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Falling for Saugeen Shores – One store at a time

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Time to be a tourist
Time to be a tourist

It's a brilliant, warm fall day, and I'm in the mood to be a tourist. My destination? The charming communities of Port Elgin and Southampton located on the shores of Lake Huron.

As part of the Municipality of Saugeen Shores, these towns are renowned as beach-front cottage getaways that tourists flock to visit every year. But I know there's plenty to see in the fall, starting with the spectacular autumn colours of maple and birch leaves as I wind through some back roads to my first stop in Port Elgin.

I have been to Port Elgin before to visit friends and paddle the Saugeen River. Yet, I have never checked out what the community's main street has to offer. It's time to remedy that.

Claimed Vintage
Claimed Vintage

I am greeted by Jan and Victoria Watson, a mother-and-daughter team that owns and operates a shop in which the merchandise can best be described as "eclectic".

There are dresses and gowns, hats and fascinators of all shapes and colours, shoes, purses, jewellery of all kinds, and even suitcases. Delicate antique pins fill one stand-up display. An "Alf" stuffie sits on a shelf, just one example of many unique collectibles in the store.

All of the merchandise is old - some of it dating back to Victorian times - and is in impeccable shape. It's like walking into a time capsule, and I feel nostalgic.

"It's a connection to the past," explains Jan. "I say the store is like a museum. We try to research everything and know something about the Canadian companies and the Canadian designers responsible for a lot of this clothing. Because that history seems to be lost."

Every item in the store has been carefully sourced, cleaned, mended and researched by both mother and daughter. Victoria, a graduate of George Brown's fashion program, deploys her artistic eye in buying the merchandise and designing how it's displayed, whether in the front windows or in the store.

The two have been selling their wares for seven years on Goderich Street. Although their primary clientele is women between the ages of 25 and 40, they also have a youngish demographic of men and people who prefer a they/them title. All appreciate buying unique apparel that is far better made than clothing found in "fast fashion" stores.

"They are also more attuned with the ecological aspect of it," says Victoria. "It's not fast fashion, it's not creating pollution, it's not going to the landfill."

"The fabrics were better," adds Jan. "The cottons were grown in the US, and most of the clothes have union labels on them - made in Canada or made in the US."

Buying is Victoria's favourite part of running the business - she likens it to a treasure hunt - and she frequents estate sales, auctions and antique shops for finds that fit the feel of the store. Jan says they frequently have people come in who were cleaning out their mother's closet and asking if they want to buy an article.

But the items can't just be old; they also have to be unique and cool, says Victoria. "We have wild and weird things," she says with obvious pride.

As I am about to leave, I look at the vintage pin display and can't resist purchasing one with pearls in a gold setting. It's simple and elegant, and I think about where I will wear it as I head to my next stop, The Patio.

The Patio
The Patio

Picture a quaint English shop where ladies and gents of a certain age gather to chat and drink tea.

Add in products for sale like Scottish meat pies, British jams, cookies and candies, and ice cream, and now you have Port Elgin's The Patio.

Owner Marian Hill, a British expat who came over from Manchester 41 years ago, opened the store about three years ago when she needed a project to keep her occupied and realized the town was missing a casual, laid-back shop that could act as a meeting place.

At first, it was strictly an ice cream parlour. But the business soon evolved.

"We have a big influence in this town from people over the pond and I started selling the British products," she tells me. "And as people bought their mushy peas and pickles to go with their pork pies, we became a British store also.

"We didn't seem to have anything for my age group where they could come and have a cup of tea and sit down and chit-chat about old times and not have to rush off or have people bang into them. That was the reason I started."

Virtually everything in the store is made in Britain and she either imports the products herself or sources from Toronto suppliers who do the importing. She prides herself of keeping her prices affordable for her customers: "Why not give them a little comfort?"

The meat pies she sells are kept in a freezer by the counter, and she pre-heats some of them for the lunch-time crowd. The ambiance of the shop is enhanced by jigsaw puzzles of Queen Elizabeth II, a curio cabinet with tea cups and saucers, Union Jacks everywhere, and a Keep Calm and Carry On poster.

The store is growing in popularity, says Marion, with customers now coming from as far away as Lion's Head on the Bruce Peninsula for the British wares. About 80 per cent of her clientele have a British connection, but more and more are Canadian.

As we are chatting, the door to the shop opens and one of her regular customers wanders in and sits down. I expect tea is about to be served.

"It's just a lot of camaraderie with all these Brits from across the pond," she says as I am about to leave. "We insult each other. You know, if you don't insult a Brit, it's because you don't like each other."

