I met Leslie Charlton many years ago when she was a student in the SIAST Weaving Programme in Prince Albert. In her years as a weaver, Leslie was recognized by the Saskatchewan Craft Council for her beautiful woven rugs. Today, Leslie is the owner of Groovy Mama, a boutique store for parents and children. Leslie opened Groovy Mama with a mission, to bring high quality, preferably Canadian made, supplies to parents which would help to reduce consumer waste and promote local products. Recently, I interviewed Leslie in her store. Here are some excerpts from that interview:
Leslie: I've been a knitter since I was a kid and a sewer all my life but mostly since Grade 8 Home Ec. when I started. I made most of my own clothes when I was a teenager and in my twenties and took the weaving programme at SIAST. I moved to Prince Albert to take that. It changed my life, for sure. It was a great programme. It got me collecting onion skins for the rest of my life! Garbage doesn't look like garbage anymore. Funny how that happens. I was just thinking, too, my Grandma was a big fibre person, big knitter, sewer. I think I take after her. I love to make things from garbage. What appeals to me always is to look at the thing that nobody else sees and know that you can turn it into something else. That’s always been what turns me on, my excitement. I’d rather start with a pile of rags than start with beautifully hand spun yarn that somebody else did. And everybody has her own ways of doing it, but that’s more my thing.
A friend said to me one time, “It doesn't matter what you knit, as long as you start with gorgeous yarn. It doesn't matter how good you are because it’s going to turn out gorgeous.” I said, “But doesn't that seem like the work is done for you already?" I love to take something that nobody would see the value in and turn it in to something beautiful, whether it be a fleece or old rags or burlap bags. Whatever. If it’s garbage, you make it into something and divert it from the landfill. To me, that’s the. . .You’re not buying a product to make another product. Most real fibre people can understand that, I think. (Laughs.) What’s a real fibre person, anyway?
I knew I wanted to open a business all the way along but when I had my daughter Evelyn, the stage was set that this would be the kind of business that I would open and in 2004, I opened Groovy Mama. My intention was to help mothers get through the hard times of postpartum or pregnancy or whatever, but it’s morphed into other things, too, like more baby products than I originally intended, but it’s good. Cloth diapers were always something that I absolutely wanted to do and they should have been more accessible than they were at the time.
A lot of people have given their power over to marketing, though, you know. I give away a lot for free. I see that as a difference, because I see myself as a retailer and maybe a mentor in some ways to customers. To have people buy a product, but leave feeling empowered and leave having learned something would be better than just to make a sales pitch and sell the product. I've insisted that classes remain free, even if it means me paying an instructor to come in to give the class, so it’s not a money-maker for me.
And just because something sells, I’m not going to sell it. I've dropped many a product because it was made in Canada and then after several years, they decided to go offshore. And I don’t care how popular it is or how much money I make, there are lots of products I've never brought in as I thought that they didn't seem safe or they didn't seem sensible even though I get asked for them every day.
Dragondancer: Do you get a chance to do your art and craft?
Well, I don’t get as much of a chance as I thought I would. I remember the ladies at Traditions who originally owned it. They said, “Never open a store. As soon as you open a store, you’ll stop weaving.” And I thought, yeah, right, as if that would happen to me. I opened the store and I stopped weaving. So I haven’t touched my looms in a while, but I’m building a weaving studio in my backyard. I think I’m going to turn my office here into sort of a mini-studio that I can work on slow days on a few things.
I always have big plans. I make some of the clothes for the store from old discarded clothes. I sanitize them and make baby shoes and sew things like that and knit baby hats.
D: You've been doing that for a while.
Leslie: Yes, and I can take that anywhere and it’s really simple knitting. The sewing needs a set up a little bit more, but that’s my thought with a little studio here in the back of the store, I can do it a lot more. And not buy anything. Just make it out of discarded items. That’s my thing. I don’t want to buy anything.
My original intent was to sell something, you know, it was to be the anti-Walmart. It was to buy less. You come and you buy it once and you’re done. Like the whole idea of cloth diapers or a good baby carrier. I said, “I’m never going to sell the brand names. And I’m never going to. . . .But it catches up to you. And it’s not that I've really bowed to it, but for example, people decided to become collectors of cloth diapers. And now, people are collectors of baby carriers. Consumerism discourages me. I find it really scary. When you've shopped for what you need, you find other things to shop for. And I’m just as much guilty of that as anyone else, but I think about it all the time.
We all do because you can’t get away from it. It’s just what I've seen. I wanted to make a place where you came in and you bought fewer toys because the toys that you bought were good quality. I try as much as I can. I try to say when somebody’s buying a new baby carrier, “ You’ll probably go online and somebody will tell you that you need 6 different carriers for the 6 different walks that you take with your child.” And I say, “It’s not true. You can do a great job with one. So don’t fall into that.” I try to tell people that. So maybe, I've kept a lot of things out of the marketplace and out of the landfill.
I was reading something, the Government of Canada allows something like 1500 new chemicals to be released into our marketplace every year and in the US, it’s about 2500 every year. Brand new chemicals that were never allowed into the marketplace. And I’m thinking, regardless, if I sew something with an old pair, an old set of curtains from Value Village that are 30 years old, it doesn't matter if they’re not organic. There’s not going to be a whole bunch of chemicals and Monsanto-ism in that fabric that would be in the fabric of today that’s not organic, fair trade. It’s good to divert that stuff from the landfill and make something better.
It’s unbelievable. All the new stuff just keeps getting made and made and everything else is just getting, I don’t know, it’s a little mind-boggling.
I can see that I’m headed for something. I’m going to make it a year of just making or buying used, my clothes. That’s my plan. Just to try to get it back. To get creative with it again. Fibre will be my thing again in probably about 5 years, it will be my full time job. It will make me zero money.
Life is big and complex and there will always be another thing, but, I'm trying to shop a little less, be a little more careful, teach my kids a few good ideas. I tell them not to have as much stuff. So, maybe. . .
I've become really good friends with all my competitors. There’s no feeling of “How dare they do this?” That’s been my favourite thing, I have to say. It’s just getting to know people and treating it like there’s something bigger, like you can actually still make a living and not make enemies.
And really, if we’re up against Walmart taking over our world, would it not be better to band together and make the experience with small business better for local people?
I think, if I had a civil servant job, I wouldn't take just because I could. I wouldn't go into the store room and take pens home just because they were there for the taking. At my shop, there are other ways that I could be making money and other things I could be selling, but if it goes against, “Would I buy that for my child or am I just trying to con someone into getting this whether they need it or not, is that any different from just going into the supply room and taking the pens?” At the end of the day, you don’t just do it for the sake of doing it.
|Leslie in Groovy Mama. Stop by and say, "Hello!"|