This cottager transformed the struggling store of her childhood into the buzz of Georgian Bay


part-time job could have been an unambitious gig, were Lauren Patchett an unambitious person. When Lauren was 16 years old, she took up a summer job, working at a quiet little shop in Honey Harbour, Ont., a 15-minute drive from her family’s cottage. It was meant to be an easy job to fill up the long summer days, something to occupy her time when she wasn’t swimming in the shimmering waters of Georgian Bay or hiking amidst the pine trees, before returning to the city in the fall. A typical job for a teenager. Only a few years later, however, she would own the place.

“I’ll be with you in just a second,” Lauren, now 26, tells me. I’ve just arrived at the Hive, the store that she owns and operates. It’s completely revitalized from the quaint place where she worked as a teenager, warm and spacious, with every item carefully selected and artfully displayed. Our conversation will have to wait, however. Right now, Lauren has customers.

In the short time I’ve been at the store, Lauren has felicitously greeted each shopper by name. “Hi, Miss Davis!” she says as she hugs one woman. Lauren talks to everyone as though they’re the most important person in the room, her large blue eyes never breaking contact with whomever it is she’s currently talking to. I realize it might be a while before she has a spare minute, so I keep busy browsing the merchandise in the store. I make my way through pink grapefruit–scented hair care products and embroidered wall hangings that say Georgian Bayoncé. The store is large and lit with natural light, and it’s filled with the scent of handmade candles. It’s easy to kill time here. Though it’s a late Friday morning, and we are ahead of the true weekend rush, the place is full.

“What’s with the sticker craze?” Claire Russell, the store manager, asks a gaggle of teenage girls sorting through a pile of decals near the cash register.

“We’re going to put them on our water bottles,” one of them says. They’re from a nearby summer camp, making a sojourn out to the store. A mellow, summery tune by an indie band that I recognize but can’t identify is playing over the speakers, and I ask another employee for the name of the song. She smiles and hands me a small square flyer from beside the cash.

“We dig you for diggin’ our tunes,” it reads. “Follow our playlist on Spotify by searching: ‘Hive Vibes.’ ” The music, like everything else, is a detail that contributes to the sophisticated but easygoing atmosphere of the store, an extension of the world Lauren spent the last few years of her life building.

I’d almost forgotten why I’d come to the Hive—I’m there, of course, to interview Lauren—when she approaches me. “I’m ready,” she says. “Should we go to my office?”

The Beehive, as the store was called when it first opened in 1975 under its original owner, Brad Osborne, was a completely different kind of general retail store. The items tended to skew toward the kitschy—though, to be fair, customers seemed to like that. Still, Lauren picks her words carefully when she speaks about the store’s early merchandise.

“They were very ‘Northern’ items. Wooden ducks. Sweatshirts with loons on them,” she says. “And Brad was actually, hilariously enough, this big retailer of Ty Beanie Babies. That’s what I remember as a kid: going to the Beehive to look at Beanie Babies.”

Lauren grew up an only child in Burlington, Ont. “She was a busy girl,” Lauren’s mother, Leslie, tells me. “She always juggled a bunch of after-school activities.” Her father, Doug, is a recently retired pharmaceutical rep, while Leslie spent most of her working life in the hospitality industry. (“Then I walked dogs,” she says. “It was much more relaxing.”) When Lauren was young, her family spent their summers away from the city. By the time Lauren was ready for a summer job, the Beehive fit the bill. The store was looking for more help, and “I knew I wanted to work in Georgian Bay,” says Lauren. By this time, Brad Osborne had retired and had sold the business to Dug (no “o”) Smith. Smith, a friendly, outspoken man (“He was like an uncle,” says Lauren), took over the run of things. The items on the shelves changed—they were more “glammed up,” says Lauren—but the Beehive itself remained the same. The building was something between cute and garish, with pale green walls and yellow trim and large-scale murals of bees. The countertops were hand-painted with flowers. It was charming and quirky. It was also having trouble adapting to the changing tastes of the clientele.

