Women and their Work


ALAN MAURICE IRWIN November 1 1924
Women and their Work


ALAN MAURICE IRWIN November 1 1924



WELL, as a matter of fact, I picked that up at a farm auction between Pickering and Whitby. It seemed a most unlikely place. We drove up a perfectly terrible road two or three miles north of the Kingston Highway, and—pardon me just a minute, please.” And Grace Mary Fairbairn turned from the Empire period

console table and smiled pleasantly at a customer who had entered the Clarkson Market.

“Onions? Well those are particularly nice. They were pulled not more than fifteen minutes ago from our garden at the back. Five cents a bunch. Wouldn’t you like some fresh rhubarb, too? We don’t grow that ourselves, but it came from that farm,” and she pointed across the cement highway, “just this morning. Yes, I do think fruit and vegetables are much nicer when they are fresh. Good-bye,” and the customer re-entered her car.

Then Miss Fairbairn came back. She was wearing a chintzy sort of dress that harmonized perfectly with some of the old chair-coverings, and looked as un-businesswoman like as she could.

“What was 1 saying? Oh yes. There it was in a room full of horrible golden oak furniture looking as out of place and uneasy as a girl with crinoline and chignon would in a roomful of slender silhouettes and bobbed hair.”

Another customer entered, this time to purchase a wedding gift, and there was time to browse around. And a browse is well worth while.

For eight years now the Clarkson Market has been the Mecca of an ever-

growing number of people who run out in their cars to obtain their fruits and_ vegetables while the freshness of earth is still upon them.

Eight years ago, Clarkson, Ontario, had only one claim to fame. It was, and still is, a little cluster of houses, a station, two stores and a post office. Except the “Blue Dragon Inn” there was nothing to attract the stranger. The HamiltonToronto Highway had not yet been completed, but motorists were learning that the western run of sixteen miles led to a pleasant meal amongst delightful old furnishings. The furniture of the Inn, in the management of which Miss Fairbairn was associated with her mother, later played an interesting part in the market’s history.

Then the idea of a permanent market was conceived. People would drive sixteen miles for dinner over not very good roads, why would they not welcome an opportunity to purchase fresh vegetables at the same time, especially when the new cement highway was completed? But the real genesis of the idea was based on psychology.

“In times past man used to forage for his food. The instinct must still be there and the increased facilities for travel will present a real opportunity.”

Miss Fairbairn says that the idea originated in the mind of her partner, Mr. Sydney Preston, although he is not certain and suggests that, so many were the conferences, it probably, like “Topsy,” just growed.

AT FIRST there was only a small shed from which garden and orchard products were sold, this was followed by marquees and, finally, by the structure in use at present. Antiques, now so important a part of the business did not make their appearance until after the place had been in operation for some time. Their first appearance was accidental. But that can be told better a little later on in Miss Fairbairn’s own words.

Grace Mary Fairbairn is not of the “business-woman” type. There is nothing severely efficient about her. In fact, by her own confession, if she did not keep a pencil and paper handy many things would be forgotten.

There is something unusual about the combination of roadside market and antique shop. Especially when that shop is sixteen miles from the nearest city.

There is something unusual about a partnership between a man and a woman.

But, for all that, there is nothing unusual about Miss Fairbairn.

In her antique rooms she is like a hostess properly set amongst beautiful and odd furniture and objets d'art; and on the concrete floor of the market proper the saleswoman hides behind a genuine desire to see that her customers are satisfied, that they do not overlook any of their needs and that they do not leave without being made aware of the many fruits and vegetables produced in the farms and market gardens of the part of Ontario that surrounds the almost-village of Clarkson.

Every move that was made was the result of some experience, even to the “chintzy dress” mentioned earlier.

When the nine acre plot was obtained and the first small shed erected there was nothing distinctive about the place unless it was the almost infinitesimal capital and Miss Fairbairn’s blue sweater. There are sweaters and sweaters, many of them blue, but this one had character. It matched its wearer’s eyes. And it brought business. A few days after the opening, when counting the day’s takings was a very simple matter, a motor drove up to the door, a young lady alighted and addressed herself to Miss Fairbairn.

“Is this the Clarkson Market?” Then she interrupted herself. “But of course it is—Father told me to drive about fifteen miles and then look out for a young lady whose eyes matched her blue sweater.” Miss Fairbairn capitalized this experience, and when the business had grown to such an extent that several girls were required, she designed the quaint dresses of brown and yellow denim they wear today and adopted old fashioned fabrics herself.

MANY things happened in the early days. The public would evince crazes for certain products and before the marketeers learned their way about they would open up one day to find themselves terribly overstocked.

To this day it is unwise to murmur “Silver-skin onions” in the hearing of either Miss Fairbairn or her partner.

Although she is not a typical business woman, Miss Fairbairn keeps several books. The most important seem to be the scrap-book and her photograph album. In the latter are many interesting pictures of different stages of the market’s life, particularly the experiments with tents— marquees purchased from the Y.M.C.A. —and the “card-house.”

