A veteran of the Queen/Ossington fashion-retail scene explains why she now prefers selling antiques to vintage clothing.
When Lindsay Fernlund opened Silver Falls Vintage at Ossington and Queen in 2009, the intersection was still relatively quiet, known more for the CAMH than a bustling retail scene. Now boasting a Starbucks, Shoppers Drug Mart and just-opened Gravitypope, the corner has certainly made an about-face. And the local vintage-clothing scene has become a much more competitive as well—Fernlund can think of over 20 vintage clothing stores that have opened in Toronto since she opened Silver Falls.
Fernlund has since sold Silver Falls to a former employee and opened Symbolist just a stone’s throw away on Queen West, where she finds herself enjoying the comparatively relaxed pace of running an antique shop.
How she got started: Symbolist began as a relatively short-lived experiment at Silver Falls. “We had a mini antique store there for a little bit,” says Fernlund. “We just started collecting antiques and had it set up almost like a gallery. But that only lasted for a couple of months because I ended up renting that space to Melissa Ball, who does Chosen, so we stopped doing the antique thing for a while. But then this space became available to us and we just kinda went for it.”
Fortunately, her partner, artist Jay Isaac, has some background in the business. “Jay grew up in the antique world—his parents have an antique store out east and his mom’s an appraiser,” Fernlund says. “So we just thought, ‘Why not? Why not just try to do something we know.’ He was teaching me about the antique world, I was teaching him about the vintage-clothing world and those things went hand-in-hand. And we had the space.”
Vintage clothes vs. antiques: Despite going hand-in-hand, there are some fundamental differences between the two businesses. Say Fernlund, “The way that you get things in the vintage-clothing world, especially in Toronto, is super-competitive. You have to fight tooth and nail for your connections. I’d been doing that job for a while, so I had the connections and everything, but I prefer the pacing of [antiques]. We can go to an auction and we’re not really fighting with anyone for stuff. When I sold Silver Falls, I just wanted to focus 100 per cent on this.”
What’s in-store: While many antique retailers focus on particular aesthetic—say, mid-century modern or Canadiana—that’s not the case with Symbolist. “We don’t have any era,” says Fernlund. “We have everything from the 1800s right up to the 1980s—it’s eclectic, I would say.”
As in any business, trend plays a role in what sells and what doesn’t. “I feel like things can come and go,” says Fernlund. “Pyrex bowls—in the beginning we couldn’t keep them, we’d sell so many of them. Then, for some reason, they fall out of favour and then you don’t sell them. There are also certain things that I know people will buy no matter what, like trunks—if I get any kind of trunk, it’ll sell in a day.”
Fernlund relies on auctions to bring merchandise into the shop. “We go outside of Toronto,” she says. “I prefer to do things that way, because I feel it’s bringing in fresh things from outside of the city. I know some people go out on buying trips, but that seems like a huge expense and investment of time to me. I’d rather do an auction once or twice a month.”
Frequent trips to auctions means that new items are constantly making their way to the store. Without any storage to speak of, Symbolist relies on a reasonable price-point to support a high turnover. “We try to keep things in the $50 to $500 range, so that it’s affordable,” says Fernlund. “It’s not high-end, expensive antiques and it’s not Ikea. It’s the alternative to that. There’s a middle ground. I don’t get many people balking at the prices, because you could go to Ikea and buy a dresser for the same price. But Ikea is never going to be valuable, no one’s ever going to hand it down to their kids.”
Design principles: Symbolist’s look reflects the eclectic nature of what they’re selling inside. “It’s very natural, it’s not like we’re trying to represent this very specific mandate of a store,” says Fernlund. “I like that we don’t have to have store fixtures, because the furniture in the store does that. But the thing is, if you sell one thing, the whole store gets turned upside down. I can’t get too hung up on how things are displayed, because it’ll just change all the time.”
Here comes the neighbourhood: Although Symbolist is located on one of the few remaining quiet blocks of West Queen West, development is fast approaching from both sides. “We’re bookended by Starbucks,” says Fernlund of the coffee chain’s nearby locations at Dovercourt to the west and Ossington to the east. “I think it helps draw people further this way. In the beginning, when I opened Silver Falls, I had this big idea of what Ossington was like but, really, there were no people. It was a wasteland.”
However, Fernlund isn’t entirely sure that more people means more business.“Now, there’s those new condos and I don’t know what that’s going to mean for us,” she says. “I don’t know if those condo people are going to like this kind of stuff. But I do get people from Bohemian Embassy, and I hear a lot that it’s cold, concrete, and glossy and they just want something old to balance it out.”
The holiday effect (or lack thereof): With the holidays fast approaching, many retailers are primed for their busiest time of the year. This, however, isn’t the case for Fernland. “In all of the years, I’ve had a business, I feel like people don’t buy either vintage clothes or antiques for Christmas,” she says. “Maybe people are kind of focused on the mall. And it’s kind of personal here—most people are buying for themselves.”