Camille and Son Sewing Centre — sandwiched between a jewellery store and an empty department store — occupies the bottom floor of a two-story, brick and aluminum siding building. From the outside, nothing spectacular. All very ordinary.
However, it’s anything but …
[This article first appeared in the February/March 2017 issue of Saltscapes, the award-winning magazine based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a special edition called ‘Made Right Here,’ the glossy “celebrates companies that were born and flourish in our region.” Go to the bottom of the article to see Saltscapes’ cool layout — plus a link to read their version.]
A cluttered front window suggests the sewing centre is a busy place, but step inside and you get the sense that Norman Rockwell would have felt right at home here.
In a window corner are some hand-knitted socks; on a wall, just behind the counter, amongst an array of sewing accessories, are community service plaques … and, not far away, thank you posters made by local school children.
The owners — Camille Laforest and his son, Alain — not only know their stuff, they know how to look after their customers.
“People skills” are never all that complicated: in this case, it’s simply old-fashioned honesty and thoughtfulness … with some idiosyncrasies thrown in to make things interesting.
Hmmm. For some strange reason, on display is a 1997 wall calendar. That’s not a typo. 1997.
The store has a personality of its own — and people love it.
Camille, who started the business back in 1968, stands alongside a glass-covered countertop, greeting customers with an engaging smile and a quick word or two. Or three. Even at his age — late 60s or early 70s, I reckon — Camille Laforest still cuts a striking figure. “How old are you?” I ask. In a soft voice, he responds, “I’m 82, sir.”
Alain is 52.
People first, computers second
The front door opens with the electronic sound of birds — as well as the music of CKNB, the local AM radio station. No elevator music for these folk.
When another winter storm blankets Campbellton, those sweet bird sounds are drowned out by customers stomping their boots at the front door to knock the snow off.
Some would call the sewing centre old-fashioned, and that’s fair. A small-town charm and innocence, reminiscent of decades past, etc. It doesn’t faze Camille nor Alain, not in the least. They’re not shy to say they don’t have a computer — nor a website [but there is a Facebook page operated by one of their customers]. If you bring up online shopping, they figure you’re talking about fishing. The only megabytes here are in a tiny lunch room at the back of the store where father and son make quick work of sandwiches and muffins.
Computers may be cost-effective and all that — but Camille and Alain Laforest prefer the human touch, thank you. The inexorable march of technology can wait.
“Progress might have been all right once but it’s been going on too long.” – Ogden Nash, American poet.
Business People of the Century
‘Crafty’ patrons arrive from towns and villages across Northern New Brunswick and Gaspé, including the Mi”kmaq First Nation at Pointe-a-la-Croix, on the Quebec side of the Restigouche River.
Graphic designer John Van Horne of Campbellton figures Camille and Alain are Campbellton’s Business People of the Century. Hands down.
Marian Humphrey would agree. “The Laforests instill trust,” she says, then shares a story. “I hadn’t sewed anything since aprons in Grade 8,” she recalls, “and I went to see if it made sense to have my mother’s old sewing machine serviced. Camille’s response was, ‘Most certainly! This is an excellent machine … most parts are made of metal rather than the plastic used today’.”
Notice the not-so-subtle reference to product quality from an era that’s gone and ain’t coming back.
Humphrey, a retired high school teacher who knows a thing or two about crowds and mayhem, describes the annual sale at Camille and Son as ‘crazy’ — meaning, the joint’s rocking. “A line-up everywhere,” she says, “but when they wait on you, you’re the most important person in the room.”
Seamstress Margot Allain, who owns five sewing machines, coils with anticipation whenever she enters the store, even though she’s been going there for decades. It’s not the chirping birds nor a new pattern book that have her grinning from ear to ear. It’s how staff treat her — and her family. On display in the shop are sewing projects done years ago by Margot’s children, now attending university.
“Camille and Alain,” she says, “are part of a dying breed who offer honest, reliable, quality bilingual service to all their clients. Whether one is buying a $1.79 spool of thread or a $3,000.00 computerized embroidery machine, the same attention and care is given.”
“Whenever [my daughter] and I go into the store,” the retired French language teacher shares, “we are greeted with Ah bonjour, c’est la fille de la fille de Phil! Translation: Hello daughter of the daughter of Phil! “This is typical Acadian — greeting people by announcing one’s lineage.”
“It always brings a smile to our faces,” she adds. “I hope this store never closes!”
Susan Caron, a retired hospital worker, has always had positive experiences with the Laforests. “A few times they’ve done things at no charge,” she says, “… installing new buttons on jeans, for example.”
Van Horne recalls when he was working on a project and he needed a sewing machine. He was all set to buy a used one but Camille would have no part of it. “Just take this,” he said, handing him a sewing machine, “… bring it back when you’re done.”
Another story from Van Horne: His neighbour had a school book bag with a torn zipper. “They went to the sewing centre to buy a new zipper,” he says, “and Camille replaced it for them. No charge.”
Margot Allain has a nickname for her good friends: ‘The Zipper Doctors.’ “Camille and Alain,” she points out, “have mended or replaced stuck and broken zippers for countless people.”
The proof isn’t just in the pudding but in the homemade fudge and cookies appreciative sewers, quilters and knitters bring to the store as gifts.
Can’t recall ever seeing anything like that happening in a box store.
Fabric and more
No one pulls up to the sewing centre with the same shopping list.
Some are looking to buy a new machine; others arrive lugging their old units, hoping the ‘sewing machine surgeons’ can work their magic and bring them back to life.
