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From Pickaxes to Pretty Posters

Courtney McCarthy | 09 May, 2021

            From Pickaxes to Pretty Posters

How Cartolina’s new owners are ensuring a century and a quarter old space stays true to its roots.

Written by Carly Krug

What do you do when you’re new-ish to a tight-knit mountain town, in the middle of a pandemic? Well, if you’re Courtney McCarthy and Jenn Mayberry you take over the beloved retail space known as Cartolina, keep calm, and carry on – with 122 years of local history.

McCarthy and Mayberry knew Cartolina, a fixture on Nelson, B.C.’s historic Baker Street, and filled to the rafters with a mix of vintage-inspired paper goods, gifts, accessories and ephemera, was adored by fans far and wide. Indeed, both women had fallen in love with the shop when they moved to Nelson, with their own families, almost four years earlier. But what they didn’t expect was the bricks and mortar itself to have taken on such a persona.

“I had no idea what a destination the store is to tourists (and locals, alike) because of the building,” says Mayberry, who partnered with McCarthy to purchase Cartolina when its founder, and former owner, sold in the fall of 2020. Add to that, the fact that Nelson natives were always dropping in and sharing their accounts about its eccentric past, says McCarthy, and we knew we’d bought much more than just a shop that sells candles and cards.

“It’s a gorgeous space in a historic building, with many past lives, which Cartolina embraces and honours,” says Mayberry. And because we’re the last man standing in what used to be an entire block, centred around a miner’s hotel “and the history of Nelson is all about mining, it's important for us to be able to answer questions and educate people,” says McCarthy.

Built in 1899, as an adjacent building to the Tremont Hotel (which tempted visitors with Turkish baths and a bowling alley, no less) 652 Baker Street was designed by local architects in pressed white brick in an attempt to bring some citified elevation to what was a pretty rough and tumble town, in the midst of a silver rush.

The original occupant was also a store, Morrison and Caldwell Grocers, where prospectors and miners could purchase provisions and other supplies. It continued on that theme, in 1910 becoming the People’s Store, a haberdashery, and changing hands a few times, but with similar identities, until 1944 when it became a popular children’s wear and toy store.

In 1965 the space transformed into a succession of Canadian-Chinese restaurants, starting with the Purple Lantern, and later the Bossy Place (which Mayberry and McCarthy think is hilarious, and hope their staff don’t secretly still call it that behind their back). By the early ’80s it became King’s Family Restaurant and continued as such, under owner Terry Kwan, until Cartolina took over the space in 2014.

Fiona Richards and Doug Jones had been operating Cartolina Cards, a line of unique paper products and posters designed by Richards, out of their home, and were looking to move to a bigger retail space when they toured the former King’s with their real estate agent. What they found was a very dated diner, complete with wood-panelled walls, a kaleidoscope carpet, row upon row of beige vinyl booths and a wraparound green laminate lunch counter. We bought the building anyway, laughs Richards.

And bit by, painstaking, bit peeled back over half a century’s worth of layers – “glue, screws, nails and dust – and we tried to do it without disturbing the original surfaces,” says Richards, which required continuous communication with the builders. “Constantly stopping them and saying ‘No, no, don’t take that down. We want to keep that chimney brass. No, that’s fine, we like those holes in the wall.’”

It wasn’t like what you see on TV on ‘demo day,’ when a woman goes in with a hardhat and a sledgehammer, says Richards. It was less of a renovation, more of an archeological dig. Over three months “the space slowly revealed itself to us,” she says. “We really didn’t do anything to it that it wouldn’t allow.”

The original wood floors were uncovered, as were the exposed brick walls, but the pièce de résistance was the ceiling, says Richards. It had a dropped ceiling, likely installed after the Second World War when oil became very expensive, and it became the norm to shorten ceilings to avoid heating wasted space. “We were poking around in there and we found the original pressed tin ceiling. It was a nice, big surprise,” she says, and literally the icing on the cake for Cartolina.  

They found a lot of other interesting things along the way: an Italian newspaper page from 1910, a pack rat’s nest filled with 20 to 30 bottle caps from long-ago local establishments, a 1950s comic book and a dozen or so cleavers, likely misplaced here and there from the many Chinese restaurants.

Many of these little curios (not the cleavers, mind you) have found themselves incorporated into Cartolina’s aesthetic. “The shop specifically tries to honour and incorporate the history of the building, its former inhabitants, and the city of Nelson into our décor and merchandise,” says Mayberry.

The most noticeable of which are the hand-painted Chinese lanterns, salvaged from King’s, and now hanging in the front window and over the till. They might seems at odds with the space at first, says Mayberry, but they’re a nod to both the former restaurant and Nelson’s own Chinese heritage, which was instrumental in building the railway that opened up this area of the province.

Mayberry and McCarthy love sharing all these anecdotes and with customers. Pointing out the huge access cut-out in the store’s floorboards, where a 12-foot long table from the original building was brought up from the basement, and now features prominently in the store. Or the many gashes in another area on the floor, presumably from all those cleavers used to butcher meat in one of the many restaurants.

“We feel pretty honoured to be tasked with continuing to provide that connection, and those stories to future visitors,” says Mayberry. Cartolina is a beautiful retail experience, adds McCarthy, but it also “acts as a kind of museum for the public to come and learn about the history of the area – especially the mining history – and look at our old maps, photographs, postcards, posters and relics.”

Speaking of leftovers, neither Mayberry nor McCarthy have come across any ghosts of prospectors past – yet. Perhaps they’re still getting used to us,” laughs Mayberry. But while neither owner is convinced, some of their staff are. “Our employees are certain about the ghosts,” and are doing everything they can to stay in good favour, admits McCarthy. “Some say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ as they come and go,” she says, adding, one recent hire “took a few moments to introduce herself to the ghosts one evening when she was there alone because she wanted to be sure they would like her.”

One thing everyone is happy about is that “Cartolina has come full circle in that it looks, and feels, like a general store again – just with less practical supplies,” says McCarthy, who loves puttering around the shop, “imagining people from a hundred years ago doing basically the same things we are today.” Life was harder then, but simpler too, she says. Like when it came to choosing soap, she laughs. “I wonder what they would say about the fact that we have literally a hundred different kinds of soap.” 

The building itself is continuing to evolve. Richards and Jones transformed nine little hotel rooms down a long corridor above Cartolina into the Tremont Loft, a historic, luxury Airbnb, before selling the building a year and a half ago. The new owners are turning a three story brick structure hidden out back into condos, while still keeping the building’s antiquity intact. And Mayberry and McCarthy have plans for their leased space too. They hope to open up the warehouse behind the shop, formerly used only for the wholesale business, for others to enjoy. “Jenn and I have big plans for the barrel room,” shares McCarthy. To find out what they are – and why it’s called that – you’ll just have to stay tuned, she says.

When we were first taking over the shop from Fiona, she often referred to it as a theatre, recalls Mayberry. And it really is. Everything from the storied space, to the unique merchandise, and how it’s displayed, the great music, and the friendly vibe of our staff – it all sets the stage, she says. And, in keeping with that – while some might wonder (aloud, to Mayberry and McCarthy) about how risky it is to buy a retail space in these uncertain times – it’s as they say in the biz, ‘The show must go on!’