Just Furs is back, just in time to help keep Yellowknifers warm as temperatures drop further, and as owner Kristine Bourque ponders the future of her shop.
The Old Town fur apparel shop reopened on Nov. 2, more than seven months after Bourque closed it in March when the Covid-19 pandemic reached the NWT.
Bourque thought about reopening earlier, but with no tourist arrivals in the NWT, she would have had fewer customers since visitors to the city account for at least half of her sales. In normal years, business activity slows in the spring and summer compared to the winter.
Revenues plummeted over the closure period to almost zero, save for a small number of online sales.
The shop was kept afloat by assistance with rental costs from the Northern Business Relief Fund through the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. Bourque stayed busy in the last seven months by doing paperwork and preparing her furs for when she would reopen.
“I thought, I’m just going to wait until it gets cold,” she said. “I was kind of planning on October but then it just didn’t work out. So I thought I would open on the second of November because people want warm fur, and they want gifts (in) November and December.”
Since she opened her doors two weeks ago, sales have been strong, with mitts, headbands and Dene Fur Cloud neck warmers selling fast.
Her wares span the range of wildlife in the North, including wolf, marten, beaver, caribou, moose, red fox, lynx, wolverine and seal. Most of her furs are commercially tanned in Montreal and Toronto. That process helps them last longer, she said.
Some of Bourque’s moose hide products, such as moccasins and card holders, are home tanned by trappers, who scrape all the flesh off the fur and then soak the hide in a solution of boiled moose brain with some cooking oil to soften and stretch it. The hide is smoked in the final step of the process.
Customers and local residents are happy that Bourque has reopened.
“‘I’ve been coming down here walking and driving by and you weren’t open,’ they say to me. ‘(But) I’m so glad you’re open,'” Bourque says, describing recent interactions.
The reopening has also restored some of the socializing that Bourque enjoyed before Covid.
“I’ve been here for so long. I know a lot of the Aboriginal people, a lot of local people,” she said. “They come in and it’s good to be in touch with people… because they always have a conversation.”
The pandemic has brought Bourque to a fork in the road for her 18-year-old shop.
One path leads to her selling the business, a plan she has been considering for more than a year. Her contacts and suppliers are aware of this possibility and would work with whoever buys the shop, she said.
“I’ve got many things I’d like to do besides working here. I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, and I’d like to be busy and help people understand what’s in the Bible,” said Bourque.
The other path leads to a stronger online presence for Just Furs, something that she recognizes could have helped her sell more products while she was closed.
“If we get a resurgence of Covid, I will go online,” she said, adding that she aims market a new generation of fur designers through the internet.
“My sons are both welders, but I sewed all the time when they were growing up. They love sewing,” she said, as she held a pair of their muskrat and sheared beaver fur mitts. Their other creations are made from seal and red fox.
“I want to get this out there so that my sons can sell their product online.”