Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Gary Pattison who runs The Old Hastings Mercantile & Gallery with his wife Lillian in Ormsby, Ont.
What is The Old Hastings Mercantile & Gallery?
We’re a gift store and gallery. We welcome customers with a pretty large selection of goods while also serving a side of history and heritage of the area. The store is housed in an 1880s general store that closed in 1987, in this little ghost town of Ormsby, Ontario—it has a population of 20 people presently. It did have a population of 250 people at the height of its glory days, but that ended after 1900. My ancestors settled in the area in the mid-1800s, and I’ve had connections on and off to the area my whole life.
How did the business get started?
In 1986, I bought a farm near Ormsby, and I’d go to these three churches in the area that had anniversary services with special music. That’s where I met my wife, Lillian. She and her singing trio had come to the churches to perform. I was quite taken with her. We got to know one another and because I was a musician—I play the French horn—and she loves music, I had a leg up on the other suitors. We eventually started dating. But she was in Wilno, which is about four hours from Toronto.
In 1997, the old general store in Ormsby was up for sale. It had been sitting empty for quite some time, so we bought it with the idea that Lillian would sell her business, the Wilno Craft Gallery, and move into the Ormsby general store. Then we could work on it together, enabling us to be closer. So, we sold her business and then worked away on reviving the old general store, and opened it as The Old Hastings Gallery in 2003.
What’s the inspiration behind the name?
It was The Old Hastings Gallery in 2003. My wife’s an artist and singer, so we had in mind that we would be showing a lot of Canadian crafts and art, so calling it a gallery seemed better than a store. But we realized after a while that it didn’t really reflect what we were selling, which was a wide variety of things. Now we have this long, obscure name: The Old Hastings Mercantile & Gallery. We added mercantile because it refers to commerce and there were mercantiles here way back in the day. With our interest in heritage, it seemed like a good fit.
The Old Hastings part comes from the fact that we’re on Old Hastings Road, which is the area’s original settlement road that ran north basically from Belleville right up to Bancroft and beyond. That was the only overland route up to Bancroft. In the 1930s, a new highway went in, Hwy. 62, and Old Hastings Road became a backroad. So, we’re right at the corner of Old Hastings Road and Hwy. 620.
What are some of your more popular products?
We are heavily into Canadian content. We carry the work of more than 100 Canadian artists and craftspeople. Beyond that, we have many small Canadian companies represented. When we order from beyond our borders, we try to keep the inventory traditional and nostalgic. We also create our own offerings, such as artwork, art cards, and CDs.
One of our focuses is to try to be a real destination for the local cottagers and anyone living on the lakes. For example, we have hats embroidered with the name and image of more than 50 different lakes. And that’s just the lakes around us.
In our Cottage Corner upstairs, we have a lot of items that are strictly lake-themed. We try to get things that are unique that you can’t find anywhere else. We have laser-engraved clocks, depth maps, and real works of art for as many lakes as we can keep. And we can special order lakes that haven’t been done. Plus mugs, glassware, and clothing embroidered with the lake name and image that nobody else would have because they’re our own designs.
Beyond that, we try to keep all the local history books that are available. Anything that comes along, we try to get and keep in stock. And finally, the one inevitably popular thing is our candy counter. We have a great penny candy display unit and we try to keep things in there that people remember from when they were kids. We have lots of adults who come in and say, wow, I haven’t seen that since who knows when. And we have a lot of kids coming in and their first stop is always the candy counter.
What are your theme rooms?
There are 11 themed rooms and they offer everything from Canadian arts and crafts, antiques, vintage toys and games, jewelry, local history books, gourmet foods, and cottage-themed gifts and clothing.
We created them to help us organize the store and give people an idea of the variety of things we have. So, the main room is called the Mercantile because it’s the original general store. Then it branches off into the Book and Music Room on one side. Since we’re both musicians, we sell a lot of our friends’ and other local musicians’ CDs. Plus all the local heritage and history books. Then there’s the Garden and Outdoor Room because we have a lot of things for outside and gardening.
In the back room, there’s the Summer Kitchen—the name doesn’t really explain what we sell there, but at one time it was used for cooking in the summer to keep the rest of the house cool. It’s mostly babies’ clothing and gifts. We have a Christmas Room because we wanted to have Christmas stuff year-round. There’s the Little Room Under the Stairs. It’s technically not one of the 11 rooms but it’s great for the kids. It’s set up with books and a chair and small odds and ends, and kids go in there and pretend they’re having a tea party.
And then after 16 years, we eventually opened three rooms upstairs: The Cottage Corner, which as its name implies, focuses on local lakes and cottage items; a Canadian Gallery, which is strictly Canadian art and crafts; and then the 11th Room, which we named just to let people know we have 11 rooms, which sounds kind of impressive. It has quilts and pillows. And then there is one more room, which is outside. The Old Milk Shed. And the slogan for it is Antiques and a few other things. So, the business has taken over most of the building.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
After the initial uncertainty when the pandemic started, it took a while for things to get going, but then we really did feel the support of our customers, both new and old, coming in and supporting local. It got better and better through the season. Normally after Thanksgiving cottagers tend to be gone and there aren’t as many people around, but this year, our fourth quarter was far busier than ever before.
So, the pandemic did not create a real difficulty for the business other than the times we’ve been forced to be closed and there was no real money coming in, but we were able to maneuver through that. Hopefully, the enthusiasm for shopping local will continue.
What does the future look like for The Old Hastings Mercantile & Gallery?
I know a lot of businesses have realized they are going to do more online, but that is not really something that either appeals to us or would be easy to accomplish. We have a lot of one-of-a-kind and unusual offerings, so getting them online would be difficult. Also, shopping at our store goes far beyond making a sale. With our building and our people and our heritage and even the fact that we’re in a ghost town—it’s actually listed in a couple of books as one—it all makes for a complete experience.
To turn that into simply a sale online would be missing so much of what we’re about. We have extensive conversations with individuals and families coming in and remembering the general store. And after 18 years, we actually have kids of kids coming—parents who visited the store when they were kids and are now grown up, bringing their own kids.
Do you have a local business in cottage country? Fill out this survey for your chance to be featured.