“There was nobody coming through the door anymore,” Lauren recalls about her first summers there. “It didn’t have the lure of the original store. People want to feel like they’re up here, and none of the merchandise reflected that.” Still, Lauren could recognize that the Beehive had potential. “I always knew it had the bones,” she says, “especially being right on the water.” She wanted it to thrive and to have a future, but she realized that some changes would have to be made.

In 2012, Smith put the store up for sale. At this point, Lauren was focussing on school, studying communications at Wilfrid Laurier University. But by the time she graduated, a year later, the Beehive was still on the market. “That same spring, I had nothing lined up for work,” Lauren recalls. “And I didn’t want to give up that lifestyle of going north.” The wheels had started turning: what if she took over the Beehive?

In Burlington, Lauren had worked at a home interior and garden store called Centro. “The concept of the store was bringing green indoors,” she says. “Every detail was thought out. It was beautifully merchandised.” Centro inspired Lauren to see all the potential that a physical retail space could have. “We need brick-and-mortar stores, because there’s just no experience to shopping online,” she says. She wanted to bring her own modern aesthetic sensibilities to the Beehive to help the space live up to the potential she knew it had. In February 2014, after running the idea of buying the store past her parents, she called a meeting with her dad and Dug Smith.

Her parents were surprised at first, she admits, and needed a little convincing; but ultimately they were supportive and ready to help out financially. They were in the process of selling their Burlington home to move up to their cottage full time. Smith’s name initially remained on the lease, but he was willing to rent out the building to Lauren and to give her control of the business. (She took full possession of the building in September 2016.) Lauren’s parents agreed to give her a loan; Lauren would pay a monthly line of credit back to her father on top of monthly rent payments. (The loan from her parents was enough to cover some initial renovations and to buy the stock but not enough to purchase the building.) Once the lease paperwork was signed, Lauren went ahead revitalizing the new Beehive. She donated or discarded all of the existing merchandise. She wanted to start from scratch. “It just needed to be cleaner. I wanted it to be cottagey without having a sign saying, Oh, We’re at the Lake Now, you know?”

The store also needed a reno. “We pretty much gutted the interior,” she says, crediting her then-boyfriend for doing a lot of the grunt work. “We replaced the floor. We took down a couple of walls. We painted the entire building, inside and out.” Neither Lauren nor her boyfriend had any renovation experience, but they were intent on doing as much of the work as they could themselves. “Well,” says Lauren, “there really was no other option. We were just what we had.”

Lauren had no formal business training either, but she taught herself the basics on how to operate a store. “I had to learn by doing it. Understanding inventory—how much to buy and when. How to build a customer base. How to do bookkeeping and accounting and property maintenance. Pretty much everything.” There was no staff initially, beyond Lauren and her boyfriend—she wouldn’t hire a sales team, a bookkeeper, or an accountant until later—though she did ask a friend if she’d be willing to teach an informal yoga class on the dock. Yoga had an appeal for Lauren, and “we wanted to see people doing things in Honey Harbour. We wanted to be more of a hub.” The last major alteration to differentiate the old store from the new was the name. “Something needed to change, and something needed to stay the same,” she says. “I didn’t want to erase all of its history.” In June 2014, at the age of 22, Lauren opened the Hive for business.

In Ontario, you have four months to make it,” says Lauren as we sit across from each other in her large, bright office. It occupies the entire second floor of the Hive, with one wall decorated with framed photos and illustrations. “Or, if you really boil it down, 90 days.” Operating a small seasonal business can be a challenge, even for veteran entrepreneurs, a fact of which Lauren is acutely aware. “That’s the toughest part of the business. You could have a nice May, or it could be terrible. You could have a nice September or October, but it could also be terrible.” Top it off with the additional cottage-country hurdle of the lake (Is the ice out? Can people even get to their cottages?) and “it’s always nerve-wracking,” says Lauren.

