The Strawberry Tree - Churchill Square retailer specializes in fresh fashion for children
Florence Rolfe, a retired schoolteacher, says she doesn’t consider owning The Strawberry Tree work at all. — Photos by Daniel MacEachern/The Telegram
For Florence Rolfe, owning The Strawberry Tree (21 Rowan St., Churchill Square, St. John’s) is less work than fun.
“It’s just a love of mine. It’s exciting and it’s lovely to see young parents coming in,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun for me. I remember when my kids were little and I was in teaching full-time. I would be over to the store doing window displays until two o’clock in the morning, because I had no other time. And I would leave Friday afternoon on a 4:30 flight, and I would fly to Montreal, do a buy-all-weekend, get on a flight Sunday and get back to the classroom for Monday morning. But I didn’t view it as a hardship. I just love it.”
Who opened the Strawberry Tree and when?
It opened in 1984. It’s kind of a convoluted story, because my friend (Linda Harnum) and I purchased the business together, and she’s since passed away. It was opened by two ladies in ’84. One of them, her husband was transferred. They moved out of the country, so then the business was for sale, and so myself and a friend purchased the business, and that was in ’87. When we purchased it, we purchased the name. So next year, we’ll be 30 years old. Second-generation now. We’re selling clothes to children of children that we sold clothes to.
It’s a children’s clothing store — was that what it was when you bought it?
What drew you to buy it? Were you looking for this particular type of business, or were you just looking for a business and this was available?
No, I think at the time we both had young children, and so it was intriguing. And the buying is a wonderful experience. It’s just something that’s always fresh and new and interesting.
Was this your first business venture?
I’m a retired schoolteacher, so I was teaching the entire time until I retired in 2005, and Linda was a public health nurse, so she was also working.
Has the Strawberry Tree always been in this location?
Always been in Churchill Square, originally facing Elizabeth Avenue. I think there’s an Asian food store over there now. About 1990-ish, we moved around the corner to what used to be the old liquor store in Churchill Square, and that was a great security spot, because they had the liquor store security, they had the armed bars up at the back windows and everything. So that was a really good location, but that was a bigger floor space than this store, and when this space became available, maybe six years ago, I made the decision to come to this side of the square.
How many people work at Strawberry Tree?
Just before Christmas, which is our very busiest time, we have seven part-time employees. We only have part-time employees. And we have, usually, a more mature staff. We have three grandmothers and myself — I’m not a grandmother yet. But we have older staff members, and they’re experienced with what size you need for what age, and that kind of thing.
Is that a conscious decision, then, to try to have a more experienced sales staff?
Yes, I suppose. But then I always have students as well, to kind of offset that. And employees tend to stay with us for a long time. Marg’s been here for maybe 20 years, and another lady who works here has been here 16 years. And a lot of people that age, they’re just interested in one day a week, maybe two days a week before Christmas, when we’re really busy. So it works out really well, rather than having someone coming to work 10 to 5:30 five days a week. Most people who work here are working here for the fun of it.
You’ve been one of the owners of the store since ’87, so you’ve seen some ups and downs in the St. John’s economy. Where’s the St. John’s economy right now?
How can you tell?
We serve grandparents and young parents as well — people are interested, consciously, in quality things. Buying less, but buying better. Especially for school uniforms and clothing that children are wearing to school. It’s washed and worn and washed, and busy parents just don’t have the time to be out replacing it every three weeks or so. It’s the old way of buying. It’s coming back. And I think a lot of the young professionals, they’re having their children later, and they want quality items, and they don’t fill up the child’s closet. They want good things. They mix and match. They’re very conscious, I think, of quality. And the hand-me-down thing has always been an issue with better-quality things. If you’re having the first child, you buy lots of gender-neutral things, and that just goes down through the family. You want it to last, and Ivory sleepers can go through three kids. You pay a little extra, but it ends up being less expensive, because you’re not buying as much.
The store’s moved a couple of times but stayed in Churchill Square — you like the location? What about it do you like?