Some customers want a needle, one that’s stronger than the one that snapped while doing work it shouldn’t have been doing. Others want to buy scissors, ribbons, ‘just the right colour’ of thread, pattern books, decorative panels, cloth for quilts, pillow cases … or perhaps some new fabric to make an old couch look brand new.
Retail Landscape Always Changing
Businesses come and go. It’s always been that way. Witness the massive changes the global retail landscape has undergone in the past half-century with the arrival of box stores and the departure of shops that sold typewriters, vinyl records, TV antennas, plus businesses that rented movies. Poof. Gonzo.
But like the little engine that could, Campbellton’s sewing centre trudges right along.
Why? It’s partly because the shop stays current, keeping up on the latest products and trends. The sewing centre was hip in the 1960s … and today it’s still hip, or whatever they call it now.
Products and trends. Fifty, 60 years ago, people sewed their own clothes. Today, of course, it’s way cheaper to buy them. People still sew, but now it’s to decorate.
There was a five-year period, Alain reveals, where yarn was a big seller. “Boom!!” he exclaims, interrupting himself, “but that suddenly stopped .. and ten years later, it started all over again.”
People change their curtains more often nowadays, according to Alain, revealing something I really hadn’t given much thought to. “In the old days, he says, “people held onto curtains for 10 or 15 years, now it’s two years.”
“Fifteen years ago,” he says, “‘pink balloon’ curtains were all the rage. Today people are more independent. They don’t follow the neighbours.”
Camille and Alain are assiduous and thorough. If someone’s using an inferior thread, they’ll let them know because … well, they should know.
Their dedication means often working more than 40 hours a week. Far more. “Last week,” Alain says, “I put in 60 hours.” A good chunk of that time was spent at a bench repairing broken sewing machines, with only a table lamp and the radio for company.
“I’d probably make more money working at Walmart,” he notes, “and I’d have better hours too.” Truth is, Alain could have left his job at the sewing centre many years ago, moved to some God-forsaken place, but he saw more value in staying put.
Alain and I were chatting one evening — 20 minutes after closing — when he broke away to say he had to serve a customer. I said, “Hey, aren’t you closed?” “Yes, but I forgot to lock the door.”
Customer service isn’t limited to the sewing shop. Van Horne smiles before telling this story: “I bought from a car dealership a vehicle that had been Camille’s. Camille then came around to my house with four beautiful tire rims and said, “These go with the car.” Van Horne then asked what he owed him. “Nothing.””
It’s obvious the Laforests firmly believe in going that extra mile. And as someone once said, it’s never crowded along that extra mile.
Back to the old calendar. “Why on earth would you keep a faded calendar from the nineties? Alain seemed surprised by the question. “We like the picture,” he said. “It’s the first sewing machine — from 1851!,” pointing out where it was manufactured, “Port Elizabeth, New York.”
There was an uptick to his voice not unlike, say, an excited hockey fan touring the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Isaac Singer [1811-1875] didn’t invent the sewing machine but he improved on what was out there, filing a patent for what turned out to be the first practical model. The American inventor was once quoted as saying he didn’t give a damn about the invention … “the dimes are what I’m after.” Singer set up the first payment plan which allowed his customers to pay in installments.
Alex Askaroff, described as a foremost expert of pioneering machines and their inventors, says in the 50 years from 1846, the sewing machine went from “a circus attraction to a household necessity.”
In the basement of the sewing centre is a time capsule of sorts. “Watch your head,” Alain announces as he makes his careful way down a flight of creaky, wooden stairs. Resting on shelves are scores of old, heavy sewing machines, most of them thickly covered in dust. Here too are cardboard boxes full of motors and top covers from stripped sewing machines.
I couldn’t help but think if these old machines could talk, what stories they’d share about garments that were made, so long ago now — when Elvis was king and Roy Rogers rode tall in the saddle.
Meanwhile, upstairs, a glance through the glass countertop at the main counter transports Camille back in time, to his first days in the sewing machine business more than 60 years ago. On a top shelf rests a die-cast model of an off-white 1955 Chevy pickup. The toy is a replica of the vehicle his father owned in Edmundston, New Brunswick which transported the very first sewing machine Camille sold — a Singer, incidentally. The machine arrived just as upper-end black and white TVs did in the day — in a beautiful wood cabinet.
As is often the case, one flashback leads to another, and in this case to 1968 — the year Camille and his wife, Janine, a native of Matepédia, Quebec, moved their young family to Campbellton to run the Singer Sewing Centre. They didn’t know a soul in the town.
Just four years later, the couple was dealt a huge blow when Singer bailed. Their lives were turned upside down.
Camille and Janine didn’t know what to do. They talked things over and decided to go it alone. The things parents discuss around the kitchen table at night when the little ones are tucked away in bed.
Janine, for many years the sewing centre’s receptionist and bookkeeper, is now retired.
Camille hasn’t done that yet, but at least he is slowing down.
In January of last year, Camille cut back his workweek to five days, calling it his ‘pre-retirement.’ When most workers retire in their 60s — some in their 50s, and lottery winners in their 30s — Camille is still giving it.
Marian Humphrey describes the sewing centre as a ‘living history’ of the kind of small businesses in Campbellton she knew as a child.
Those who think that modernity with all its flashing lights is so much better didn’t experience those times.
Camille and Alain Laforest have handled all kinds of sewing material, and they’re very good at what they do. They’ve also worked wonders with a totally different fabric, one impossible to measure. It’s the fabric that binds a community together. Integrity. Honesty. Fair play … and let’s be candid, love.
Yes, that fabric.
Therein lies the greatest contribution of Camille … and son of Camille.
Saltscapes – February/March 2017
Here’s how to connect with Saltscapes … https://www.saltscapes.com