In small towns across the country there’s a similar story being told.
Once populated by a diverse range of businesses and entrepreneurs, the downtowns of many communities have thinned out dramatically over the years. Whether it’s competition from the Walmarts and Amazons of the world or declining populations, many rural areas are losing the mom and pop operations that make their regions distinctive.
This is a phenomenon as old as the industrial revolution, when populations began to urbanize in earnest and in more recent years, technology like the internet and automation have accelerated the process, enlarging fissures in the bedrock of communities throughout the country. Canadians are connected to a wealth of online information and entertainment, but more cut off from their immediate surroundings than ever.
While change is inevitable, it cannot always be defined as progress. Plans can change in the blink of an eye, and there’s nothing to be done but try and adapt.
By the end of the month, Shawville will lose another locally-owned business as Pontiac Auto Parts closes its doors. Located on Hwy. 148, the small shop has served the local area, under various owners, since the late 1960s.
At the front counter, a friendly black lab named Buddy keeps watch on the packed shelves of merchandise and fraternizes with the customers.
Current owner Barry Draper has been working behind the counter since 1983, and said the decision to sell was a tough one to make. “It’ll be 36 years in August,” he said. “It was a little hard the first couple of days, thinking about it. I think I’ve got my head around it now.”
While the 81-year-old had been considering downsizing the business for some time, Draper said that things came to a head when his son and business partner, Dave, was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer in early May.
“It just all got decided really quick,” he said. “At Good Friday, I had no notion of selling.”
Barry began working for previous owner Ray Young back in ’83 and purchased the auto parts business in 1990. Before that, he farmed Jersey cows out on Zion Line for 20 years and worked for a brief stint selling farm equipment.
“It was quite a difference, hours, to start with,” he said, of the switch from farming to sales. “Before I was working 16, 18 hours a day and then I went to eight hours a day. Mind you, I enjoyed every minute of farming and I still miss the farm. They say, once a farmer, you never lose it.”
With his passion for agriculture and mechanical knowledge, Barry excelled at bonding with his customers, many of whom worked on farms, in the bush or at the local mill.
“Some people come in here and we’d talk away for hours,” he said. “I had many lads that just came in here to chat.”
Dave worked the farm for a time as well, before he too was forced to find work in town. Barry purchased Young’s water pump business in 1995, and after Dave did his pump training in Seneca Falls, NY., father and son were working under the same roof. Dave handled the pumps, often taking his business on the road from Luskville to Fort Coulonge, while Barry manned the counter of the shop.
“Dave was very, very good with his clientele,” Barry said. “He looked after them.”
He added that working with family can present its own difficulties, but they never let business impede their relationship.-
“You have your disagreements, you have your agreements,” he said with a grin. “We always worked it out.”
Barry said the business he’s getting out of is nothing like the business he got into back in the early 80s. At the time, they had a man taking orders by phone and parts were sent out for delivery the next day.
“That changed completely in the late 80s, early 90s,” he said. “[It was] mostly over the counter sales after that.”
He speculated that the increasing complexity of vehicles and farm equipment meant that less and less people were willing or able to perform their own repairs.
“I think the biggest thing is you don’t have your backyard mechanics anymore,” he said. “Everything’s so high tech today, the average Joe Blow can’t work on it. That changed a lot of over the counter sales, the poor customer comes in and didn’t know what they were wanting.”
Barry recalled the days when there were three locally-owned parts stores in town, the mill was still open and there were many farmers working small tracts of land in the countryside. Old customers stop by to see Barry at the shop now as he sells off his inventory, a testament to the strong relationships he formed over nearly four decades selling parts.
“I didn’t like to see them leave [empty-handed],” he said. “If I didn’t have the part for them I’d try to MacGyver it to make it work for them.”
Barry said he would likely take some time to adjust to retirement. He plans on running the pump business until the end of the year, just not on the old premises.
“I presume it will take me a while to get up in the morning and know that I don’t have to come into work,” he said. “I have noticed the last couple of years that it’s starting to get like work, eh. Before it was a pleasure but now… the body starts to wear out. It’s like curling, you can’t take it as hard as you used to.”
“I’ll miss the camaraderie,” he continued. “I would have liked to stay with it longer but there is a day for everything.”
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