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[Photo: John Van Horne]

At first glance, the store doesn’t seem out of place with others on Roseberry Street, the main drag in Campbellton, New Brunswick.

Camille and Son Sewing Centre — sandwiched between a jewelry shop 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 of the story.]


Norman Rockwell

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 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 crafted 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 customers 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.

Laforests

Camille and Alain Laforest [All photos in this article are by John Van Horne of Campbellton]


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.

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A busy place …

Graphic designer John Van Horne figures Camille and Alain are Campbellton’s Business People of the Century. Hands down.


Accolades Non-stop

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.

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Marian Humphrey and Alain Laforest

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.”

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Alain Laforest and seamstress Margot Allain

“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!”

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Robin Mitchell of Listuguj, Quebec and Camille Laforest

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.”

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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.

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Can you bring this back to life? Alma Willett of Bathurst brings in her sewing machine for repair.

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.

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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.”

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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.”


Dedicated

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.

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Alain Laforest repairing a sewing machine.

“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.

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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.”


Time Capsule

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.


Living History

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

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Page 1 of 3 pages. Click to enlarge.


Here’s how to connect with Saltscapes … https://www.saltscapes.com

Backstory

Every story has a backstory.

This was a long-distance reporting assignment. I was in Alberta and the subject of the interview was on the other side of Canada, thousands of miles away. The interviews were done by phone and I wrote the piece but, let’s face it, a reporter is but one cog in that media wheel.

On Monday, 8 May 2017, Camille and Alain Laforest were presented with a beautifully framed, digital copy of the Saltscapes story and magazine cover.

Here’s a cool group shot of the team that made ‘A Stitch in Time’ possible, along with a Coles notes account of who everyone is and how they helped.

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From left to right: John Van Horne, the go-to man in Campbellton for media-related matters. John was commissioned to take the photos which appeared in Saltscapes.

Camille Laforest, the media-shy transplant from Edmundston, N.B. who founded the company in 1968. Camille doesn’t understand why anyone would want to do a story on his tiny business, and that what he was doing was nothing out of the ordinary. That’s modesty.

Alain Laforest, Camille’s son who puts in untold [and unpaid] hours repairing old sewing machines. However, given Alain’s wit and charm, he could easily convince clientele to buy new machines. But that’s not the way this man was brought up.

Seamstress Margot Allain — proud owner of no fewer than five sewing machines — who stitched together some cool stories of her interactions with Camille and Alain. Margot’s thoughtful comments about the Laforests and Acadian culture became the heart of this wonderful story.

Marian Humphrey, far right, was also interviewed. Humphrey, a retired high school teacher, came up with this story idea. Without that seed being planted, no one would have read about these special people. Tens of thousands now have. Marian also suggested Saltscapes as the perfect outlet for the story. Turns out, it was.

Mayor Stephanie Anglehart Paulin also dropped by to congratulate the two men. The City plans to further honour Camille and Alain during Salmon Festival in early July 2017.

28 thoughts on “A Stitch in Time

  1. I’m in charge of the Joyeuses Couturieres in Campbellton, and we get the best service ever at Camille and Son. [We make quilts for the needy.]

    Alain will come after store hours to service our six sewing machines. They also sharpen our scissors.

    They’re the best; service is always with a smile.

    Love them.

    Like

  2. When I lived in Campbellton I would shop at Camille’s store. I still have my Singer sewing machine which was purchased there.

    The article is true to its word. They are kind and friendly and always ready to serve their customers.

    Like

  3. I bought my very first sewing machine at Camille and Son! I was 16 years old and had just started working part time after school. I remember walking in and asking if he had a lay-away plan…hahaha.

    Camille insisted I bring the sewing machine home and opened my first credit account (written on a recipe card which was kept in a recipe box under that glass counter).

    When I walked out with that machine (they actually carried it to the car for me), I felt so grown up…independent. I never forgot that!

    There’ve been a few upgrades since that time … always the best service! I love that shop and the people in it!

    Like

  4. When we go in that store we have no choice to smile and be happy. They are so concerned about the clientele, they will make sure we have everything we’re looking for 😁😁😁.

    Thank you Mr Laforest and Alain
    Thanks for being there for us 😁.

    Like

  5. I went to this store with my Mom so many times in my younger years as she made all our clothes for school, etc. I didn’t realize that these same people still have this business!

