Best boutique shopping in Canada

Manhattan is a mall. So is central London. What the savvy shopper knows is that as artists and craftsmen move to cities they can afford, the most original wares and purchases go with them. Finding the best boutiques is not just a way to shop memorably, but to have fun exploring streets that are frequently off the beaten track and say a lot about a city’s character. Here are 10 of Canada’s best:

1. The Bird House & Binocular Shop in St. John’s, NL, is a wonderfully idiosyncratic store that will please birders and the curious alike. Binoculars, spotting scopes, field guides and bird supplies for the yard can be found here, as well as beautiful, handcrafted birdhouses resembling the singular wooden architecture of downtown St. John’s and painted in their jolly colours. It is also possible to rent binoculars, and the store provides brochures with a checklist of local species and notes on where to find them.

2. Technically speaking, the branches of Guy’s Frenchys — across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — are not “boutiques.” But if you want strong local flavour and to find gifts of clothing for friends and family, then these family clothing outlets — the last stop not just of second-hand and vintage wear, but also all sorts of designers — are a joy, and cheap to boot. A guidebook has been written about how to shop at thrift stores in the area, and The New Yorker has paid homage to it. On a rainy day, nothing better.

3. The Lucky Rabbit Pottery shop in the historic village of Annapolis Royal, NS, is one of the treasures of the Atlantic provinces and, indeed, the country. Ray Mackie throws the pottery — platters, teapots, vases, bowls and tiles for the fireplace if you wish — and partner Deb Kuzyk paints it. Their eclectic style is a fusion of Chinese, Persian and classical elements infused with a magical and rapturous enjoyment of mythical nature. The pair makes masterworks, no two pieces alike, and have exhibited all over the country. Visit on a summer Saturday morning, when the next-door farmer’s market is at its peak.

4. Montréal, QC‘s Aime Com Moi at 150 Avenue du Mont Royal Est (514-982-0088), offers a combination of its own couture made onsite, as well as other Québécois designers (the store stocks 10 other labels at a time). Do not be put off by the store’s somewhat political stance — it stocks only Québécois designers and does not go out of its way to court business — the clothes are original, fabulous and reasonably priced.

5. Virginia Johnson is one of Canada’s most original and successful designers who returned to Toronto, ON, from New York, where she worked as an accessories designer at Helmut Lang and where Vogue (US) and Kate Spade were her illustration clients. All her scarves, breezy dresses, blouses and bags are unique; Johnson designs her prints in watercolours, then has them all hand-screen-printed in India and printed onto fabrics. The line is sewn in Toronto and sold in that city out of a shop on Ossington Street, now an up-and-coming area of original restaurants, bars, vintage clothes stores and coffee shops. While on Ossington, check out Jonathon + Olivia for great designer deals.

6. Trove is one of the most congenial and enjoyable clothes, shoe, jewellery and handbag shops in the country, with a store in Toronto‘s Annex and Bloor West Village. Trove stocks Canadian and international designers, and favours an aesthetic that is at once colourful, earthy and environmentally conscious — with a certain retro tendency to boot. The staff here is a treat.

7. The advantage of setting up shop away from the country’s most expensive cities is that space for a large studio and shop can be found in a glorious district of magnificent 1920s office buildings that would be priced beyond any craftsperson’s budget in New York — but are affordable in handsome, bohemian Winnipeg, MB. Hilary Druxman has designed jewellery for Saks, Club Monaco, Banana Republic and Absolut Vodka. Her delicate pieces are now made and exhibited for sale in elegant, spacious premises in the heart of old Winnipeg, where statuesque architecture and a haven of clubs, galleries and shops invite a wander.

8. The Alberta Boot Company operated for three decades out of an unremarkable one-storey building in downtown Calgary, AB, but moved last year to new premises off the MacLeod Trail. You may want a horse to get there (a car is even better), but the trip is certainly worth it, as this is probably the best cowboy boot store in the country. Thousands of boots are available, and if you can’t find the dream boot in the colour and with the stitching you want, then you can have it made in anything from bullhide, cowhide, lizard, eel, stingray and ostrich to alligator, kangaroo or python. Those boots you saw in the movie Unforgiven or those in The Assassination of Jesse James or in Shanghai Noon — they were all made here, and a lot of Hollywood others.

9. Banff, AB, the jewel of the Canadian Rockies nestled in the Bow Valley on the mountain range’s eastern slopes, is renowned for its skiing, bars, restaurants and clothing boutiques. But in the last couple of decades, it’s also become a discerning place to shop for art. At Canada House Gallery, it is possible to choose from a fine range of Northwest Coast and Inuit art, and also to find beautifully crafted jewellery. Not a museum, but almost.

10. Jewellerbau Collective, at 2408 Main St. in Vancouver, BC, is the studio shop, art gallery and workplace of Argentinian-born sculptor Dina González Mascaró. Her fascinating and original work has included a collection inspired by Pablo Picasso, Albrecht Dürer and Stefan Lochner featuring animal-head pendants, which prompted the National Post to ask if her artful jewellery is that — or sculpture. As it is now a collective, Jewellerbau also showcases the work of other local artists, including Shira Laye and Jacqui Kerr. Check out other shops and restaurants along this pleasing stretch of Main St. while you’re here.

Read more on shopping and fashion in Canada.

Article courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
Photo: Ottawa, Ontario, Credit – Ottawa Tourism