Trade secrets in Westboro: Swap box becomes quirky neighbourhood gem

By Adam Feibel –

When Westboro’s John Robinson suffered a stroke nearly two years ago and endured a number of complications in its wake, he ended up spending a lot of time in the hospital.

He spent a year recovering at Saint-Vincent Hospital. His wife, Jacqueline Tetroe, took him for walks down Cambridge Street North every day to get some fresh air, and every day they’d make a stop at one house that had a weathered old box perched outside of it.

It was a swap box, where the locals collect and dispense various toys, trinkets, books, and other small items. Take something, leave something — simple as that.

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“It became a ritual that every day we’d go for a walk and go to the swap box and see what was in there,” says Tetroe. She would also test her husband’s memory by asking him what was in there the day before. “It became a mental exercise as well as a fun thing.”

By the time Robinson left the hospital last December, Tetroe had become attached to the idea.

“I dropped some strong hints about what a great Christmas present that would be,” she says.

So their daughter, Nicole Robinson, snapped a photo of the Cambridge box and sent it to her sister Katlin in London, Ont. Katlin then sent it to a friend, whose father, Gord Harrison, builds birdhouses out of reclaimed materials. He made two boxes and sent one to Ottawa; the other stayed in London.

The Westboro swap box at 508 Cole Ave., where the Robinson family has lived for 20 years, made its first appearance sometime in March, once enough snow had melted for the season. “We seeded it with Christmas cracker toys and just kind of waited,” says Tetroe.

The box has since seen a variety of occupants, such as hockey pucks, small toys and children’s books. But it’s not always as glamorous.

“Some kid put a leaf in there,” says John Robinson.

Some of the neighbours along Cole Avenue have been looking out for the swap box and helping to keep trade rules in check. Jean McKibbon, who lives directly across the street, has a front-row seat to the exchanges. She calls it a “test of honesty” for the kids.

“At first the little children didn’t understand, and now the parents around here have educated them about what their responsibility is, that they don’t just take things,” she says.

Even the construction workers next door have taken notice, having enjoyed a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies someone left one day. The box also came to their rescue one time when the workers traded for a measuring tape they really needed.

McKibbon and her neighbours say it’s a great way to get kids excited and to bring people around the neighbourhood.

“It’s kind of joining the neighbourhood together a little bit more,” she says. “It’s bringing people together.”

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