General store a pillar of Dorset
By Angelica Ingram
Sept. 1, 2016
This is the third and final installment of a series dedicated to highlighting general stores in cottage country.
The history of Robinson's General Store cannot be told without first hearing the history of Dorset.
That is what you learn when sitting down with the store's owner/operator Brad Robinson.
The 81-year-old has been at the helm of the operation since he was in his 20s, inheriting it from his parents.
Now the third and fourth generation are working alongside Brad in the 14,000 square foot store that has a long history in the quaint cottage town of Dorset.
Originally the store was 1,200 square feet and stood on the opposite side of the road, said Brad.
It was then known as McKeys General Store.
Brad counts 1921 as the start for the store, as that was when his mother got involved with the business.
The first couple of decades were tough, as a lack of employment in the area made it difficult for families to survive.
The store would run tabs for customers, however the funds to pay off debts were not always available.
A popular destination for settlers, the thought was the land in Dorset could be farmed, but that proved to be untrue.
“The problem was you couldn't get the shovel in the ground,” said Brad. “It was a very meagre existence. The only thing that saved them was the logging.”
The logging industry lasted up until the First World War, after which many left the area, he said.
Times were tough and jobs were few and far between, until the Second World War happened.
When people returned from the war they were able to pay off their store debts.
“Ninety-nine per cent of them came back and paid us,” said Brad. “And we're doing business two or three generations later with the same families.”
In its earlier years Robinson's sold items such as Avery snowshoes, Heritage stoves and more. The store has evolved over the years, with 14 additions being constructed over the decades.
Now the business encompasses a Foodland and Home Hardware within its walls, which draws a large number of customers.
The numbers have grown over the years, as the area has grown and become a popular cottaging destination.
Brad says at one time there were only 37 cottages on Kawagama Lake, back in the 1930s.
Now 80 per cent of the store's business is done through the summer months, particularly July and August. This past Aug. 1, 4,000 people walked through the doors of Robinson's, said Brad.
Apart from grocery, hardware and convenience items, the store is also a popular spot for giftware and clothing, available at The Red Onion.
One of the most popular items is the line of moccasins the store carries, for both men and women, all of which are made in Canada.
“We've been carrying moccasins all my life,” said Brad. “We have hundreds of pairs in stock. It's one of our biggest selling things because the price is very competitive.”
Brad's daughter Joanne and son-in-law Willie also work in the store now, as well as their son Ryan, who is there part time.
Although his daughter wasn't initially interested in working in the family business, that changed over the years when she found out she was expecting.
“They run the store,” said Brad.
With 10 full-time employees year round, the staff numbers increase to 65 in the summer to accommodate the extra traffic.
“We hire a lot of university and college students,” he said.
Running the store is the only career Brad has ever known and it's clear it's in his blood.
Although he was given a job offer to work for Hudson's Bay company, his future wife didn't want to live any farther north than Dorset.
The offer was a good fit for Brad as Robinson's sold fur and other products similar to Hudson's Bay.
However he opted to stay in Dorset and soon after he became the store's operator.
The store is open all year round, with the exception of four holidays.
Other popular items include local maple syrup, garlic products and unique finds for the area.
“There's no sense in selling what Walmart carries, people have seen that every day. The trick is to get something different,” said Brad. “Whatever you do you have to have the best product. You have to have something people want.”
Different items include glasses, signs and more that are personalized with the names of area lakes, such as Kawagama or Lake of Bays.
One of Brad's favourite aspects of running the store is the repeat customers and loyal families who have been shopping there for generations.
“The cottagers are what have kept us going,” he said. “I've connected with many generations, it's a wonderful relationship.”
Brad believes residents of Dorset hold the store in high regard and are happy to have it in town.
“They're proud of the store.”