Stewart Scriver
Courage My Love, A Work in Process
KENSINGTON MARKET HAS BEEN A MARKET AND A COMMUNITY in Toronto since
the
late 1800s. It has developed its unique character fed by waves of
immigrants from all over the world and still feeds the city in various
ways. The crowded streets host tourists on patios taking in the sights,
food shoppers, artists, suburban sightseers, and in the 1980s the old
houses on one of the market streets, Kensington Avenue, took on a new life as Jewish food and clothing businesses moved out and a mix of Portuguese food shops, Asian cafés and vintage clothing stores took over.
The first vintage clothing store was Courage My Love in 1980. It moved
from its original location at 60 Cecil Street because of awindfall in
the form of a draper; David Dordick, who longed for more time to play
his violin, decided that Stewart Scriver and Patricia Roy should buy
his building at 14 Kensington Avenue. That decided, he made them an offer
they could not refuse. In their typical freewheeling optimistic way,
Patricia and Stewart went looking for stock to fit their space and three hours later had purchased and loaded into their VW bus the entire contents of Leon’s Menswear from Queen Street West. Another original vintage dealer was Jim Pope, a visitor from New Zealand, who opened a store at Queen Street East and Parliament. Old stuff, antiques, clothes and Jim’s good taste drew a clientele to a then grubby run-down part of Toronto. Jim’s future partner, Lana Lowen (now running the design studio Lowen and Pope) bought the vintage clothing business Amelia Erhardt, which had been opened by Sandy Stagg in 1968-69 (she now sells vintage clothing in Portobello Road Market in London, U.K.). Lana took this business from Charles Street to Yorkville Avenue.
Yorkville had evolved from a low rent student and artist residential
neighbourhood to a coffee house and hippie hangout and then on to a
trendy upscale boutique area.
PATRICIA ROY WAS A BORN BARGAIN HUNTER. While teaching art in Toronto
public schools she opened and closed a series of stores. She was much
more adept at buying than selling. Her first store was The Captain’s
Cupboard in 1963 at Balmuto and Cumberland in the pre-trendy Yorkville
area. She then opened another below her brother Michael’s underground
newspaper Gorilla, in 1968 called The Way It Was. There were others.
Stewart Scriver’s past experiences included the Hudson Bay Company’s
Northern Stores Department, which included buying fur from trappers in
trading posts, a job in the oil fields of Alberta and Saskatchewan, a
tourist guide in Mexico, the R.C.A.F. and finally teaching, where he
met Patricia. The move away from teaching began in 1971 when Stewart, in a
conversation with the curator of the Textile Department of the Royal
Ontario Museum, volunteered to try to find a few pieces for an upcoming show. After
travelling in Peru, teaching didn’t have the same appeal as before.
In 1975 Stewart and Pat rented a one-and-a-half storey building at 60
Cecil Street across from Grossman’s Tavern. Grossman’s was the first
licensed dining room in Toronto. It served a rich mix of Eastern
European workers, artists, students, and hosted some up-and-coming blues
and rock bands that drew a raucous partying crowd and added to the
area’s international and artistic flavour. At this time there was not a
self-consciousness about good or bad economics. Rent was low and what
Courage sold was almost free. The optimism of the 60s infected everyone
and if you entertained people you were considered a success.
The building at 60 Cecil Street was unheated with no plumbing. The floor
had rotted. A cement floor was poured, a deal was made with a
neighbourhood pizza place for the use of their bathroom, the three rooms
were filled with clothing, dishes and furniture, and much to everyone’s
surprise, a wildly successful Toronto institution was created which
would eventually be known worldwide. Antiques weren’t recognized or
collected by many and they had little or no value in the general market.
Toronto was a treasure house waiting to be discovered. Shopping was fun
and more people were escaping their desks and trying antiques and
vintage clothing or just about anything different.
TORONTONIANS WERE BECOMING AWARE of shopping and recreational
collecting. The Courage family then decided to expand the hunt beyond
Salvation Army and Goodwill stores and they decided to monopolize a
source no one else seemed to have noticed: the general stores of rural
Canada. These old family-run businesses were loaded with amazing things.
