Some small-town good news.

New Aron Theatre, Campbellford

The restored Aron Theatre, a great small-town cinema if ever there was one – and the reason why Raymond and I recently spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening in the town of Campbellford.

In last night’s post, I told you about some bad news that’s hit Marmora, a small town in our part of Hastings County where the only bank in town is going to shutter its doors. (And I added in a few choice thoughts about what a rotten move this is by TD Canada Trust.)

Tonight, on a much happier note, I’d like to tell you about some really positive and encouraging signs of healthy small-town Eastern Ontario life that Raymond and I spotted not too long ago. As I mentioned in last night’s post, seeing small towns do well is something dear to my heart, so our late-summer experience in not-far-away Campbellford was a happy one indeed. And, I hope, might offer some ideas for our local towns, which are Madoc and Tweed.

We were in Campbellford – a town with a population of about 3,500 in eastern Northumberland County, which borders the southern half of our own county, Hastings – for a night at the movies. And that fact alone tells you something about Campbellford that distinguishes it from so many other small towns: it still has a movie theatre!

The movie theatre in question is the Aron (or, as we called it back in the day, the New Aron), which I visited many times in my teenage years – because, you see, my family moved to Campbellford in 1975, when I was in high school. (So 1975 was the end of my childhood here at the Manse, and it took a heck of a long time for me to find my way back here.) Our visit to Campbellford and a screening of Guardians of the Galaxy at the New Aron was, therefore, a bit of a nostalgic one for me. (Particularly since the New Aron was where in 1977 I first saw, and loved, a predecessor of Guardians of the Galaxy, a little number called Star Wars.)

The Aron was privately owned and operated back in the ’70s, but a while back it was taken over (and doubtless saved) by a non-profit collective formed for just that purpose. It’s called the Aron Theatre Co-operative, and these folks have done a marvellous job of restoring the Aron and bringing great films (and other special events) to the people of Campbellford and area. They deserve a huge round of applause, and while you’re clapping I’ll show you a few photos of this coolest of small-town cinemas:

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Raymond and I did a couple of other things while we were in Campbellford (which is about a 50-minute drive from Queensborough): we enjoyed a really nice meal at a restaurant that we were most impressed with, called The Bridge; and we explored the downtown. That exploration partly entailed me seeking out signs of the retail Campbellford that I remembered from those long-ago teenage years, like the original sign for Rabethge’s Jewellers that you can find hiding behind the current modern awning:

Rabethge's old sign

But it also meant we had to do some shopping! And that’s what I mostly want to tell you about. We visited several great little shops (and were particularly impressed by Kerr’s Corner Books, a fine small-town bookstore that Campbellford is fortunate to have), but I fell in love with one modest-but-cool (or is that cool-but-modest?) store that was in many ways not much changed from when my family lived just a couple of blocks away from it:

O'Briens' Stedmans store, CampbellfordIt is a Stedmans store; do you remember Stedmans, fellow small-town Ontarians? It was/is a chain (though with fairly individual franchises, like the Campbellford one, in my experience), with an interesting history that you can read here. Your typical Stedmans store is an old-fashioned kind of place: basically, it’s a small-town department store. Kind of like the dry-goods stores that those of us of a certain age remember – stores like Stickwood’s of Madoc – in that it really does carry a lot of “dry goods” like clothing, shoes and materials for people who knit, sew and crochet (think “notions“). But the Stedman’s store run by the O’Brien family – now, just as back in the days when the O’Brien kids were in high school with my siblings and me – sells so many other things! Toys and lawn chairs and books and kitchenware and giftware and stationery and on and on and on. Why, there were even plastic decorative things to put on gravestones! Here’s my little photo gallery:

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So yeah, that’s what I loved about this store: it sells things that ordinary people in an ordinary small town actually need. At reasonable prices. It’s not high-end stuff; there aren’t designer labels. But if you need some extra dinner plates, or a measuring cup, or a wedding-shower or baby-shower gift, or toys for Christmas gifts, or a T-shirt, or some casual shoes, or some yarn to make a sweater with, or a tote bag, or … well, it’s all there.

People, that is the kind of store that will save your small-town downtown. It offers humans things that they need and want, and that they don’t have to drive three-quarters of an hour to a stupid Walmart (I hate Walmart) to get. It’s run by friendly folks who know their customers by name. And the names of their customers’ parents. And those of their children.

And it’s also not a dollar store, which is the closest equivalent that many small towns have. Now, I’m not saying that dollar stores don’t provide a useful retail service, because they do. But the O’Briens’ store is a nice step up from that, with better-quality goods (most of them brand names) and a more pleasant and satisfying retail experience.

Raymond and I had more fun than anything looking around that store. I took some pictures, and bought children’s books (some classic Golden Books like The Poky Little Puppy) and a beautiful pair of leather moccasins for Raymond. And felt very glad, in making those purchases, to be contributing to the success of a retail operation that is in its own turn contributing to the overall success of the town it is in.

We left Campbellford that evening having had a nice meal, watched a fun movie in a great vintage theatre, and enjoyed an excellent shopping experience. And feeling like there was a lot of hope for small-town Eastern Ontario, if other towns follow some of the examples that Campbellford and its arts, food and retail communities are setting.

6 thoughts on “Some small-town good news.

  1. Thanks for that view inside the theatre, Katherine. Every time I go to Campbellford to look at fabric in Your Number One Sewing Store (okay, okay… to go to Dooher’s Bakery), I wonder about that little theatre. So now I know.

  2. I remember Stedmans – haven’t seen one in a very long time.

    Somewhat in the same vein (I think the pictures reminded me a bit) – this got me thinking about one of my favourite places – Renys (most stores are in mid-coast Maine.)

    • Renys! “A Maine Adventure”! Raymond and I love those stores! We always enjoy a visit (or two) when we’re down in Maine in the summer. And you’re absolutely right: they’re a lot like the Stedmans of small-town Ontario, providing a wide range of useful but mostly non-fancy items at very reasonable prices.

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