Weaver and Devore Trading has been here for as long as Yellowknife has existed and this week celebrates its 84th anniversary.
Throughout a world war, ups and downs in the economy, comings and goings of governments and changes in technology and retail trends the store has kept providing customers with outdoor gear and meeting general consumer needs.
“Without interruption. There’s been no stoppage in business,” said Ken Weaver, one of the current owners and grandson of founder Harry Weaver.
“It’s been just a continuing effort.”
Ken said the anniversary is celebrated each summer, though he’s not sure of the precise month or day when his grandfather and Bud Devore set up shop in 1936.
The pair met in the Peace River country in the early 1920s and formed a freight hauling partnership called the Beulah Boat Company, according to Weaver and Devore’s website.
They were drawn to the Yellowknife area after gold was discovered here in 1934. The first store was on a barge.
“Right in front of (Bullock’s Bistro) is where they parked the barges and they traded merchandise off the boat. It would have been just basic supplies like tobacco, basic hardware like axes and drills and saws and tarps,” Ken said.
They moved off the barge and built the original shop out of logs from Fort Resolution. It occupied what is now Bullock’s.
They moved into their current location across the street in 1972.
“(The quonset hut) was being built in 1971. We opened the doors in April of 1972,” Ken said.
Third generation business
After his grandfather had a stroke, his father Bruce stepped in to run the store and eventually had eight children, of whom Ken is the eldest.
Ken and three of his siblings grew up to become the co-owners of the shop, and the other four siblings run Territorial Beverages.
“We have a great sense of pride as a family that we’ve been able to carry the business name forward … for so many years. Obviously, it’s been a big family effort. We’ve all worked in the store for various amounts of time of our lives,” he said.
A reflection of NWT economy
Over its 84 years, the Old Town store’s business activity has been a reflection of the NWT’s economic fortunes.
In the early days of the mid-20th century, it catered to trappers, prospectors, fishermen and miners.
“There was large amounts of exploration in the 1990s. And then when that sort of fell off for various reasons, the price of gold was down and whatnot (it changed) and they suddenly discovered diamonds and so that was a big staking rush in the early 2000s,” Weaver said.
International tourists have been coming in the store in greater numbers over the last eight or 10 years. But the Covid-19 lockdown all but crushed that traffic, while the drop in visitors here to fish specifically has depressed sales of fishing gear, which lies at the core of the business.
“Our mainstays have been fishing and exploration. We rely heavily on explorers and mining. We do a lot of groceries and outdoor gear for mining camps,” Ken said.
But Weaver said the biggest business changes were the transition from physical to digital bookkeeping and the challenge of competing with big box retail stores like Canadian Tire and Walmart.
“They obviously attract a large portion of consumer sales. A lot of smaller stores like ourselves have a tougher time to compete in that market. We’ve had to carve out our own niche. Most of that would be the things that we’re able to offer as a smaller store (such as) the personal greeting (and giving) a more one-on-one service that we’re able to provide customers.”
Facing the pandemic threat
While the past five months have been challenging and business has slowed down, Ken said they haven’t had to close their doors once since the pandemic arrived.
Some staff members have opted to stay at home at different times as a precaution, but because the staff is small, long-serving and mostly family members they “have managed to keep the store going through these tough times.”
The shop has received a revenue rebound of 10 to 15 per cent over the last several weeks as more local people shop for NWT staycations, Ken said.
Business is still strong for the store but Ken acknowledges that a fourth generation won’t carry the Weaver and Devore torch.
“We don’t see any of our children coming forward. We don’t see a lot of interest in the fourth generation carrying it over. It’s disappointing but they have their own interests and they have their own lives to live.”
The possibility of someone outside the Weaver family buying the business hasn’t been explored yet, he said.
“It is a family business and a lot of the family members are growing older together. We all were born close together, as long as a lot of family members are getting older, as long as our health stays with us, I guess we’ll maintain for for several more years.”