Not only are specialty stores becoming more commonplace across London, they are also quickly becoming successful and recognizable destinations with a regular customer base. In the past, starting a niche retail business was seen as a risky move but as the following five local, independent business owners will tell you, that "risky move" was one of the best decisions they’ve ever made.
Alex, the owner of the Boombox Bakeshop on Adelaide, is only 28 years old. The vegan bakery has only been around for a year and a half yet it’s already a staple of Old East Village. Alex simply grew tired of working for other people and knew she wanted to start her own business. The location in Old East seemed too good to be true as she knew she wanted to open developing area and the older building matched the aesthetic she was looking for.
The Boombox Bakeshop literally feels like your own living room, especially with the working piano that Alex added because it didn’t fit in her apartment. Originally, Alex wanted a downtown location but she found space there to be very expensive. Now Alex can’t even imagine occupying a downtown location. She’s attached to her Old East customer base and likes being a destination for people from other parts of the city. She also states how inspiring it is to be close in proximity to independent businesses like the Root Cellar and the London Food Co-op.
Illbury + Goose is another landmark Old East business. Dan and Meghan started the brand at the London Farmer’s Market and local festivals when they were both still in school. From there, the brand continued to grow and recently, they opened a permanent shop just across the street from the market. Western University played a large part in their success as they were able to launch a pop-up shop in the University Community Center through Propel Entrepreneurship. Eventually, they went on to win Propel’s “Seed Your Startup” pitch competition.
As Illbury + Goose grew in popularity, demand for their products increased considerably and they knew they needed a storefront. Setting up their shop in Old East was a no-brainer for them as both Meghan and Dan are from that community. Now that they have established themselves, they have plans underway to test the markets in Toronto and Vancouver, but Meghan is sure to note that they will not be leaving London behind. She strongly believes that London was a great place to start their business as she has found that startups are a bit behind in London, meaning less competition and more support.
Although downtown locations have their risks for niche retail stores, Jason and Vanessa of Brown & Dickson have confidently set up a storefront for their antiquarian bookstore in a retail incubator at King and Clarence. After 20 years of combined bookselling experience, primarily online and at pop-up locations, they were given the opportunity to be the tenant anchor of 211 King St. (formerly the Novack's building) where they share the space with UnLondon and several other small businesses. Vanessa and Jason saw the incubator-style store as a community project and it simply felt like the right time for them to set up shop. They have developed collaborative relationships with the other business owners in the space and they have carved out a section of the building that looks like it could be their home library.
Jason and Vanessa haven’t had any doubts about their downtown London location and feel the shared space has been their “sweet spot." They feel that corner of the city is a developing cultural hub and there have even been discussions around moving buses onto King St. One of the main benefits to Brown & Dickson having a storefront is that Vanessa and Jason are able to bring in more books that they feel may spark public interest as opposed to the highly client-based book selling that they had been engaged in previously. At the moment, Jason is very excited about a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pop-up book that they never would have been able to stock prior to having a store.
Chris, the owner of Uber Cool Stuff, has also been successful with a downtown storefront for his niche retail store. The ‘geek boutique', as he calls it, started at the Metropolitan Market which closed several years ago. Uber Cool Stuff sells specialty pop culture items such as board games, collectibles and entertainment paraphernalia, which is a market that Chris finds fairly vacant in London.
Chris has found that the type of customers who shop downtown are looking for the types of specialty items that he sells and he wouldn’t have set up a shop in any other part of town. Since starting his business, he has had an incredibly loyal and supportive customer base and a large part of his job is helping source specialty items for customer requests. Chris is a London local himself and has no plans to expand his business outside the city. However, he does want to have a larger presence in London events and run more events for his customers.
Lastly, Heist in Wortley Village has become the destination in London for specialty furniture. The shop is a direct byproduct of the owner Paul’s obsession with Kijiji. For a long time Paul worked in sales and was always on the lookout for mid-century furniture on his travels. After buying and selling for years, both online and to dealers in Toronto, he eventually invaded his mother’s stained glass shop in Wortley. “It started with me putting a few pieces in the corner, and now I’m slowly pushing her out,” he says jokingly. Paul recognizes there is recent shift to appreciate local talent, which allows small, niche businesses like Heist to thrive. He doesn’t feel like he would have had the same success in Toronto where businesses like his are “a dime a dozen on Queen Street.”
His location in Wortley has been especially integral for Heist, as he grew up there and has had a great community behind him. He feels that setting up a storefront has added an element of legitimacy to his business as customers can come in and see the pieces for themselves. While he has no plans to expand outside of London, Paul is toying with the idea of a downtown store in the near future. You can also expect to see Heist at the Forest City Flea this June.
While London may not be the startup capital of Ontario, there is a definite shift towards smaller, local businesses happening within the city. Niche, boutique retailers are finding success and seeing a significant, positive impact to their companies by setting up a storefront. With the Forest City community backing its businesses, it seems there’s never been a better time to set up shop in London, Ontario.