A unique local business launched by two young Tofitian artisans earlier this year has been nominated for Small Business BC’s Best Concept Award.
Victoria Ashley, a 23 year-old leatherworker, and Laurie Boudreault, a 25 year-old jeweler, opened a creative studio in April and have been thoughtfully curating their storefront through collaboration with artisans from throughout the globe.
“We were initially looking for a studio space and when this location popped up it was pretty big so we decided to try to incorporate other artisans,” Ashley told the Westerly News.
“We never planned it to be this boutique and this community that it’s become. Initially it was just our studio and the support of Tofino, which is just the most supportive community ever, made it possible to open up this kind of concept.”
They dubbed their creative boutique Merge Artisan Collective and it quickly became a popular storefront where patrons can watch the two artisans work while they browse.
“You’re face-to-face,” Ashley said.
“We know every single person’s story, we know the process, and being able to hear a story behind a product, and being able to see someone make it, really gives someone an attachment to whatever it is they're buying which you’re not getting when you’re shopping online or when you’re in Wal-Mart.”
She said the store’s vibe is rich with a contagiously creative spirit.
“One thing we always hear when people walk through our doors is how warm it feels in there,” she said.
“People walk through it and, especially people who are creative, they want to go home and start doing stuff they want to start embroidering or they want to start drawing or whatever it might be…It inspires so many people.”
She added Merge’s inspiration spreads to other artisans as well.
“We support artisans from all over the world. We choose handmade goods that have good branding and fit a certain lifestyle for our demographic,” she said.
“Every time we receive a package from another artisan we get letters thanking us for inspiring them to keep making stuff…The fact that someone wants to purchase their work and someone across the world wants to have their stuff in a store, that’s probably the most inspiring part of all of it and everyone is just so excited to be working together.”
She said much of Merge’s success stems from the support of Tofino’s business community.
“Our building is pretty tucked away, it’s actually in an alley, so the fact that people come searching for us saying other people sent them there just really shows how supportive the community is. It’s been amazing,” she said.
“Even in what we consider now the slower months were still doing really well and I couldn’t imagine it to be any better than how it’s going right now.”
Support from local businesses is how Ashley fell into her leatherworking career as she got into the trade while trying to craft a mason jar cozy.
“In order for me to buy all the tools and everything it was a couple hundred dollars and I thought maybe I’ll sell 10 of them and make my money back,” she said.
“The owner of Rhino Coffee House saw them on my Facebook page and sent me a message and before I even went to any stores or anything he ordered 50 so that kind of got the ball rolling.”
She said her business partner Boudreault also found quick success with personalized jewelry pieces that have fostered a steady flow of customers. .
“Her pieces mean a lot to everyone that comes through the door they just fly off the shelves,” Ashley said.
“We both actually just started being makers about a year ago so this all has happened really fast.”
Small Business BC Award winners will be announced on Feb. 25 and will receive a $1,500 cash-prize as well as one-year’s worth of Small Business BC’s educational resources including one-on-one business mentorship opportunities.
“I am delighted to see Tofino’s vibrant business community entering the Small Business BC Awards to be recognized for their achievements both locally and globally,” said Small Business BC CEO George Hunter.
“Small Business BC takes great pride in celebrating entrepreneurs and helping them to become more successful. While individually small these businesses have a big reputation across Canada and around the world,”
Ashley said she and Boudreault are stoked on Merge’s early accolades.
“To be two young women running a business and already be nominated for something like this is a pretty cool feeling,” Ashley said.
“We feel very lucky and very excited.”