We laugh as I exit her shop, and then I walk a few paces up the street to Port Elgin's ultimate Gift shop, Accents.

Accents
Accents

Stepping inside, I realized this store seems to have everything AND the kitchen sink (well, almost). 

Accents is two stores in one. And every single nook and cranny is filled with some kind of treasure worth examining.

Looking for a perfect gift, but not sure what that is? Head to the right side of the store, and guaranteed you will find something fun that speaks to you.

There's tableware, pottery, and candles of all shapes, sizes and colours. I spy a number of distinctive clocks and cute wall decorations that would stand out in any room. For women, there are a number of lovely handbags, as well as perfumes, lotions and other toiletries. Then there are puzzles, baskets, and ceramic planters. And that's just for starters.

Are you a new mom or grandma?

The left side of the shop is filled with everything you can imagine for the new baby - clothing and sleepwear, blankets, bibs, feeding and bathing accessories, toys and books. I would imagine you could stock your entire nursery from this one store.

"Fun, unique and affordable" is how owner Vicki Rogers describes her shop.

"I've always loved shopping myself so I hope that it attracts people because it looks fun to go into," she says. "I try really hard to differentiate from other businesses. I actually go to different shows in North America to find unique stuff."

Her baby products appeal to local customers, as Port Elgin is a young community with a lot of new parents. For the gift shop, tourists frequent the store up to Thanksgiving. Then, after Hallowe'en, she finds her business is supported by local customers who want to buy gifts for the holiday season.

"It's a young, fun community, and my customers are really nice," she says. "It's important to me to be unique and affordable. I'm really big on trying to be affordable for a lot of people."

I make a mental note to consider buying a ceramic pot I like - it would be perfect in a spot in my living room - and then take my leave.

It's lunchtime, and I decide to check out what I have heard is THE place to frequent in Port Elgin: The Wismer House and its craft brewery, Three Sheets Brewing.

Three Sheets Brewing
Three Sheets Brewing

I'm most interested in checking out Three Sheets Brewing. I love craft beers, and I want to sample their Angry Wiener, a special beer that brewmaster Curt Thomas has made just for Octoberfest.

Curt explains that Octoberfest beers are typically lagers, but because he didn't have time to properly brew a "proper" lager, he used a Norwegian ale yeast instead.

"It's actually blown my mind how much it tastes like a lager," he says. "It's really cool. It's a new strain of yeast, and not a lot of people have used it."

I try a sip and instantly love the taste. It's crisp and just a teensy-bit sweet - an eminently drinkable beverage that deserves more than just a special fall brewing in my opinion.

Three Sheets opened its doors to customers on Superbowl weekend in February 2020. It's co-owned by Jeff Carver, who also co-owns and operates the popular restaurant known locally as The Wiz.

Curt became a professional brewer seven years ago, after his passion was piqued by home brewing in his basement. As his informed experiment with Angry Wiener shows, he's clearly not afraid to take risks.

"He's truly passionate about what he's doing, and it shows in his work as well," says co-owner and manager Cynthia Auer. "I think that's why we've had such positive feedback on what we've been putting out because he does not want to put his name on something that's not great."

The brewery makes a variety of beers, all of which pretty much "flies off the shelves" says Curt.

Cynthia says Three Sheets is a tourist hotspot in the summer, but once they're gone, the local community really steps up.

"There is something about our beer that appeals to everybody," she says. "We'll have some younger 19- and 20-years-olds and they're coming in and just getting into craft beers. Then you'll have people my age, in their 40s, and they are wanting to support local.

"And then you have the older generation coming in and trying something they might not necessarily have tried beforehand, and all of a sudden, we've won them over."

As I sample a wee bit of the Angry Wiener - just a few sips, as I am driving - with my lunch of P.E.I. mussels, I am enamoured with the taste and I ask Curt for a growler that I will take home for my husband and I to enjoy later.

Lake Huron Shoreline
Lake Huron Shoreline

Then I hop in the car and head north for eight kilometres along the Lake Huron shoreline to Southampton, another popular tourist community in Saugeen Shores.

Lake Huron looks angry today. Even under a dazzling sun, the wind has whipped up lots of big waves and the water is a greenish-brown hue. I appreciate both the beauty and power of this great lake - it clearly deserves both admiration and respect.

A trail for pedestrians and cyclists hugs the shore and I see evidence of the lake's strength where repairs have been made due to winter storm erosion. These places are now fortified with large boulders sourced from the Canadian Shield.

Soon, I am in Southampton, and I make a quick stop at the town's famous beach and watch its huge Canadian flag whipping in the wind for a few moments before I head to High Street where my first stop is Logan's.

