By Jerry Soverinsky
As I sat on a weathered bench, savoring the remaining bites of my lobster sandwich, my eyes drifted down a road that hugged a wooded coastline. A bald eagle coasted overhead. Only the sound of a pickup truck pulling up to the fuel dispenser in front of me brought me out of my near hypnotic state.
Such was the course of events durÂing my recent visit to the convenience store in Wreck Cove, Nova Scotia, a 33-year-old general store that leverÂages all of the retailing skills of its owner, establishing itself as not just a fuel stop along the popular Cabot Trail, but a renowned destination for food, general merchandise and most important â€" community.
With its population of "maybe 20 peoÂple, depending on your boundary," acÂcording to one local, Wreck Cove shouldnâ€™t support a thriving, bricks-and-mortar business. Logic says that most people would be passing through it on the way to someplace else.
Some would be heading 12 miles north, golf clubs in tow, to Highlands Links Golf Course, a world-ranked course in Ingonish Beach. Others would be visiting the nearby Cape Briton Highlands National Park, an expansive, pristine wilderness offerÂing unrivaled outdoor activities. Still others might be motoring around the Cabot Trail, a 180-mile stretch of spectacular cliff scenery.
For any of those purposes, a gasoline station and convenience store in Wreck Cove would be a happenstance stop â€" one prompted more by fuel concerns than any gastronomic or social motivaÂtions. Which made it all the more inÂtriguing for meâ€¦
The first thing you notice when pullÂing into the Wreck Cove General Storeâ€™s (WCGS) driveway is Marcelle Lavoie, the storeâ€™s fit, 54-year-old, silver-haired owner, who during my visit was recording gasoline sales by hand onto a miniature notepad (minÂutes later, she was inside visiting with customers congregated at communal tables, drinking coffee).
Lavoie grew up in a c-store family in a prairie town in Manitoba. Her grandfaÂther opened his first store in 1912, where he worked for a quarter of a century, folÂlowed by her father who worked there for 35 years. Lavoie worked on and off at the store since she was a teen, before moving to Nova Scotia in 1972. She opened WCGS just a few years later, her small-town values an integral part of her business approach.
"I talk to every customer," Lavoie said, who switches with ease between French and English, depending on her clientele. "Interaction is important, esÂpecially in a small community."
From an aesthetic standpoint, WCGS is an anomaly in the Nova ScoÂtia convenience store industry, where conformity seems to be the standard. Of Nova Scotiaâ€™s 856 convenience stores, the majority resembles the cookie-cutter, chain variety. But when Lavoie moved to the province and decided to open her own store, she decided to risk the untested.
"When I opened the store, I wanted to do it my way," Lavoie explained, who seamlessly integrated granite floors, wood walls and ceilings, a generous asÂsortment of plants, and even a rocking chair into her store â€" the result of which is a fresh, architecturally pleasing space thatâ€™s inviting and comfortable.
"The interior of the store [feels] comÂfortable due to the wood walls and stone floor," Lavoie said. "People exhale when they come in and tend to stay a while."
Once inside, visitors are met by an assortment of foods that move well beÂyond convenience staples like gum and candy. Indeed, not long after opening WCGS, Lavoie decided to sell premium lobster sandwiches, a summer-only treat that incorporates fresh-caught lobster and locally baked bread. Theyâ€™ve become a cult favorite here and in other parts of the world, with editorial mentions coming from as far away as Germany.
"The sandwiches today have evolved just a bit from our first ones," Lavoie said. "Todayâ€™s are only a half [sandÂwich], we used to sell a whole â€" for just $2.98 â€" but it was really too big for peoÂple to finish. So we sell just a half today." (Let me tell you, itâ€™s worth every bit of its $8.95 price.)
But WCGS is more than just its sigÂnature sandwich item. Its snacks rival the organic selection at a small Whole Foods, with fair trade products in abundance. It stocks all of the food baÂsics, along with fishing and hunting liÂcenses, maps and books, music, local art and clothing.
The clothing is not of the impulse Âpurchase-t-shirt-variety, either. Fifty-dollar genuine Souâ€™wester hats and $300 oilcloth raincoats are perfectly in place here and far from showpieces.
