We all have them — heck, you may even be one yourself. You know, just the most difficult person to buy for on your holiday shopping list. They’ve got the first edition of Wuthering Heights. They even have a pair of Air Jordan XIV’s in mint condition, signed. Oh, and they already know how to sail, so don’t bother getting them lessons. Recently, OurFaves quizzed Joyce Lo, the co-owner and co-curator of The Drake Hotel General Store, a shop filled with curiosities that are more tongue-in-cheek than run-of-the-mill. Lo spilled the beans on why shopping for the person who has it all isn’t impossible … it’s just a creative challenge.
OurFaves: So tell us about The General Store. What makes it so different from other gift shops?
Joyce Lo: We have vintage items here and we do a little Canadian talent. In every company, we find something. We don’t tend to stock too much from one company. We merchandise everything kind of all together in the shop. It really is like a journey in the store. There’s a story as you go through the store. This one, Bathurst Street in particular, focuses more on clothing. Queen Street has the most antiques out of all the shops. So they’re a little different.
OF: How did it all start?
JL: We (Lo’s business partner is Carlo Colacci) had a shared pop-up shop on Queen Street and that’s how we met Jeff Stober who owns the hotel.
OF: How do you curate all of the unique items in the store?
JL: We do markets, we do research online, we go to trades hows. You name it, we do it. We do markets all over Ontario in the summertime and we do gift shows in New York and Canada. The best thing is just researching online, feeling what people are doing. We try and find a small companies, companies that can’t afford to do trade shows. Those are the kinds of companies that are finds for us.
OF: Where are some of the funner places you’ve been to find merchandise for The General Store?
JL: I made a trip to Nicaragua one summer and came back with some matches. Wherever we go, we find stuff. But the beauty is it never lasts in the store. So you kind of always need to keep coming back. A lot of things are here for a couple of weeks and then they’re gone, never to be found here again.
OF: What would you say is your biggest challenge as owner and curator?
JL: I think for us, it’s always keeping in mind that it is a hotel gift shop even though in this particular shop, we’re not attached to the hotel. But just kind of making sure that we always have that travel theme because that’s where our roots are — a hotel gift shop.
OF: Do you have a customer in the back of your mind when you go on buying trips?
JL: For sure. Our customer has a sense of humour and is looking for things that are different. And there’s no age group for our customer, there’s no gender. The one thing that I find is different at our shop is that I find a lot of gift shops are geared towards women, or are very techy and geared towards men. So we really try and stay gender-neutral so that men and women feel comfortable being here.
OF: Being a pro shopper, is holiday shopping an easier task for you?
JF: Definitely, Christmas shopping is a little bit easier for me. But being in retail, it’s also a little bit harder because when everyone’s taking their break, we are working our hardest.
OF: What are the most popular items for the holidays at The General Store?
JL: Probably the CBC kit bag. They’re made by a Canadian company and they collaborate with the CBC to do bags, so they do the CBC messenger bag and the larger kit bag which is great because everyone loves the CBC. (Photos courtesy of The Drake Hotel General Store)
The design-your-own dinner set is a super hot item. It’s for kids to kind of paint their own pattern and then they bake it in the oven and it sets. I know as a kid, I had my own plate. It was a crappy plate but it was my plate and nobody ate off of my plate.
The make-your-own matryoshka dolls are also super popular. So you can either give it to someone creative or you can do it for them. You can do your friends, you can do your family. Our clientele is definitely a little bit more artsy, so do-it-yourself is popular.
OF: What’s your favourite item that you’ve ever found for the store?
JL: That’s so hard because there are so many things. It was probably something vintage and I can’t remember it now. But when I find vintage items, I get a little attached because I know there’s only one. So when someone buys it, it’s always a little sad.
OF: When you go on buying trips, do you tend to buy for yourself?
JL: Well the beauty of being a buyer is that now, I don’t really buy much for myself. I kind of channel my “I love to shop” and now it’s kind of like therapy for me. I’m still shopping but I’m not amassing tons of personal stuff. Especially with antiques because I can buy antiques all day long. I love it when they find a good home and knowing it’s one-of-a-kind or one-of-a-few is the best thing.
OF: How would you describe your average customer?
JL: They’re definitely looking for something special, but that is probably the only thing that we all have in common because we get all sorts of people in here. It just goes to show that most people are looking for something special, more than you think. Our customer probably isn’t so eager to go to the mall.
OF: So The General Store is almost a one-stop shop for people looking to cross the person who has everything off their list.
JL: Definitely. It’s good for the person who has everything. The beauty is high versus low here. We made “Xmas Crack” and it’s just crushed peppermint. It’s cute and it’s only $3. You’re not going to find that anywhere.
OF: Do you have any tips for stressed shoppers sweating the fact that there’s only one weekend left until Christmas?
JF: I find as long as you make a list and you can kind of pick four key places to go, you’re good. But if you try and stretch yourself here, there, everywhere, that’s when it starts to get stressful. I’m probably buying my gifts in three spots and I’m going to do everything in those three spots. And then next Christmas, it will be another three spots.
OF: What’s on your shopping list this year?
JL: I’m getting The Drake Granola for a lot of people this year just because it’s made in the cafe and the granola there is delicious. And I find that gifts that people can actually use tend to be just better in the end. People can eat this and they have this jar and it’s got a great label and it’s only $9. And mixed with the (honey) bear, that’s a gift that’s under $20, which is amazing.
Photographs and interview by Maria Cootauco