Small towns were marked off on a map and over four years between 1976
and 1980 every small community
between Montreal and Toronto was visited and what was found was worth
all the travelling. The second and third and sometimes fourth generation
of general-store owners were finding it hard to compete as chain stores
and malls appeared everywhere. People had become more mobile and styles
changed quickly.
Because of the large size of most general-store buildings these
practical people hadn’t thrown out anything at all. There were baskets,
boots, lamps, Edwardian suits, Gibson Girl bathing suits and bathing
shoes, children’s shoes, hand made lace and moccasins. Sometimes even
the owners were surprised at what came out of their attics.
The city of Montreal was also an incredible source of old clothes with
all its tie, hat, shirt, and other dry goods factories and wholesalers.
We quickly learned what Canada did not make any more as we worked our
way through the industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. It was surprising, the quality and diversity of the things
Canadians made and sold; hardly anything had been imported till about 1940.
Our next big find was the Toronto rag houses. They had started around
1905. Wiseman’s opened on Wolseley Street in the Bathurst Street and
Queen Street West area and is still operating, but in a different
location. Not long after, H. Salb opened on River Street.
There were many smaller ones all over the downtown Toronto area. They
weren’t the computerized big businesses operating now. They were big
Victorian buildings with wooden floors and big wooden beams. People
carried and pushed bales of clothes and stood beside
big piles of clothes and sorted them into barrels. It was an educational
process for the people who sold vintage clothes as they worked their way
through discarded family histories: Victorian and Edwardian dresses and
undergarments; more ladies’ than men’s and
children’s clothes; wonderfully rich handmade coverlets and blankets;
imported silks, hand-knitted socks, 1920s flapper gear. There seemed to
be no end to what was available at fifty cents a pound.
The rags were a business hidden from most people because this was the
end for most of these clothes. They were being shipped to Third World
countries, being cut into rags for machine shops and for mechanics’
rags, or shredded for felt. The amount sold to vintage clothing dealers
wasn’t a significant part of their income and as more people linked into
this source, the quality and availability of good re-saleable stock went
from twenty percent to about two percent today.
Although finding a treasure every time became a distant memory, the
occasional find is what keeps everyone in the business interested in
searching. The prices at the rag houses went up
slowly. The people from Courage My Love became really good at
“picking”,
so much so that it was thought they had secret preferential treatment.
One dealer with visions of becoming rich
told H. Salb that he would pay double for the things Courage got. So
although the price doubled everything remained the same. Many more
dealers would cause the same item’s price to rise, never finding out
till much later that you had to have a nose for good stuff and a sense
of what people wanted. Courage sold everything. There was a feeling that
if it was fun, inexpensive and useful, it fit in the shop.
COURAGE MY LOVE WAS A REALLY DISORGANIZED AND FUN place to work.
Stewart
remembers the day when his mother, who worked for Revenue Canada at that
time, phoned to tell him how much the business owed the government.
Nobody had bothered to keep receipts and did not realize that the
government would not just believe that he really had spent the money on
the business. That was also the year that the car was sold to pay the
electric bill. The fact that the store survived was by willpower alone.
The idea of selling people’s discards seemed to make so much sense and
yet very few people had any idea how wasteful society was getting. It
seemed almost an elegant art form to resell and recycle good quality
things at a reasonable price in a non-aggressive manner. It was not
planned, it just seemed the right thing to do. The store became part
shopping destination and part club house. It was a nice safe place to
send the kids.
At one point a foreman at Teperman’s Demolition would call the store
just before a house was torn down and the Courage gang would have one to
two hours to rescue anything out before the crew started. Furniture,
doors, dishes and clothes were hauled out. Once when the old Brown
School was being torn down a truckload of pine cupboards was saved. One
was sold for ten dollars on the way home to buy gas for the truck.
