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Range Street shaped downtown retail scene
Several small businesses grew from 50 Street shop

Daron Letts
Northern News Services
Published Friday, November 22, 2013

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE
When the Traveller's Rest rooming house burned down on 50 Street in the early 1970s, it sparked an explosion of retail entrepreneurship that helped shape downtown's business landscape for decades.

NNSL photo/graphic

Norma Heslep, right, co-owner of Flowers North in Yk Centre with her daughter Tracy Heslep, ran Langlois from 1979 until 2002 with Barry Neary. The 50 Street store helped staff create a wide variety of other downtown businesses, including For Men Only, For Women Only and Chez Patricia. - Daron Letts/NNSL photo

Retired miner George Langlois rebuilt his business after the fire, creating a one-storey gallery to expand the small aboriginal art and craft shop that used to occupy a portion of the rooming house lobby.

He quickly sold the eponymously-named business to Bob Pysmany and Ralph Froment, who then hired 24-year-old University of Alberta fine arts graduate Norma Heslep to run it.

Heslep had come North for work and to visit her sister, Maureen Look, her brother-in-law, Bruce Look, and her niece, Jamie. She stayed for three months, returned to Alberta, then came back two years later, fleeing Alberta's 18 per cent mortgage rates, and bought Langlois' gift and framing shop.

Upstairs were Wolverine Guns and Tackle and the Chopping Block hair studio. A little further down the sidewalk, Roy Williams and his older brother, Merlyn Williams, fixed TV sets; Sam Yurkiw ran The Gold Range Hotel and adjacent bakery, which now houses The Diner; The Rec Hall served food and drink across the street, now a vacant lot. Financial offices, a confectionery and the Gold Range Cafe, as the bistro was then called, also attracted residents to the block.

"It was a busy little street," Heslep recalled.

Like most young businesses, Langlois struggled, nonetheless.

During a rough stretch in 1987, Heslep packed Langlois up and moved into a corner of the upper level of the new Panda II Mall on 48 Street. Sales plummeted, she said.

In 1989, she reinstalled Langlois in the original location on 50 Street, which she purchased from Radio Shack owner Harold Glick.

"People say 50 Street is no good (for retail), but our sales went way up again after we moved back," she said. "It was crazy busy."

The mid-1990s represented a creative renaissance for Heslep and her staff. She painted the facade vibrant blue and green and imported an ever-expanding menagerie of unusual products to line the walls and fill the racks.

Outside, the store glowed, shrouded in soft light. Inside, the smells of incense and chocolate, textures of fabric and wood, spectacles of painted tin ornaments and translucent glass baubles, and continual laughter and chit chat shared among friends and neighbours stimulated the senses.

"When we were having lots of fun and enjoying ourselves together, that's when the business started to make money," Heslep said.

During Raven Mad Days, the shop required door staff to supervise the customers who lined the sidewalk waiting to enter, said Patricia Vienneau, who began working at Langlois in the late 1990s.

"That's how busy those days used to be," she said. "It was a hopping little place."

Business was good. Heslep and business partner Joni Walker had opened Chic Chik and Borderline clothing store a few years earlier in what is now the Noodle House building.

At Langlois, they hired Barry Neary, who, along with business partner Sue Glowach, had closed the Forget Me Not gift and ladies wear shop in Panda II Mall in 1998.

Heslep and Walker handled the gifts, kitchenware, linens and chocolate counter, while Vienneau, Neary, and event planner and former part-time Forget Me Not employee Vicki Tompkins focused on the store's expanding selection of eclectic clothing.

Neary, Tompkins and Heslep established a new men's clothing business downstairs called For Men Only. Neary and Tompkins bought Heslep out in 2001 and moved next door.

Continuing Langlois' flair for bold colour, they hired artist Terry Pamplin to create a fantastical space-scape across the storefront, from the sidewalk to the roof. The intergalactic mural still covers Smart Bee Convenience Store today.

A few blocks away, Tompkins, Neary and business partner Rosemary Youngblut had launched a sister clothing store - For Women Only - in the Scotia Centre in 2000. Tompkins and Neary eventually divided their two businesses, and Tompkins bought Youngblut out. Neary moved For Men Only to its present location in Yk Centre a few years later.

Meanwhile, Walker had purchased Langlois from Heslep in 2002, then sold the women's clothing department to Vienneau in 2004. Vienneau used half of the store to found her new business, Chez Patricia, in which she stocked funky fashions, elegant lingerie, jewelry, handbags and other accessories.

Langlois, Chez Patricia, and Chic Chik and Borderline all moved into the former Polar Parkas building on 49 Street in 2006, which Walker purchased that year.

Langlois, Chic Chik and Borderline closed over the next few years, and, in 2010, Chez Patricia moved into the former Foto Source location on Franklin Avenue.

Business was good for a couple of years, Vienneau said, but after a review of this past fall's books, she has decided to close Chez Patricia before Jan. 1, following almost a decade in business for herself.

Tompkins continues to sell fashion-forward designs at Just for Women, while preparing to purchase For Men Only from Neary on Jan. 1, as her longtime friend prepares for retirement.

Heslep, who has pursued other entrepreneurial projects throughout the past decade, is part owner of the 40-year-old Flowers North business in Yk Centre in partnership with Neary and her daughter Tracy Heslep, who will take the shop over after Neary retires.

The former Langlois location, last occupied by an Instaloans branch, is now a vacant lot. The City of Yellowknife purchased the property for $390,000 early last year, then demolished the building last month.

It remains to be seen what phoenix rises out of those ruins.

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