By Maureen McEwan
With the arrival of the trucker convoy in late January, life in downtown Ottawa was impacted significantly for weeks. Businesses faced closures, services were disrupted and residents reported incidents of hate, harassment and assault.
Venus Envy—the “education-oriented sex shop and bookstore with something for everyone,” located at 226 Bank St.—was one of the businesses affected and closed on and off. Owner Sam Whittle said it was an “intimidating environment” during the demonstrations.
“For staff and customer safety, especially on weekends, it just didn’t feel safe to be open in Centretown,” she said.
As Valentine’s Day approached, traditionally one of the store’s busiest times of the year, the Venus Envy team had to get creative to boost business and an idea came through. Whittle reached out to Little Jo Berry’s about hosting a pop-up at the bakery’s space at 1305 Wellington St. W.
“I had chatted with Venus Envy a few times over the last couple weeks and I knew they had to close repeatedly for safety,” said Jo Masterson, Little Jo Berry’s owner, in an email Feb. 17. “Customers don’t want to shop downtown with everything going on, so even though folks love these businesses being affected, it’s not safe or accessible to get to them. We were able to provide an alternative shopping space and it felt very important to show up for our business community.”
The Venus Envy pop-up ran from 6-10 p.m. on Feb. 12 after Little Jo Berry’s had closed for the day.
“Considering we planned it in two days, top to bottom, I think it was very successful!” Whittle said.
“We were really happy to see a lot of people come to the door—people were excited about it, and it was nice to be able to run the store, even if it was in a different way than usual,” she added.
Masterson said that the last two years have been “a nightmare for small businesses,” and that the last few weeks left a lot of those businesses feeling “left behind and hopeless.”
“It really feels like community care from other [business] owners and customers is the only tool we have right now. I feel so lucky that our community has taken on the work of supporting small businesses as much as they can. And they understand we need them to show up for us,” they added.
It was the first time that the two businesses have collaborated like this but they’ve worked together before in the community.
“I’ve worked with Venus Envy on some community initiatives, and I’ve always seen Sam, the owner, as a source of small business wisdom and support,” Masterson said. “I’ve also been a Venus Envy customer for many years so their success is personally very important to me.”
Whittle said that one of the positive things to emerge this winter was the empathy and kindness the Venus Envy team received.
“This has been a really, obviously difficult situation for a lot of people. As a business owner, it has been really nice to see the support from people and other businesses.”
That same weekend, another Kitchissippi business was busy helping out a Centretown spot. Julianna Banana, the Westboro mom-and-daughter baking business, raised $500 for hiJinx—the social enterprise at 290 Kent St.—through its “Valentines for a Cause” class. The business wrote a thank-you note to participants on Instagram.
“The money will go to helping this amazing community organization assist vulnerable neighbors in downtown Ottawa,” Julianna Banana wrote on Feb. 14. “It’s been especially difficult in that part of the city. Together, kids and families learned to make Valentine’s desserts for their families and shared their love with others. Yesterday’s class reminded me of the power of community. Thank you Julianna Banana families and Happy Valentine’s Day.”