The entrepreneurial spirit has always been alive at Courage. The first
really big business break came in 1978. In preparation for the Olympics
in Los Angeles, all outside filming was cancelled and Toronto became the
alternate location for movies. With Patricia’s
almost photographic mind for fashion and Stewart’s joy in buying and
selling they were set. The first time someone came into the store and
said movies, Stewart said that they did costumes. Courage became a
valuable source for costumes and props. Years later, feeling guilty
about the exaggeration, Stewart confessed to now wardrobe mistress Kathy
Viera that they had never actually done any costumes at that time. Kathysaid, “Me too.”
Courage has always survived by being able to change rapidly. No one knew
that the 1980s were the good old days till the recession of the 90s came
along. Down times were weathered, the move to 14 Kensington Avenue was
accomplished, a corporation was formed, and the family started to travel
and shop outside of Canada. Beads and buttons were searched out. First,
the United States, then Africa, Asia and Mexico.
There is a lack of good garbage in Third World countries. Things wear
faster in hot and humid climates and people do not discard clothes as
readily as in North America. Mexico still has a lot of good vintage
clothing (as it is now known, along with the term “dead stock” which
means unsold and unused vintage) but dealers in other countries prefer
more profitable and slicker American goods. In 2003 a closed glove and
hat factory was found in Mexico City and along with hundreds of
artificial flowers, five thousand pairs of hand-sewn cotton and rayon
gloves from the 1940s and 50s were shipped to Toronto.
Our travelling never seems to have a plan, but one day we would be
tracking down the top amber dealer in the jungles of the Dominican
Republic or travelling to unknown bead-makers in Java, trading with
Kachin people from the highlands of Burma for their handwoven wool
shawls and scarves, or Chin tribesmen from interior Burma for their
valuable stone and amber beads, or old European, Russian, or Chinese
trade beads. Export is easy. If you
have the paperwork done properly anything can be shipped. Shipping
agents are paid who probably hand the right people money for the proper
documentation. The children of the
Courage family travelled everywhere with their parents and the
grandchildren are travelling with grandma and grandpa now.
THROUGH ALL THIS COMMERCE, used clothing has remained the solid
standard. Stewart and Patricia still have a problem saying “vintage.”
All the clothes are still handpicked, cleaned, and repaired. Every
quirky fashion has so far returned. Who would have thought flared pants
would make a comeback, or those over designed belts inspired by Dynasty?
One customer recently requested Who’s The Boss clothes. So it wasn’t a
mistake buying all those wide-shouldered polyester pant suits. The
overflow is always stored at the family farm.
Once racoons were born in un-noticed boxes of hat flowers. Once 3500
purses were purchased and two dozen fold over plastic Elvis Presley
purses from 1956 livened up a few customers’ lives.
In 1995 with yet another upwards turn in the world economy, Japanese,
German and Dutch pickers appeared and along with a few young local
entrepreneurs started to pick and ship all the clothes Courage had been
leisurely mining from all over Eastern Canada. It was quite a shock to
lose all those sources and in five years most of it was gone and no one
seemed to have much to show for it. It was another harsh lesson in the
Canadian way of business.
Today there has been another shift. Name brands are being rejected by
many who can afford them. Some stores handle expensive label used
clothes. Courage does the same but has a
much wider range of clothes with a “look” in mind. There are used label
(e.g. Gap) stores also. Courage now sells traditional clothes from India
and Indonesia. Antique blankets, sarongs,
scarves and tribal saris, some of which are very expensive new, are
pennies used and just begging to be turned into delicate flowing tops
and skirts.
THE STORE IS CONSTANTLY changing focus and it is hard to find the items
from one week to the next as new stock appears daily. To buy or not
depends on price and saleability and future saleability. Family
discussions often reduce prices. One exception was the purchase of 300
sets of formal tails. The price was set at sixty-five dollars to stop
other stores from buying them all. You can still find snoods (those
thick hair nets from the 1940s) but sadly the rats sold out (the rolls
put into the back of hair in the 1930s and 40s to give that fat hair
look). You can still find Jaws logo stockings and the supply of seamed
nylons has not run out yet.
