Phoenix On Bowen Fills Niche in Close-knit Island Community

Phoenix Signage

A handcrafted sign welcomes customers to Bowen Island's only toy shop

Angela Powell loves toys and interacting with her community’s kids and families. And although she may seem like a born toy retailer now, that hasn’t always been the case, says this enthusiastic 64-year-old B.C. store-owner. “Becoming a toy retailer has been more like a process of evolution,” laughs Angela.

Born and raised in the U.K., Powell was a teacher before she and her husband immigrated in the 80s to Canada where she joined her brother in his high-end Vancouver photo studio. She continued in the photo-finishing business even after her brother retired several years later, eventually moving across the Queen Charlotte Channel to live and run her own photo-finishing shop, Phoenix Photo, on beautiful Bowen Island.

Bowen, just 72-square kilometers, is home to around 3,500 full-time residents many living in the vicinity of the Island’s small and only business district, which is a short walk from the ferry dock in Snug Cove. While many residents are retired seniors, there’s a large contingent of younger Bowen Islanders who work — and, yes, shop — in Vancouver, making the 20-minute boat trip back and forth each day. In addition to the 1,250 permanent households, many vacation homes are owned by outside families from the Vancouver area, other provinces and even the U.S. The arrival of these part-time occupants, along with hundreds of day tourists, swells the Island’s population significantly through the summer months.

Despite several pluses, such as the annual influx of tourists with money to spend and the absence of any big-box competitors, maintaining a successful business in such a unique environment is bound to be challenging — to say the least. But, right from the start Angela thrived, quickly determining how she could best serve the needs of customers in her small community. Plus, she became adept at keeping the Phoenix Photo name front row and centre with customers by sponsoring and participating in important Island events like the annual August festival.

Angela ran Phoenix Photo out of her cottage home for four years until 1999. When she was offered a small 450-square-foot storefront in the Island’s new Village Square, Angela jumped at the chance to finally separate business and home life. Also, about this time, Angela began to realize that DIY digital photography was the coming trend, reducing the importance and need for many formal photo-finishing services. The move gave her reason to streamline her equipment, as well as explore the idea of adding new but related products for sale.

With just 100-square-feet of selling space, Angela began offering a selection of frames and all-occasion greeting cards. And because Bowen Island has a strong and creative community of both professional and amateur artists and artisans, she introduced a range of art and craft supplies, suitable for a variety of ages and skill levels. Angela also sold local artists’ work — pottery and paintings to hand-made plush toys — on a consignment basis. As a result, new customers found their way to Phoenix Photo.

The plush toys and craft supplies were perhaps a herald of things to come. After just one year in the tiny storefront, a local landlord offered her larger premises across the Square. Knowing she could expand her clientele and market if she also expanded her real estate and inventory, Angela quickly agreed. It didn’t take her long to move product and her few remaining pieces of photo-finishing equipment over to the new 1,250-square-foot storefront. The new premises were at bare-wall stage and needed considerable work to accommodate the changes Angela intended to make to her business. But her husband, Trevor, and a handy neighbour got busy creating and installing display shelving, a slat wall for peggable products, and a shaped display counter. Although the old Phoenix Photo sign was hung over the front door, it too would change as Angela’s business became less focused on photography services and more on interesting art, gift and toy products.

Over the next few years, Angela began to steer her business increasingly towards selling primarily kids’ products. In addition to beefing up her selection of art and craft supplies, kids’ greeting cards and quality children’s books, Angela journeyed to the mainland to see and hear about what toy retailers in other markets were offering their customers.

She also attended Toronto’s Canadian Toy & Hobby Fair, relying on her old instincts as a teacher, as well as the advice of other independents she met through the Neighbourhood Toy Stores of Canada, to source good quality educational lines with traditional play value. And with her customers’ wish lists for their children always in mind, Angela created a comprehensive mix of brands and SKUs for kids, birth to 12 years old. Her selection covered a wide-range of categories with product from well-known distributors, such as Alex, Creativity for Kids, Lego, Toysmith, Melissa & Doug, Stortz & Associates, Outset Media, Schleich North America and, of course, Playmobil Canada, whose product is the staple of so many independents.

Around 2004, as if to confirm the final steps of her evolution from photo-finisher to toy retailer, Angela commissioned a local artisan to re-craft the beautiful wooden Phoenix Photo sign to say, “Phoenix on Bowen.”

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