She knew it would be hard because she had seen the evidence—the neighbouring stores that had opened for one summer only to be replaced by a different business the next. “A candy store would open, then close. A surf shop was there for one season and gone the next,” says Lauren. “That first summer, I questioned the entire operation.” She was working 75 hours a week, sleeping on her office couch after the late nights. “I was riddled with nerves. I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ ”

Lauren spent the first two off-seasons in California (“I follow the sun”) doing some surfing, some buying, and a little product research. But mostly recharging. Running the Hive “was this intensive six months. Then it was downtime. And everyone I knew would leave to go back to the city,” she recalls. “It was strange. The first two years were a very insecure time for me.”

But she stuck with it. Today, the Hive is thriving—and it’s completely unrecognizable from the place that it used to be. Though it’s still a community hub about which many regulars have sentimental memories, it has undergone a total aesthetic overhaul.

“They get in lots of really unique items,” says Shannon Munro, a nurse at one of the local summer camps. She’s a frequent visitor, and another person Lauren greets by name, and today she has stopped in to browse through the recent clothing arrivals with her 11-year-old daughter.

“The Hive has created a lot of buzz,” Claire Russell, the 24-year-old store manager tells me later, not realizing her own joke. She and I are sitting on a lush, spacious patio behind the store, overlooking the water. Down by the dock, several boats are parked; one of them belongs to Claire herself. She drives her boat the 25 minutes into work from Cognashene every day. I ask if she or Lauren ever has to skip work because bad weather gets in the way. No, never—but Claire does have a good story.

“I got about five feet off the dock one day,” she says, “and something hopped up on the seat next to me. I thought, Oh, it’s my dog but then I realize, Oh my god, my dog’s not here.” She looked over and saw a raccoon on board, seemingly pumped to join her for the day. Definitely more interesting than the subway.

By the time Lauren opened the store for her third season, on Mother’s Day weekend in 2016, she had finally found her footing. “It was only then that I thought, Okay, maybe this is actually going to work,” she says. She had a staff of six that season and felt ready to expand. She added more yoga classes. She revamped an old shed on the Hive’s property into a spa that offers massages, facials, and mani-pedis. Ciboulette et Cie, a popular Midland eatery, opened up a café inside the store and also offers offsite catering for events in Honey Harbour. The Hive has grown from simply being a store into being a Georgian Bay destination, with annual sales numbers up significantly from the Beehive days. And Lauren is officially in the black. By the end of the 2016 season, she had paid off the loan from her parents, and in 2017, she was finally able to start paying herself a salary. “That was good,” says Lauren. “That was a real confidence booster.”

Running a business keeps her busy, but it’s 50, not 75, hours a week now, she says. “It’s definitely a better work-life balance.” Although it’s not as social as life in a city might be, Lauren insists that she doesn’t get lonely. Friends frequently come up to visit, and she welcomes them into her world, sharing her space and spending the night socializing. “Honestly, the whole attitude is ‘come, bring whoever you want, bring your dog.’ The only stipulation is that I’m here all the time,” she says, gesturing around her. “The people that show up are people who are fine to do their own thing during the day. We like to entertain people who entertain themselves,” she says, laughing. “Isn’t that the whole essence of cottaging?” She’s spent the last four years carefully building her own utopia by the lake, and she loves inviting people into it.

Always looking for her next project, Lauren is now thinking about expanding the Hive to a second location. She’s interested in Collingwood (“It’s blowing up, that place”) and hopes to open a store there within the next year. Meanwhile, this summer, she’s collaborating with Sunfish, a small seasonal restaurant that serves dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, to offer pop- up dinner services in a prospector tent on the Hive’s patio. And what’s next for the Hive itself? “With this place?” She pauses to think. “I want to get bigger and improve and expand. But not so much that it changes the roots of the place. It’s easy to get carried away.” She nods, decisively. “Customers who came here as kids now come in and tell me that their own kids are saying, ‘Let’s go to the Hive!’ ” She pauses again. “And that’s really nice to hear.”

Anna Fitzpatrick is a Toronto-based writer and editor. This is her first assignment for Cottage Life magazine.

This story originally appeared in the Early Summer 2018 issue of Cottage Life.

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