“There has never been so much excitement since we dispensed with the marquees, which soon proved unsatisfactory,” Miss Fairbairn says.

“Whether it was because we were not expert, or because the wind was too strong, I don’t know, but on several occasions we barely got out before the tent subsided gently in a heap. And the card-house was even worse. It was a portable affair, one that you bolt together with hooks and eyes, and one morning after a heavy storm we arrived at the site to find it spread over the landscape in the attitude of a house of cards that has suffered from the impact of baby fingers.”

Then, on one of their trips in search of produce Miss Fairbairn and her partner discovered an old barn for sale. It was a real pioneer with hand-hewn timbers and massive posts. They brought it. Although the actual purchase price was low, Miss Fairbairn says that she experienced many qualms and the deal taught her a lesson she does not intend to forget. She was afraid that the cost of erection and transportation would involve too heavy an outlay and was inclined to be timid about the prospect. It proved to be a very wise investment and it “taught me to look carefully at the many sides of a question and then to remember that capital must must be put into something if anything is to come out of it.”

MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE, Stephen Leacock and the scrap-book have had their share in the fortunes of the market. Back in 1918, the humorous professor contributed an article to Canada’s National Magazine entitled “Back to the City,” in which he said, amongst other things, “Even at that it is not a bad plan to eat the stuff while you can . . . Green peas are only really green for about two hours. Before that they are young peas; after that they are old peas . . . Cucumbers are the worst of_ all. They change overnight from delicate little bulbs obviously too slight and dainty to pick, to old cases of yellow leather filled with seeds.”

A clipping of that is preserved in the archives of the Clarkson Market. It illustrates one of the reasons for the cultivation of their own land so that the goods sold may be absolutely fresh.

ALWAYS a lover of the antique, it did L not occur to Miss Fairbairn to attempt the sale of them until straws in the wind had indicated the possibility. That possibility arose through a series of events. In the second spring Marsh Marigolds were added to the Market’s stock and she bought a small supply of blue vases for display purposes. One customer complained to her that when she got the flowers home they did not look so good as in the Market and Miss Fairbairn tactfully inquired as to the color of the vases used. They were pink! The result was the sale of vases to that customer and the addition of Dicker ware to the stock.

Then extra tables were needed for display purposes, and as her mother had disposed of the Inn, Miss Fairbairn borrowed some antique tables. It was not long before customers wanted to buy the tables. Before long the antique business grew to such an extent that extra space was needed and, profiting by her earlier lesson, Grace Mary Fairbairn bought some French windows from thfe dismantled Officers’ Mess at Longbranch Flying Camp, and these, with surplus lumber from the old barn, were made into an addition.

With its exposed rough timbers the building has an Elizabethan appearance that attracts much attention, and the v ide drivew ay is usually filled with cars. Many of the customers enter to buy cabbages and remain to purchase chairs, or go for antiques and come away with artichokes. And they come not only from Toronto, but from distant parts of Canada and the United States.

The address book contains the names and predilections of collectors from Halifax to Chicago and from Peterborborough to Baltimore. In it are to be found the names of collectors of pewter beer mugs, old lace, early Americana—for there is, with the exception of some furniture from the Kingston Penitentiary some seventy years ago, no distinctly Canadian stuff—Indian tomahawks, old brass.

COUNTRY auctions supply most of the goods from which these requirements are filled and it is often necessary to drive a hundred and fifty miles a day to get what is needed. The clientele is varied. It ranges from dyed in the wool collectors to matrons and brides who are anxious to have at least one room done in antique furniture. I suggested that different methods of approach were

necessary for these different types but Miss Fairbairn says no. Her method is to let prospective purchasers wander around until they seem to have settled on something. Then she discusses the matter in a friendly way. It may be that there is another example of the period wanted.

“Really, it is just the same as selling eggs or butter. If they are collectors—or good housewives, they know what they want; if they are amateurs you can help them.”

I noticed that everything has its price plainly marked. And then I noticed something else. A young couple entered. If they ■were not yet bride and groom they soon would be, and they lingered beside a very charming sideboard. Then they spoke to Miss Fairbairn.

“Have you another like that?” the young lady asked, shyly. “One not quite so expensive.” Miss Fairbairn took them into another room from which they presently emerged to return and hold a whispered consultation beside the original piece. Very quietly Miss Fairbairn looked at the price tag. Then she spoke. “Just wait a minute until I look at my book. Perhaps that doesn’t need to be priced so high.” She came back in a minute. “I can let you have it for so much and still have a little profit.” And a happy pair left the room.

Almost apologetically she turned to me. “I mark everything with the price I should have to make a reasonable profit, and if people try to beat it down I refuse, but when I see a bride, I just hate to see her leave behind something that she really wants.”

No! There is nothing unusual about Grace Mary Fairbairn. She is just running a business that is unusual and being human about it.