The customers have not changed at all. Everyone has gotten ten years
older and the Courage style continues. Fashion and fun can carry a
business a long way. It’s too simple for most retailers to understand.
If people think they have gotten good value, that seems to be enough.
Everyone has their own idea of good value. Some of the seemingly endless
supplies are running out but recently a supplier was found outside of
Canada who is making good reproductions of 1960s gloves. 1950s bras are
still being made in Mexico for a population, some of which is
genetically predisposed to fitting into pointy bras. Someday someone
will want the thirteen thousand 1940s shirt collars still languishing in
the barn (well maybe).
The bedrock of the business was and is to sell for the lowest possible
price. If anything lacked integrity it was rejected and still is. There
is a loyal clientele who often straighten first-timers out on the “no
bargaining” rule or the “be tidy and return your clothes to the rack,
straight and colour-coded” rule. Courage has stayed in business because
it stayed in fashion. Patricia and daughter Felice have the uncanny
knack of being able to forecast fashion trends and also inventing and
making clothes and accessories. Felice Scriver now manages Courage and
is sought out by actors, fashion editors, directors and music video
artists. She has also worked in movies as an artist, a props person and
in costumes.
Formal wear is also a big part of the clothes sold daily. Every waiter
knows where to go to get cummerbunds, bow ties, shirts, shirt studs and
tux jackets that they can afford. Having suits, shirts, ties and as much
men’s wear as possible has also worked well. The huge tie offering goes
to collectors world wide. Models, actresses and actors, even one of the
Governor Generals caused a traffic tie-up to shop at Courage. Diane
Keaton made return trips. Deborah Harry and The Edge from U2 visited the
store. And the lead singer from Destiny’s Child bought earrings for a
cover shot. Being face to face with Maggie Smith was charming and Ben
Kingsley wanted to know how to wash something. Shelley Winters wanted a
Greek Fisherman’s hat and when one was picked off the floor she twirled
around and said, “It was meant to be.”
There is such a full range of customers that a day in the life of the
store is almost too much stimulation. There are thrifty buyers,
immigrants who are making every penny count. There are really needy
people who need their lives lived for them. Theme party shoppers are
sometimes fun. Many accessory buyers show up to get that perfect piece
or earrings to set off an outfit. Fashion victims are always looking for
something they have seen in a magazine or on a movie star. Many
desperate searchers are so grateful when they realize the search is
over. There are some who go to a new level of consciousness when they
realize THE CLOTHES ARE USED. If they resist the urge to run away they
usually have fun. There have been marriage proposals at the cashier
counter. One couple wondering what to do about their
relationship turned the corner, saw the sign, and had “Courage My Love”
on their wedding cake.
Museums like Parks Canada or The Bata Shoe Museum have been customers.
Movies are a good source of pleasure and income. Interesting,
stimulating for all the odd requests and no matter if it’s great art or
junk, everyone gets paid. Collectors are a pain or a pleasure. Some
bring the gift of new knowledge and a vibrant interest in obscure
fields. One collector who was in a category of his own was the late Alan
Suddon. He was the over-enveloping brain of Canadian fashion. A man
whose generosity, patience and humour touched everyone involved in
used,vintage, antique, collectable, historic or modern fashion. He is missed.
Who can you call to answer those obscure fashion questions now? Alan made the
occasional attempt to clear out parts of his mammoth collection.
Courage
was often the recipient of “a bag of stuff left over from a sale.” In
one of those bags was a 1930s overcoat with a note in the pocket. It
gave directions to Joe to pick up the girls “’cause tonight there was a
run to the border to meet Bugsy.” Alan had penned the note for the
pleasure of others.
A lot of energy has gone into the buying of historic clothing. Finding
an imperial Chinese robe or a wonderful early quilt just refreshes the
appetite for the hunt. Finding those treasures has been so much fun, and
passing them on to an enthusiastic clientele is so much fun, that making
money becomes unimportant as the family and staff almost cheered at the
start of a busy day at work.
