Hit Up a Heritage Shop for Legit Last Minute Gifts

We're all looking for just a little more from our shopping experience these days.

For all the things one might suffer from in St. John’s in the winter, a lack of spots to buy trigger mitts is not one.

The bibs and bobs  typical of the Newfoundland and Labrador craft store are liberally scattered across the cityscape, providing gifts for tourists, traditionalists, and your pop; maybe a fix of Purity candy while you  browse. With our legacy as a resourceful, handy people could it really be any other way? Ulu ornaments and tea dolls are a bit harder to come by, but becoming more common as Inuit and  Innu culture are better understood and valued.

Whether or not you buy the ‘entitled millennial’ label, we’re all looking for just a little more from our shopping experience these days. You can see it in the advertising campaigns of “authentic” brands, so designated with mason jars, edison bulbs, and rustic wood, or the rise in experiential tourism that’s replaced the all inclusive resort, or even the local supernova that is the Merb’ys calender; a confectionary day dream of one part genius idea, one part important message, and one part doing good for others. The idea is to not just buy a product but to take part in an experience, possibly even doing something socially positive along the way. If nothing else, it’s a great way to stretch a buck.

The nine Heritage Shop storefronts — three year round operations in St. Johns and six seasonal locations at historic sites across the province — plus one online store, are a social enterprise. Non-profit stores whose proceeds go towards funding the provinces Historic Sites Association and the plethora of heritage preserving, education enhancing, community building work they do, bang for the buck doesn’t even begin to cover how much you contribute to by buying a tin of local tea there (rather than getting it at Sobeys).

Not to mention  all the cool stuff. Baby socks that say TROUT, top shelf local pottery by such artists as Maaike Charron, stunning pewter ornaments of such wide selection you can even find yourself a little ulu. Sadly no tea dolls in sight, at least at the 309 Water Street location, but with over 100 local producers in their roster perhaps that will change.

The b’ys have a lot on the go. The Heritage Shops themselves employ 55 people or more at full summer tilt and lots of the products sold are made rurally, the cash from their sale helping people stay in their communities. They are keen on having items which tell a story and interpret our culture in some way. The stores are curated affairs, the goods speaking of heritage and  history with modern interpretations mixed in.

The historic sites that they provide funding for are among our most beloved; Signal Hill, Cape Spear, Hawthorne Cottage, L’anse Aux Meadows, Red Bay , Port Aux Choix, Castle Hill and the Ryan Premises. An impressive lot.

It doesn’t slow down there. Starting in 1981, in cooperation with Parks Canada, their early projects include refurbishing the interior of Cabot Tower and restoring Hawthorne Cottage, home of Captain Bob Bartlett. The Bartlett Lectures  discussing the Captains arctic exploration  and the Manning Awards which honor heritage supporters who’ve made outstanding contributions to preserving and presenting heritage are two major accomplishments in the 36 years since.

They are, however, certainly not the only ones. A scholarship has been established, heritage fairs running much like the science fair model happen in schools province wide, an immersive First World War encampment on Signal Hill was constructed, and the Port au Choix Gourmet Festival, which offers a culinary exploration of the region’s French Basque history. Not bad, and the list is still incomplete.

Back at 309 Water,  something amazing is happening in the gallery upstairs; itself a fairly well kept secret. A cooperative artists exhibition is underway until Dec 23rd, Do You See What I See?. Painter Amber Ledrew-Bonvarlez, nationally recognized potter Wendy Shirran, photographer Patsy Gosse and mixed media artist April Learie share the gallery, taking turns staffing it and producing work right there.

The work on sale runs from whimsical to nostalgic, with Gosse’s chunky, rustic frames adding a  solidness and physicality to her images, and Shirran’s painstaking, unique craft made through a process that involves wax resists, razor thin exacto knives, and a lot of time and care. Small driftwood sculptures and layered paintings often featuring carefully chosen sheet music complete the room. It’s approachable and affordable as galleries go, warm and welcoming.

There should be more shows upcoming in the new year, the Heritage Shop crew having been delighted to have a working artist on site and thus hoping to continue the  program. Like all the projects they have on the go, like our heritage and history itself, they depend on your support, engagement and participaction. Which, in this case, is as easy as heading down and buying a Jam Jam print or two.

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