101-year-old pet supply store has survived pandemics, world wars and recessions

·5 min read
101-year-old pet supply store has survived pandemics, world wars and recessions

Over the course of its 101 years, Fairplay Pet Supply has become well-versed in weathering tough times.

Since opening in 1919 it has withstood the Spanish Flu, two world wars, a polio outbreak, the Great Depression, provincial recessions and the flood of 2013.

In 2020, it faces another curve ball: the COVID-19 pandemic that has dealt an economic blow to local businesses.

According to owner Christine Nurse, it's nothing the store can't handle.

"My family and I were talking about it, [and] saying, 'You know, think about what Fairplay has gone through and seen,'" she said. "We personally weren't here, but the store is a survivor."

The gun range and house of ill-repute

Fairplay Pet Supply was first located on Memorial Drive and 10th Street N.W., and built with wooden floors and beautiful tin ceilings.

The store's ownership changed four times before her aunt and uncle bought it in 1962, and that was when Nurse's involvement began.

"I basically grew up in the store," she said. "I used to come … and help my aunt and uncle out. All of us kids did. We have really fond memories."

Supplied by Fairplay Pet Supply
Supplied by Fairplay Pet Supply

The building had a colourful history: the basement was a gun range, while the upstairs consisted of suites that she remembers being described as "a house of ill-repute."

And at its current location on Kensington Road, that history lives on through its longtime customers, who regale current employees with old stories.

"We have some customers here that are second- or third-generation Fairplay customers, and the employees like to visit and hear some of the stories that they have," Nurse said.

Working through pressure

Nurse's father bought the store from her aunt and uncle 10 years after they acquired it, and eventually, he passed it down to her in 1995.

She credits building and maintaining relationships with customers as a huge part of the store's enduring success.

"I think all of us really enjoy our customers, and we all like to hear what their story is," Nurse said.

But taking over a long-standing family business presented its own pressures for Nurse, who said she has feared the legacy of the store would end under her ownership.

"It used to be overwhelming before we hit the 100 years, because you always read about [how] there's always a generation in a family business that doesn't carry it through, and I didn't want to be that generation," Nurse said.

"Before the 100-year anniversary, and any time there was a little bit of a slowdown, there's pressure. But then the people before me, I know that they all felt pressure.

"So, you just go. You just have to work through it, and you have to rely on the people around you."

Moving through it

During the COVID-19 pandemic, that mindset has continued for Nurse.

Restrictions have come and gone and come again; the store has been able to continue in part because it's so large, Nurse said.

At 15 per cent of its fire code occupancy, it can still accommodate 20 people. And so, they have just done what they've always done, and worked through it.

But for Nurse, relying on those around her has been key.

"At first it was uncertainty, so I wasn't sure how we were going to move forward through it. But I'm surrounded by individuals who have common sense … [and] the employees have done so much to support me through the tough times," she said.

A store-wide dedication to cleanliness, and taking the pandemic seriously, allowed the staff at Fairplay to work together and overcome stressors.

"We didn't want anybody to get sick, we didn't want to make our customers sick. But I have some employees that are … very good at sanitizing, I'll tell you. So that helped," Nurse said.

"Our customers have been so supportive and patient. When this started, this was all new to us. We had no idea what we were doing, and we were trying really hard ... and I think we got it together, and we were able to come up with a very serious protocol for running the store during the pandemic."

A true testament

For her part, Nurse is not likely to give herself credit for the store's enduring success.

She is proud of what she has accomplished at Fairplay, and for taking on the pandemic — but it has been done with support from her husband, employees and customers, she said.

"I don't typically give myself a pat on the back," Nurse said. "It's just how I've been brought up … I also give kudos to the people around me."

Terri Trembath/CBC
Terri Trembath/CBC

When it comes to what role Nurse has played in Fairplay's longevity, Lesley Thomas — who has worked at Fairplay for 25 years — is more effusive.

She said that Nurse's longtime history with the customers, her business savvy, and her collaborative approach with employees have given the store a tremendous advantage.

"Over the 101 plus years that they've been in there, you know, Christine's family has basically owned it the longest," Thomas said.

"It shows a true testament to how to run a business, and she's an intelligent woman who knows what she wants, and has done very well."