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BEST OF THE CITY: Niche businesses of downtown Victoria

Where to find unique and rare local goods

When tourists or Victorians are shopping local, they’re often seeking something they won’t find anywhere else.

Luckily, when shopping downtown in Victoria, there are plenty of vibrant, niche shops to uncover.

Take, for instance, Oscar & Libby’s, which calls itself home to the zaniest and most eclectic gift ideas in Victoria. Inside, you’ll find a bright array of puzzles, pop culture, games, Jellycat toys, over 65 hot sauces and funny finds like breakfast-themed sponges and socks with noodles on them that say “send noods.”

With 33 years as a toy retailer downtown, owner Teri Hustins (who also owns Kaboodles Toy Store) knows what it takes to keep customers excited about her products.

“You have to be careful you don’t step on your neighbour’s toes because there are so many good stores in Victoria that curate their wares with lots of local, so you have to find things that are different which requires a little more searching,” said Hustins. “We go through thousands and thousands of online catalogues.”

Just a door down from Oscar & Libby’s Market Square location is Little Shop of Strange. It’s equally full of the unexpected, but instead of funny, bright and cute, it leans towards the odd, artistic and gothic. Owner and artist Michelle Potentier stocks the store with creations from over 100 local artists, including artistic taxidermy, art, clothing patches and festival costumes.

READ MORE: Victoria’s Little Shop of Strange a ‘one-of-a-kind’ hub for the unusual

The range of products found between the two stores highlight the beauty of local shopping. As Potentier said, you are not going to get this experience at a mall or a chain store.

“You never know what you’re going to see here. It’s reliant on what people happen to pop in and give me, so I think they just like it ‘cause it’s unique and they’re hard-to-find things,” she said.

Across the block on Johnson, Makara Adkins and Linda Mitchell opened Good Vibe Space during the pandemic when they saw a need to showcase struggling local artists, while simultaneously creating a joyful space for customers.

“Our focus on colorful and playful designs aimed to bring joy and happiness to our customers, even amidst the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic,” said Adkins.

The boutique has hand-made, locally-sourced home decor, jewelry, art and clothing, carefully curated with colour therapy in mind.

Irene Drmla started Special Teas Inc. inspired by the teashops of Germany, where she used to live. (Sam Duerksen/News Staff)

That’s the beauty of niche shops. They are able to cater to their customers in a way that makes them irreplaceable.

A business that illustrates this to the “tea” is Special Teas Inc. on Yates, a family-run business owned by Irene Drmla. “We are the only local tea store that blends all their own teas,” said Drmla who is also a Chartered Herbalist.

What makes the shop special is that, due to blending her own teas, Drmla is able to make things at the request of her customers.

“People have brought me recipes that I have recreated for them. I have one tea that I named after Lady Patricia; Patricia has been a customer of mine for 26 years and she brought me a tea [that she can’t get anymore]. So I made it. There’s quite a few teas I have like that that customers asked me to make and then they become popular.”

Speaking of irreplaceable local gems, it would be amiss to leave out vintage toy store Cherry Bomb Toys. Home to the National Toy Museum of Canada, on staff, they have both a toy repairer and a resident lego expert, attracting customers with their hard-to-find items.

Cherry Bomb Toys shows the extent of the hardships local businesses have gone through in the last few years. They experienced a fire in the hotel at their old location in May 2019, followed by a December break-in, their property put up for sale in February of 2020, and then the pandemic hit.

Owners Candice and Biagio Woodward managed to push through and now are in a new location on 719 Yates St. between Interactivity Board Game Cafe and Haunted Mini Golf.

READ MORE: VIDEO: Beloved Victoria toy store finds a new home

Owning a niche business can be challenging, but the rewards for owners who get to put their own values, quirks and passions into their business can be great.

Niche businesses also help drive the local economy and cater to tourism. According to the City of Victoria, Greater Victoria gets nearly four million tourists annually, many of who want local finds.

“When you go in a town or city, you want to go where the locals go,” Hustins of Oscar & Libby’s said. “I think downtown, we have so many good independent food establishments, retailers. It’s really incredible.”

And what does it take to stand out as a local business? Adkins of Good Vibe Space has some input.

“To stand out as a local business, it takes a combination of factors including a unique product selection, a personal touch, and a commitment to fostering a sense of community.”

So what are you waiting for? Grab your shopping bag and go discover the niche that Victoria has to offer.

Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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