    It’s been 40 years since I’ve moved from the Campbellton area; I must drop in for a visit the next time I’m back there …

    Like

  6. Every time I exit that shop, I always say to my husband, waiting in the car, how I love shopping there because father and son are so nice to customers. When I buy fabric I always get a little more than what I asked for, sometimes when it’s the end of the roll, well you get the rest!

    To me, it’s not Mr. Laforest but Mr. Singer! That should be an honor to the well-known company.

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  7. Great article, we should so have and support these business.

    I love the quotes about the progress so so true I use a similar quote myself.

    The Laforests have always been great at customer service, I don’t sew much myself but mom was a seamstress all her life .. so we had many visits to the store.

    Customer service is so important and becoming very rare … so THANK YOU … MERCI Camille et Alain.

    Like

  8. So happy to see this article. Best ever place to go. In the past 36 years have gotten everything I needed.

    My girls have always loved going with me.

    Great place to get a machine. He even ordered the one I wanted. Will get you anything you want or need. Even had fabric for a stick bag when I couldn’t buy one.
    Love your store and you guys too.
    😍✂️📐📏🐰

    Like

  9. Thank you for another article well-written about the good people of Campbellton and surrounding area, not enough is said about the good people and too much is said about the others.

    Looking forward to more of your articles.

    Like

  10. I left New Brunswick well before I took up sewing as a hobby. Years later, when visiting my sister’s shop down the street, I decided to take a look at Camille’s sewing center. Now it is part of my visit back to N.B.; it makes my trip that much better.

    A few years ago, I was sewing pillowcases for Ronald McDonald House and wanted to keep each pillow case unique. On my visit back home, I was able to purchase many different prints to make beautiful pillow cases for sick children. The service received is exactly as mentioned in the article and walking into this store is like revisiting a happy memory each and every time.

    Thank you Camille and Alain!

    Like

  11. Aah yes … ‘customer service’, you can never hope to be successful in business without it!

    Congratulations to the store owners and also to Byron who gave us this lovely story!

    Hi to John Van Horne!

    Like

  12. Bravo! I can see through your verbal pictures the store and Camille and Alain. I hear the sounds (not easy for me anymore), I feel the warmth and I can almost smell the history of the place.

    I’ve never been to Campbellton and I doubt I ever will but I’ve visited stores like this run by people like Camille and Alain in other provinces. Indeed these businesses and the people who care to run them are fading away. I have fond memories of a shoe store in Pembroke, Ontario … a real barber shop in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta … a camera store in Victoria … and a unique furniture store that also sold handguns in Flin Flon, Manitoba. You can take the boy out of the small town but you can’t take the small town memories out of the boy.

    Like a soft, cozy blanket on a chilly day, you wrap the article with some wonderful words you have a special gift of threading together: “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.”

    Like

  13. Love going to Camille’s Sewing Centre. The service is like no other. Both Alain and Camille are always happy to help.

    Love their shop!

    Like

  14. You couldn’t have chosen a better merchant to write an article about. These guys are the real deal. I’ve been dealing with them since I moved to Campbellton (now Dalhousie) over 30 years ago.

    When you go into their store you are excited to walk inside because it feels as though you are going to see family. It starts with a big hello, how are you and then down to business or a little chit-chat, if you prefer that first.

    I wouldn’t think of going anywhere else for my sewing needs. Thanks Camille and Alain for being who you are.

    Like

  15. I was not aware of such dedication and service as I do not sew but have always found Camille to be a friendly part of our business community.

    Like

  16. Another great little story Byron. It makes me feel as if I were there to experience some bygone day. Here in the high desert of Southern Nevada there is little left of the old west, so a trip to Campbellton by you is a welcome respite.

    Like

  17. Your collection of photos nicely adds to the piece. Quite a list of comments by satisfied readers too.

    Hope to make it to a Broadcasters Luncheon, and see you there.

    Like

  18. Got to read the article in Saltscapes magazine. Who Knew? Better yet, how did you know that there was such a good story about such kind souls?

    I knew Camille. My widowed older neighbor would have him pick up her sewing machine, fix it and deliver it back to her. At the time I thought ‘how nice,’ turns out that both he and his son lived that kind of life.

    Like

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