Logan’s
Logan’s

If ever there was a shop in Southampton that is the epitome of community pride, it would have to be Logan's.

As I walk through their door, I am struck by two things. First, I notice rows and racks of neatly organized and tasteful apparel for virtually every age, from babies on up. And second, every single piece of merchandise displays the Southampton logo of the iconic lighthouse on Chantry Island visible form the Southampton beach.

"The Lighthouse has always been the symbol of the community to everybody and of course, you just have to go down to the lake and you see it," says Dave Logan, owner and operator of the store along with his wife Louise. "So, this logo means a lot to a lot of people. It's very iconic, it's clean and crisp and everybody seems to like it."

Logan's has been in business since 1952 when Dave's father opened it as a menswear store. Dave and Louise took it over in 1985 and it evolved over the years into a souvenir shop that focuses heavily on clothing items like T-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts and pants, fleeces, hats, and even baby jumpers all in deep rich hues.

A splash of bright colour catches my eye - it's a rack of tie-dyed shirts that just cry "beach."

In the centre of the shop, glass shelving displays other items for sale, including coffee travellers, pewter mugs, glasses, and water bottles. Flags adorn the walls. And everything is branded with the Southampton logo.

The merchandise is obviously of good quality, and Dave says they try very hard to strike a balance in selling "good, decent stuff" that's affordable for both the local customers and tourists alike.

And, it's clear he's pleased that Logan's is a focal point for local pride.

"The people here, they are proud of their community," he says. "And a lot of the people who have cottages or trailers or rent here, they return year after year and they have a strong feeling about this community.

"They think of this as their second home. So, a lot of people really enjoy wearing the apparel."

I wish them luck for the fall season - they are open year-round - and I head to my next destination, the Light House Photo Gallery, across the street.

The Light House Photo Gallery
The Light House Photo Gallery

My first thought when I enter the Light House Photo Gallery is, I want to buy everything in this store.

Everywhere I look are stunning enlarged photographs of iconic nature scenes by store owner Carol Norris, an award-winning and internationally renowned photographer. She's captured images of wildlife and landscapes that I know I've seen before but still leave me speechless.  

"A lot of passion goes into my work and it's nice because people say they can see that, they can feel that when they look at my pictures," she says. "That's a huge compliment to me."

But her shop has more to offer beyond her photographs. It's a gift-giver's paradise (the holiday season is just around the corner, after all) that supports local artists.

Shelves hold one-of-a-kind pieces of pottery, jewellery and glassware, all created by artisans from Southampton or other nearby communities. My eyes spot wall ornaments that are made by a Wiarton artist - little rows of brightly painted buildings perched atop driftwood from the Southampton shores; others pieces are of the Chantry Island Light House.

"I try to bring in things that are unique," says Carol, who knows each of the artists personally. "Everything is handmade with love. And I bring in things that I love and what I think works really well in the store. Everything is Canadian-made."

Incredibly, Carol is self-taught. Born in Britain, she moved to Southampton 25 years ago, believing she didn't have one creative bone in her body.

"I can't draw a stick man, I can't paint, I can't play a musical instrument, but I always loved nature," she says. "And when I moved to Canada, I was given a little 35-millimetre SLR Nikon camera as a gift and I started taking pictures. My friends said, 'You should enter competitions,' and I won a couple of big awards."

That's when she decided to "jump in with both feet" and opened her first store 21 years ago in the Southampton Town Hall. Fourteen years later, she moved to her current location on the main street, a much larger space that allows her to showcase the work of other local artists.

Her clientele ranges from local to international customers, from small children who love nature to older folks who appreciate the artistry of her merchandise.

"I find that I have a regular base of customers who come back year after year," she says. "They come up here and they tell me they can't wait to get into the store. It's a great feeling for me and it's lovely to see them as well."

As I am about to leave the store, I spot a piece of pottery that strikes a chord in me. It's two pieces, actually - a canoe that sits atop a shallow dish, all in a gorgeous deep blue. An avid paddler, I can't resist. And it will be perfect for serving hummus and crackers over the holidays.

Fairy Lake
Fairy Lake

I leave the store and decide to check out one more tourist attraction in Southampton - Fairy Lake.

Located in the centre of the community, the tiny lake is encircled by trees and a walking trail that provides lovely views. I spot a couple of painted turtles sunning themselves atop dead tree branches in the water, taking advantage of what may be the last of the warm weather for a while.

It's a perfect end to a fall day of sightseeing in Saugeen Shores, and I am already looking forward to a return when I can check out even more shops and sites in these charming communities.