Faro’s little big store

In less than a decade, Mel Smith went from 40 employees to one. But the owner of Faro’s only store isn’t giving up.

In less than a decade, Mel Smith went from 40 employees to one.

But the owner of Faro’s only store isn’t giving up.

“I guess I’m here for life,” Smith said, while sitting at a table in the middle of his scantily stocked hardware and grocery.

For years, Smith sold it all: produce, dairy, groceries, lumber, hardware, clothes, housewares, sporting goods, even lottery tickets.

Now, his big store sits empty, with the odd dusty wine glass and plush toy left behind.

Last fall, Smith moved what was left of his inventory to a smaller building on the neighbouring lot.

But even here, many shelves are bare.

“People don’t shop here,” he said.

“They just pick up things they forgot in Whitehorse.”

Smith is open, “whenever people want anything.”

And if they want to come over for a cigarette and a beer, he’s open for that too.

“I wonder when they’re going to tell me I can’t smoke in here?” said Smith, lighting up.

“But I live here, this is my home.”

It’s also home to Rainer, a copper Lab with only one eye, and Puddles, a chubby yellow Lab. The pair wander the store getting the odd pat from customers.

Smith came to Faro in 1982.

He’d come up from Loydminster, Alberta, to act as a consultant for Maurice Byblow, who was running a hotel in town.

“It was supposed to be a six-month contract, but after a couple months he told me he couldn’t afford me,” said Smith.

Three years later, when the Faro mine closed for the first time, Smith came back up to help Byblow close down the hotel.

This time, he got paid before he arrived.

But before Smith had time to shut things down, the mine reopened and people started trickling back into town.

Soon they were showing up at the hotel trying to buy staples, so Smith cleared out a shed, set up a pop cooler and started selling a few groceries.

One thing led to another and before Smith knew it, he was running a store.

In their heyday, Smith and his wife had a grocery store, a hardware, a sporting goods store and a hair salon.

Then, the mine shut down again.

Smith closed the hair salon and the sporting goods store, and eventually moved his hardware into the grocery story.

But it didn’t help.

“It was a losing proposition,” he said.

“Year after year we kept cutting expenses just to keep the doors open.”

Then, in the summer of 2007, the couple started liquidating their stock.

They’d bought a small neighbourhood pub in Alberta and were closing the Faro store.

“We were already losing money, and there was no point losing more,” said Smith.

Smith’s wife headed to Alberta a few weeks before him, and just before he locked up the doors and joined her, a fax arrived.

“It was a Dear John letter,” said Smith.

With nowhere to go, Smith decided to keep on running the store.

“I’m open for life,” he said.

“It was a real struggle the first few months.

“I was in close-down mode and then it didn’t happen. And I’d exhausted my resources on another building down south.”

Rebuilding the inventory is really difficult, said Smith.

He’d already sold his house, so he moved into the hardware and started the slow process of re-stocking.

Wandering the aisle, Smith toyed with the empty tags listing inventory that’s gone from the shelves.

“We had doweling, ready rods, punches, socket sets, birthday candles, low- and medium-grade tarps, all sizes of hex nuts, locks and door stuff, faucets, snow shovels, paint thinners and solvents — you name it and it was here.”

Now, Smith and his new helper Eileen Owen order on an individual basis.

“What’s Bonnie smoking?” said Owen, counting the packs and cartons of smokes behind the counter.

Pat will buy one du Maurier Regular, added Smith.

“That’s how individual our ordering is,” he said with a grin.

Smith can’t afford to have 50 cartons of cigarettes on the shelf. “That’s $5,000,” he said.

It wasn’t until two months ago that Smith had enough income to hire Owen.

“If I could get away with it I’d have her working here seven days a week,” he said.

“Then I could go fishing once in awhile.”

Owen was having trouble finding a supplier for a specialty cheese a Faroite ordered.

“We carry way too much variety here,” said Smith, shaking his head.

“We should just have brown bread, white bread and hamburger and hot dog buns.”

Although the loss of the mine took its toll, Smith also blames Wal-Mart and Superstore for his struggles.

Faroites drive into Whitehorse and stock up at the big box stores, he said.

“So it’s not practical for this size population to have a full-size store.”

Outside, Smith watched Rainer walk across the road, oblivious of the township truck he’d forced to a stop.

“He had his bad eye to us,” said the foreman with a laugh, driving off.

Smith gestured to the hulking warehouse that used to be his store, and the empty lots full of weeds beside it.

“This is my retirement,” he said.

“Four beautiful commercial industrial lots.

“And if I don’t pay taxes this year, I might not even own them anymore.”

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