Love the location. It’s easy to access, and people can pull up to the front door. They can park, as long as they feed the meter, which is something you have to do in cities everywhere. So you park right in front of the door, you come in, there’s no crowd. It’s an easy way to shop with kids. And we have a big family-sized changeroom, which is fabulous. We have toys in there so toddlers can go in there. Usually the (front) door is shut, so it’s easy for parents to shop around. They know right where the children are. They can give them their Cheerios there and give them their juice there.
Churchill Square’s gone through some changes over the years, too — the big issue right now is the loss of the grocery store. Did that affect Strawberry Tree at all?
I would have to say it hasn’t, but I don’t want to sound like it’s not a bad thing that it’s gone. It’s a very bad thing that it’s gone, and I really disagree with the fact that Loblaw’s can leave these three vacant, ugly spots in the city, because there’s one over on Ropewalk Lane, this one, and the one over in the east end. The city has all kinds of laws, and I don’t really know why they can’t say, “Sure, you can open the stadium as a supermarket, but (the vacant Churchill Square store) has to be occupied.” Cities can do that.
I know that some of the merchants in Churchill Square are thinking of reviving the Churchill Square business association. Do you think that’s something that will help, give you more of a voice with local government?
I’m kind of on the fence on that. There was a really nice association years ago with Auntie Crae, (Janet) Kelly. She had a wonderful association going. At the time I was teaching full-time, raising four children, and owning the store on my own, because Linda had passed away. I wasn’t involved in anything outside that I didn’t have to be involved in. So I wasn’t really involved in that, but she had a nice newsletter that went around, and it was very good. But it was a close thing. It didn’t involve the city. I think the city made some offers as far as upgrading the square and stuff like that, but you’ve got to play that carefully.
My understanding is that a lot of merchants in the area are similar, where it’s one person running the store and it’s busy. If you’ve got a family at home you don’t necessarily have a lot of time to devote to an association.
Yep. But it doesn’t mean that an association wouldn’t be a good thing. But then the other thing would be, well, some of us are merchants, but a lot of the business owners here, there’s a lawyer next door. He’s a business owner. I’m not sure what benefit he would see in becoming part of a Churchill Square association.
It’s not exactly a storefront-type of operation.
It’s not a storefront operation. A lot of doctors and specialists in the big building there. The merchants have certain needs, and the other people have other needs, right?
In terms of regulations and taxes, that sort of thing, do you consider St. John’s a business-friendly city?
Oh dear. (Laughs) Partially. We could be more friendly to smaller, more local establishments and entrepreneurs.
When I look down on the waterfront — and I grew up in St. John’s — it’s tough to look at some of the big, huge things that are happening down there, particularly the ones on the water side. Because it blocks the view of the water. I have the same problem in any small community. I have the same problem with St. Philip’s, where there’s a big cul-de-sac. And now when I drive along, that view of Bell Island is blocked for a period of my drive. It’s the same idea. Things on
the water side — it’s sad, because it really takes away from the view of the water. The Southside, the harbour. And now the newest one that’s going next to The Keg hangs out over the sidewalk. It’s very imposing, in my view.
What’s your biggest challenge as a business owner?
Time. (Laughs) I’m kind of a strange business owner, because it’s more of a hobby than a business, so everything comes from a different perspective for me. I don’t feel like I have that many challenges, really.
What about the future for Strawberry Tree — it’s going to celebrate 30 years next year.
Thirty years, and I said Freedom 60, and that’s passed. And now I’m saying Freedom 65, but I’m not sure about that. (Laughs)
Your daughter works here now; is there any kind of succession plan in place?
She’s working part-time. (Calls over to her daughter) Rebecca, are you interested in taking over the Strawberry Tree when your mother retires? This gentleman would like to know.
Rebecca: (laughs) Yes, right. If she sells it to me!
Florence: Rebecca’s master’s degree is in…
Rebecca: …international development studies.
Florence: So she’s kind of in the wrong spot here, part-time.