Tucked between Tofino’s CIBC building and The Common Loaf Bakery sits a little blue shop that has become a bastion of creative inspiration.
Local artisans Victoria Ashley and Laurie Boudreault opened Merge: An Artisan Collective in April and Ashley told the Westerly the unique space at 305 Campbell St., which formerly hosted a popular breakfast spot dubbed The Alley Way Café, was the perfect setting for their artistic concept to flourish.
“Everyone always says it’s got a great vibe and there’s great karma in this building,” she said.
“Our space feels very warm, it’s very welcoming and there’s contagious creativity; you walk around and get inspired.”
Merge was nominated for Small Business BC’s Best Concept Award in November and was announced as a top-ten finalist last month.
To get into the top-ten, the two artisans relied on online voting but to reach the next stage they’ll need to submit a hefty application outlining their business model.
Five finalists will be chosen to present their case in front of four judges in February.
“The first step was all about social media and love from people and now it’s all on us to put the brains to work and let them know exactly where we’re coming from, why we do what we do and how we do it,” Ashley said.
The top prize for the Best Concept award includes $1,500 and a year’s worth of access to Small Business BC’s online resources and mentorship programs.
Ashley believes Merge will come out on top.
“I don’t see us not winning it,” she said.
“That’s not coming from a place of putting anyone else down, it’s just that I feel really confident in what we do and everyday people come through the door and shower the store with compliments.”
“Everybody is very amazed with it and loves knowing about it,” she said.
Merge operates as both a store and a studio space with carefully selected handmade creations for sale in the front and the two artisans’ workspaces in the back.
“It gives people a chance to see what we’re making and if they decide to buy something from us there’s a story attached to it. They get to talk to the maker and they get to see us making it,” Ashley said.
She added she loves responding to questions from aspiring artisans who come into the shop looking for help generating ideas.
“You see a light in their eyes…they get very inspired,” she said.
“If you have questions about something, you can spend hours Googling and looking at the Internet and you can find answers there but when you actually have people who are doing it and you can ask them questions face-to-face it really helps.”
Boudreault noted Merge’s success proves to aspiring entrepreneurs that their own imaginative business goals could be accomplished if buoyed by desire and Ashley agreed.
“For people to see two young girls who are just regular girls doing something that could be their dream, I think that really inspires people,” Ashley said adding the variety of items on display also inspires budding artisans and creators.
“They’re exposed to things that up until this point haven’t really been around Tofino,” she said.
“If you see needlepoint, you think about your grandma making some dishcloths but you can come into our store and see actual art pieces that are made of needlepoint that would inspire someone to do something they would never even think of.”
The two artisans hope to pour more creative juices into Tofino through makers’ workshops.
“We want to share creativity and we want to share skills,” Boudreault said.
“It’s a little community here…we want to share this space with other creative minds.”
The store has hosted several workshops so far, including a recent tapestry workshop, and Boudreault hopes to see these become more popular.
“We want to focus on that more and we think it would be cool to have that around here,” she said.
Ashley said Merge is happy to organize workshops but the community needs to get onboard the creativity train.
“We really want to give it to the community we just need the community to be ready to take it,” she said.
“In a city, all of these things are so accessible, if you want to go take a certain class or a workshop or if you want to learn a new craft, it’s there any day of the week but for Tofino it’s hard to get into things.”
Anyone interested in participating in, or hosting, a workshop is encouraged to get a hold of Merge at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley is stoked on the attention the Small Business BC awards have brought to Merge.
“When you’re doing what you’re passionate about, all the best things come to you,” she said.
“When you are your best self, that’s when all the positivity is coming your way and all the opportunities happen and that’s what happened ever since we opened the store, it’s everyday good news and we’re so thankful to be this young and be our own bosses.”
Boudreault said Tofino’s business community has fueled Merge with vital support.
“Were so thankful of the community here,” she said. “Word of mouth has been huge for us. People keep sending people over here and we just cannot believe how supportive this town is.”
The pair hinted at an upcoming project they’re working on but kept mum on the specifics.
“We’re working on a new project that’s very exciting,” Ashley said.
“We want to continue to bring things to the community that may not already be here or if they are we want to enhance it.”
Tofino councillor and Economic Development Committee chair Dorothy Baert is thrilled to see the two young entrepreneurs celebrating success.
“Tofino, due to its mild climate, tourism economy and young demographic, is likely to have a high proportion of those who will venture into unique business concepts. Merge: an Artisan Collective is one of those endeavours, a group of like mind individuals bringing their energy and expertise together to produce creatively in a business model,” Baert told the Westerly News.
“Diversity in the small business realm is what creates resiliency in our economy.”
She said Tofino’s culture and environment attracts a young population of creatively minded locals who are motivated to stay and thrive.
“Entrepreneurs know that if they want a choice of where to live, that they must carve out their livelihood where there is a niche or create the opportunity that will support them,” she said.
She hopes the exposure brought to Merge through the Small Business BC Awards helps locals appreciate the business community that surrounds them.
“It is a chance to regard those small businesses that seek to thrive against challenging odds,” she said.
“We still have a relatively short retail season, costs of doing business are high and the community doesn’t always know or appreciate the importance of their support to individuals who are choosing business and entrepreneurship as a way of staying in and participating in the community.”
She congratulated Ashley and Boudreau for their success and encouraged West Coasters to explore what their local businesses have to offer.
“I would like to congratulate Merge and invite all Tofino residents to put a thorough exploration of Tofino businesses on their bucket list,” she said.
“It may encourage more to ‘shop local’, get to know your neighbours and to appreciate another aspect of what makes Tofino so special.”