The Family Behind Old Faithful Shop
Never have I visited a shop so well curated and drool-worthy as Gastown’s Old Faithful Shop. It’s true: the rows of beautiful glass coffee makers, artisanal cookbooks and forest-smelling soaps that line the shelves will make any person fantasize of a life requiring such simple yet aesthetically handsome products. Savannah Olsen and Walter Manning are the co-founders behind Old Faithful, and with their adorable daughter June and pup Jean Pierre have recently expanded and opened a second shop in Toronto. I sat down with them to learn why they created their modern take on a general store, and why it quickly became a destination for both Vancouver natives and visitors from all over the globe.
Photos by Grady Mitchell
M: How did you two meet, and why did you decide to open a store together?
Walter: “We were both working in retail forever, whether it was for small privately-owned businesses or corporate ones. It came to the time when we thought, ‘We’ve done this enough for other people, maybe it’s time to make a go of it for ourselves.’ Every time we were traveling, the stuff that we both enjoyed and liked equally was always well made housewares and décor – so we knew that we could collaborate on that initiative pretty easily.”
Savannah: “We saw something that we felt was missing in Vancouver. Especially with the aesthetic of the store, that didn’t really exist back then. Vancouver’s kind of a glass city and everything was modern, which has its benefits. But there were things that we were drawn to when we were travelling, places that had a comfortable atmosphere that didn’t really exist in Vancouver.”
M: I read that part of your inspiration for Old Faithful came from you Walter’s grandparents’ general stores in Newfoundland.
Walter: “Both my parents’ grandparents owned general stores, as did their parents, so it was in their blood. I remember spending summers kicking around the back room, pumping gas for my grandfather or grabbing a case of beer for somebody, and how people came for more than what they needed. There was a sense of community and a real camaraderie that I felt was missing in the retail landscape. You had small boutiques who thought they were too cool for school and then the big ones who were corporate and forgot the little things that mattered the most.”
M: Were there places you looked to for inspiration before you opened Old Faithful Shop?
Savannah: “We went on a big trip to London and Paris and Copenhagen. I previously lived in London for a year, so the heritage shops in London were always attractive to me, and Denmark is really cool as well.”
Walter: “I mean you pull inspiration from all over the place but then you had your own personal flare to it as well. I don’t think there was one shop per say that stuck in my mind. One was Few and Far, in London, but that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Savannah: “Yeah, the owner changed what she sold every spring, summer, fall and winter, so everything completely changed. It was the idea of doing a lifestyle store rather than just selling strictly housewares or strictly clothing. We saw more of that when we travelled. When we opened, we definitely got a lot of, ‘I don’t get it, why do you sell wallets and butter dishes?’” (laughs)
M: Can you describe the process of opening up the shop?
Walter: “We had a really good business plan – Savannah put it all together, I had nothing to do with it. It was well put-together but also it had the worst-case scenario in there too, and I think it was realistic.”
Savannah: “Looking back now, it was the perfect time to open a store, but at the time it felt very difficult to open a store. We were just coming out of the recession and no banks wanted to invest in any retail because it was seen as too high risk. We had a business plan and ended up getting financing, but it was a long journey. I had some mentors who had gone through the same process that were able to guide me. It took three or four months to really get the business plan right, it wasn’t really something that we whipped up in a week.”
M: How do you two divide the responsibilities of the business? I imagine it has evolved since you first opened.
Savannah: “Initially when we first opened, Walter was here full time and I still worked at my other job, and would come after working there or on my days off. At the beginning I was more maintaining the store. Now, I’ve tended to move towards all the operations: working with the staff, bookkeeping and making sure all the paperwork is done, payroll, stuff like that. Walter set up the online store and has taken over the online business, as well as all the social media and photographing all the products.”
M: Are there ever challenges of running a business together?
Savannah: “I think that Walter and I are like yin and yang in the business. For example, I’m super organized and Walter not as much, but he’s very creative and there’s no way I could do the online store and photograph everything. Walter’s very analytical and I’m very intuitive so it’s sometimes hard for us to work through that. But at the same time, everything we’ve ever agreed on has worked out very well. We’re both really hard workers, which is good because if one of us wasn’t that would be a disaster.” (laughs)
M: How do you manage raising your daughter and running the shop?
Savannah: “There are definitely pros and cons. There’s no maternity leave if you own your own business, but at the same time, I have the flexibility with her. I couldn’t imagine taking her to daycare, I’d rather be with her, and this really allows me to do both. I think if I was just a mom I’d really be bored – so it’s good that I get to balance both. It can be hectic at times but overall it’s been a blessing to be able to have the store and it works well with the baby now.”
M: Why do you think customer service is so important?
Walter: “I’ve been to a couple stores where you get the ‘laptop associate,’ sitting behind the cash desk, immersed in the laptop, whether they’re working on something business related or checking their Facebook - it’s all the same to me. I’m a physical person in the store, and you don’t have time to greet me? That kind of stuff in retail drives me up the wall.
“You don’t need to be a Sham-wow kind guy to sell something. You can be approachable, authentic. I feel that in the boutique environment, there’s a story to every unique product out there.”
Savannah: “I feel like we’re doing a lot more than just the products: how the store smells, how it looks - it comes down to the whole atmosphere of the store and what that represents. Because we are so focused on customer service and know what our expectations are, going shopping can be hard like, ‘Oh my god I can’t buy this because nobody’s acknowledged me.’ Even if you like something.”
M: What do you feel sets Old Faithful apart from other places?
Walter: “I think it’s an authentic experience. I had a friend who used to always say ‘You can’t fake the funk.’ And that always stuck with me. I think there’s something we’re doing that has a certain magic quality to it, that without us here, somebody can try to copy us but they can’t copy me or Savannah, or our staff.
Savannah: “I know it may sound cheesy, but I always tell my staff that we love our customers unconditionally. Everybody’s had that experience where you’ve gone somewhere and said ‘Can’t buy a shirt today’ and then the sales associate is cold to you. So I feel like no matter what, we treat people equally, from the smallest purchase to the largest. Maybe someone’s not buying something today, but years from now they might remember that we made them feel good that day.”
Old Faithful is located in Vancouver at 320 West Cordova Street in Gastown and in Toronto at 886 Queen Street West. Visit their website and online shop (filled full of gems) at www.oldfaithfulshop.com