In the early 1980s Courage worked with Parks Canada buyers for the
restoration of the Minister of Agriculture’s 1913 farm home in
Saskatchewan. We provided draperies, girls’ shoes, slips, dresses,
rubber boots and other household things. The church at Batoche in
Northern Saskatchewan was restored to the day of the final battle of
The Riel Rebellion. Priests’ robes with the original lace from a St.
Boniface, Manitoba, convent appeared at the right time and the
heart-shaped candle holder taken as a souvenir by a soldier was also
found in Ontario. Shoes were sold to the Bata Shoe Museum and Stewart
had a second chance to marvel at the beautiful hand sewn multicoloured
children’s kid shoes and the men’s and boys’ shoes with bulbous toes
and ladies’ t-strap evening shoes from 1928, all in original boxes “Made in Canada.”

COURAGE NOW HAS THREE banana boxes of clippings and about twenty “Best
Vintage Clothing Store” awards. In March 1982, The Financial Post
Magazine described the business as one that had done well in the
recession. Courage has been featured in every major magazine and
newspaper in Canada, and a few in Asia and Europe as well, as a unique
shop to find great stuff at great prices. National Geographic Travel,
April 2003, described Courage My Love as one of the must-see places on a visit to Toronto.Courage has never solicited favours from the media and
has a rule: “Don’t believe anything anyone writes about you, good or bad.”Co-operation
with the media has attracted mostly positive attention.
The employees are part of the charm of shopping at Courage. People are
not hired because of their sales ability, but because they are
enthusiastic about the stuff and are positive when dealing with people.
They are instructed never to “sell” anything, but to help, tell the
truth and make sure the customer is happy when they leave the store,
whether they have bought anything or not. Staff who excel are treated
to trips and are encouraged to learn new skills and
even to return to school. Staff tend to stay from one, to five, or more
years. Once the owner of the Miss Emma stores said that Courage My Love
should get a medal for all the kids they keep off the streets. Most of
the staff have gone on to creative careers and to careers in law and
medicine. More and more family are involved, employing at times mothers,
nieces, nephews, sons, daughters and granddaughters. The youngest is now
ten and the oldest eighty-four.
Felice Scriver has been a fashion guide since she was eleven years old.
Her parents followed her through world markets buying whatever she
thought was cool. Felice has often had her grandmother Edith Scriver or
her mom, Patricia, make something for her and promise not to copy it
for the store for at least a few months. One of Felice’s awakenings came at
a birthday when she asked for something new. She received a new dress,
got it dirty, and cried when it was washed because it wasn’t new.
Patricia, Stewart and Edith had been teachers and were awake early in
the morning, but they decided to change the pattern when it looked like
the store was going to be a part of their life. They decided to open at
11:30 am and close at 6:00 pm. They have always lived above the store,
or close by, so that the family was never sidelined, but always
included in the business.
When hundreds of people are seen shopping at Courage every week, it is
difficult to remember that the idea of selling used clothes was
developed from the feeling that people should
consume less. It is still the idea. There is still a good feeling in
recycling discards. The sources for the vintage stock are still the
same and the work is still very much hands-on and reinforced
daily by the smiles and comments of the customers.
The type of stock is still the same, with a few changes.Vintage clothes and accessories silver jewellery from Mexico and Asia, handmade buttons on cards, handmade new and antique beads, handicrafts — textiles and
wood — old lamps and lighting fixtures, anything that’s fun, useful and inexpensive.

FINALLY, the most frequently asked question is about the bathroom and
the second is “Where did you get the name for the store?” When the
first store was rented on Cecil Street the sign said Lee Sang’s Hand Laundry.
A cute sign, but not the image Pat and Stewart wanted to portray. After
a few false starts, a wonderful friend, Rosemary Kelly, later manager of
Courage, said, “Hey, why don’t you call it Courage My Love?” Why not?
Over the years the store and the family lifestyle have merged and when asked “How did
you do this?” the replies are still the same:
“If you want to be a success, pick something you like, or, better
still, have a passion for, and do it.”
“Nothing replaces a generous spirit.”
“Invent your own life or someone will invent you driving a desk.”
But . . . “Courage My Love” says it best of all.

 

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