Weekly Photo Feature

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A selection of images from my personal archive

During the 1980s, to enhance my skills as a journalist, I learned photography, taking courses under Ray Fennelly, Rob Johnston and Mannie Buccheit. As an editor, I had the good fortune of working with Ned Pratt, Greg Locke, as well as Ray and Mannie. So I've had some great mentors and influencers.

I have managed to hang onto many (though not all) of my photographs from those days, and some are actually quite decent (in some cases, it might even be said historically important). I have taken other shots, for corporate projects or personal enjoyment, that also stand up well. Rather than allow them to languish in a file folder, I am going to start posting them here. I will present a new image or subject every week for the next little while, along with accompanying stories (where they exist) to provide some context.

To get the ball rolling, I present Ronald J. O'Brien (now deceased), owner of R.J. O'Brien General Dealer in Cape Broyle, from a story in the October 28, 1990 edition of The Newfoundland Signal. It captures an important moment in time, as O'Brien was about to close up shop for good. The building now houses Stan Cook's Kayak Adventures, and I applaud them for preserving the building very much as it was in O'Brien's day. You can click the photos to see a larger version.

Cape Broyle's general dealer

about to close up shop

(From October 1990)

Ronald J. O'Brien's horse was a fast one. And it didn't handle bends too easily. Every time it rounded the corner of O'Brien's general store in Cape Broyle, the animal would come too close and clip the building.

So Mr. O'Brien fixed that. He sawed the corners off the building, and rebuilt them as curves. The horse never struck the store again.

That's just one of the stories you're likely to hear if you visit R.J. O'Brien General Dealer, in the heart of Cape Broyle. Those who are accustomed to strip malls and shopping centres will be immediately wonderstruck by the old world ambience of the store. And those who linger a moment will come under the spell of Ron O'Brien, who spins tales of three-masted schooners, visiting dignitaries (the highlight of a Chinese ambassador's trip to Canada in 1983 was an informal visit to the O'Brien residence) and presidential pals (he includes former president Ronald Reagan on his list of friends).

But it all might come to an end soon: at age 72, Mr. O'Brien has decided it's time to retire.

"There comes a time in everybody's life when they have to make a decision to stop," he said, adding that he will probably lease the store. "I wouldn't sell it I'd sooner close it up."

But for someone who has worked all his lifetime, Mr. O'Brien said leaving the store is going to be "a big root it just gives me something to do; to meet people, talk to them Regardless of what business is like, it gives me a chance to get out of the house."

One freedom he has enjoyed in running the shop is setting his own hours: "I come down here at nine o'clock close at around quarter to twelve, go up and then get a siesta after dinner, come down around 1:30 and close again around quarter to five. I was never opened in the nighttime in my life. The only time I ever opened (at night) was Christmas eve, when I stayed open to eight or nine o'clock."

Mr. O'Brien said Newfoundlanders were much more self-sufficient several generations ago. They would grow their own produce and meat, and build their own homes instead of chaining themselves to mortgages.

"I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. He's getting around $18 an hour. He says he was better off back, say, 25 years ago, when he was getting $1.75 an hour."

Mr. O'Brien took over responsibility for the general store in 1937 at age 19, after his father John died, and has operated it ever since. But over the years he dabbled in other pursuits as well, most notably the fish drying and exporting business. He did "a lot of meandering" before building a salt fish drying plant of his own, which he sold several years ago.

These days, Mr. O'Brien's store is kept busy by trade from that same fish plant across the street, and by a steady flow of tourists during the summer months. But when asked if he has made his fortune, Mr. O'Brien is evasive.

"If I haven't, there's no point worrying about it now," he said with a chuckle.

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