"We sold out quickly of our beginÂning order [of eight $300 raincoats]," said Lavoie, proud that customers who initially sought little more than a bottle of water left with a handsome NewÂfoundland coat.
"Itâ€™s a great store," said a visitor from Boston, who was on a golfing trip, stayÂing at a resort 20 minutes away. "Iâ€™ve been here three times this week; thereâ€™s more than you expect. You always stay a few minutes to look around."
Less than a decade after opening, WCGS started selling motor fuels. "The majority of the people passing through are tourists, and it just made sense to [sell gasoline]," Lavoie explained.
Today, gasoline accounts for roughly 50 percent of Lavoieâ€™s sales, though itâ€™s a loss leader, as far as sheâ€™s concerned. "Thereâ€™s hardly any profit in gasoline sales in Nova Scotia," Lavoie explained, "and for the few pennies that I do make [on a gallon of gasoline], nearly all of that is lost to credit card fees," costs she estimated at roughly $4,000 per year.
In addition to interchange fee frusÂtrations, Nova Scotia retailers also face significant challenges in the alcohol and tobacco categories. Few Nova Scotia convenience retailÂers sell beer and wine, which is generÂally handled by dedicated, government-run stores. Lavoie said that she could apply for a special license to sell alÂcohol, but the license would cost "much more" than she could earn on alcohol sales.
As for tobacco, a recent law prohibÂits Canadian convenience stores from displaying and advertising tobacco products. Theyâ€™re housed behind unÂadorned fixtures, drawers or curtains that offer no hint to consumers that toÂbacco products are even sold, which has created a "dark" tobacco market in Canada. Sales are made through a Q&A exchange between customers and reÂtailers as to whatâ€™s on-hand. ("Do you have a pack of Marlboros?" "Yes.")
Additionally, except for a few cities, Nova Scotia â€" and Cape Breton in parÂticular â€" is sparsely populated, with less than 3 percent of Canadaâ€™s populaÂtion. And since 2004, Canadaâ€™s c-store industry has been in steady decline, losing on average 2 percent of its store totals each year, according to the CanaÂdian Convenience Store Association.
As if those challenges arenâ€™t enough for Lavoie, her profit-earning season is markedly short on Cape Breton IsÂland (a four-hour drive from Halifax), running from June to mid-October.
During the low season, WCGS morphs into an intimate gathering place of "locals." Many come by snowÂmobile and most tend to linger at one of the storeâ€™s welcoming tables, sipping espresso or cappuccino. Itâ€™s a much more intimate season for her and her customers and one that creates a strong sense of community, a transformation that supersedes its business practicalÂity. (Lavoie concedes that the store breaks even at best during that period.)
As to her storeâ€™s longevity and success in spite of these odds, Lavoie begins her explanation by ticking off retailÂing basics.
"My father taught me to keep a clean store. Order, good organization, never talking about customers â€" these were golden rules," she said. "My location...at the foot of the Highlands . . . is a big factor . . . I have a bathroom, coffee, all the little necessities that tend to our basic needs. I have a large parking lot with straight approaches from both directions and good visibility from both directions."
Those factors, of course, explain the steady stream of newcomers who hapÂpen by Lavoieâ€™s store. As for the storeâ€™s generous group of regulars, itâ€™s easy to understand her thoughts on them as she describes her business philosophy.
"All of us who work [here] have a sincere pleasure in meeting people," Lavoie said. "This has been my biggest joy; getting to know people. There are people in my community who have come into my store every day for 33 years. We tend to be natural in our greetings because we like what we do, and people feel that. I want people to hang around, feel at home and stay a while."
It is these genuine, personal relationÂships that continue to motivate this c-store lifer, whose definition of success expands beyond the bottom line.
"If someone feels better for having come into my store, to me that is a sign of success. ...In general, if weâ€™re happy, we make everyone around us happy," Lavoie said, before adding instructively, "But it has to be sincere, and natural."
Jerry Soverinsky is a freelance writer living in Chicago. He is also a NACS Magazine and NACS Daily contributÂing writer.