched in to help spruce up the space and get a building permit. For the next three years, customers would show up to share their support by stopping in for everything from cigarettes and newspapers to stamps and snacks, or even just to chat.

“The community helped us when we were going through some difficulty, and that’s because of a small community,” says Mr. Park.

In January 2012, Mr. Park opened the doors of his new store, designed as a replica of the original, which had stood on the site for more than 150 years. Mr. Park hoped to repay the community’s kindness and introduced improved services in response to residents’ requests, including Country Style coffee and Square Boy Pizza. The Canada Post outlet was also reopened.

Most recently, Mr. Park surveyed his customers again. He is planning to introduce new baked goods and perhaps a dry cleaning service in the near future.

“My favourite part about this job is helping people. I want to give them what they want.”

Pizza has been put on hold for the time being. After many years of lifting heavy pop crates and serving pizza, Mr. Park suffered a rotator cuff tear in June 2014. He had surgery in November, but despite the pain and challenge of working with an arm in sling, Mr. Park returned to work.

“I’m aging,” he laughs. “It’s challenging with the sling, but I’m getting used to it. During the first five days I couldn’t walk so my wife worked.”

Mr. Park says he hasn’t made the decision to start up pizza again.

“Some people have asked for it but when I was young it was good, but it’s getting harder.”

For now, Mr. Park will carry on with his regular routine. Every morning he picks up the papers, puts on a hot pot of coffee, changes the bakery display and manages the till, greeting the many faces of Claremont.

From the latest edition of Loupe Magazine

by Leeanna McLean

Leeanna McLean is the videographer and social media reporter for Metroland Durham Region Media Group.Email: lmclean@durhamregion.com