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COLUMN: Owners of Downtown Exchange enjoying new venture

Russell, Jane and John Wile have brought new life, including handmade wooden and wool crafts and litres and litres of ice cream, to The Downtown Exchange on Provost Street. (Rosalie MacEachern photo)
Russell, Jane and John Wile have brought new life, including handmade wooden and wool crafts and litres and litres of ice cream, to The Downtown Exchange on Provost Street. (Rosalie MacEachern photo)

The Downtown Exchange has never looked so good and the compliments coming through the door are music to the ears of the new owners, the Wile family of Westville.

Always a great place to peruse used books, the Provost Street business is also home to an array of family-made woolen and wooden handcrafts, craft supplies, cinnamon-dusted hot apple cider and a wide selection of scooped ice cream.

Jane and John Wile lived in the Truro area, but John’s work in ventilation and heating pumps frequently took him through Pictou County, so for years, he had a habit of dropping in to the exchange to pick up a few thriller novels by the likes of Clive Cussler or Nick Carter.

“One day the building owner Paul Quinn told me the exchange was for sale. He suggested I buy it and I didn’t give it a second thought. It was the last thing I imagined myself doing.”

A few months later, when he heard the business was closing, he told his wife he’d been asked months ago if he might be interested in buying.  

“We both rejected the idea right away, but by morning, we were both still thinking about it and it went from there to here,” said Jane, adding they’d always loved the idea of having a family business of some kind but had never taken a step in that direction.

She noted their son Russell was available for work when they began to think seriously about buying.

“He was willing to work with us and that really became a key to our plan. Our daughter Erin has also joined us on a part-time basis and the grandchildren are always happy to come in and sort books or stack wool. Add to that my brother and sister-in-law both contribute crafts so it really is an old-fashioned family business.”

The Wiles like to be busy – very busy. They are the kind of people who see an exciting challenge in a rundown house that has been empty for years. They’d been looking for such a project in Truro area for a few years but it wasn’t until they broadened their search that they found it in Westville.  

“I am sure the neighbours thought we were crazy but we concentrated on getting a bedroom, a bathroom and a working kitchen so we could move in and we worked on the rest after that. We’re down to two small areas needing tile and we’ll be finished,” said Jane.

The house project was well on its way before they got started on the exchange, which they have now extensively renovated. Ice cream is available through a window but most people cannot resist coming in to look around. There is a place of honour for local books on the main floor but the remaining thousands have been moved downstairs to The Book Cellar.

“It has all been cleaned and we have new floors and new paint and lots of shelves with a few more to go up,” said John, who understands readers enjoy a nice open space to browse in.

A few book-lovers have even pitched in to help sort books into various genres and display them alphabetically.

“Russell is our book buyer but it is not unusual for people to come in with a shopping bag full and just donate them because they are finished with them,” said Jane.

All the Wiles enjoy seeing young readers come into the shop and directing them downstairs.

Jane, who has always worked from home, has been a wool artist for decades.

“One of my favourites are wool penny mats, a very old art form. We have some on display and people are really taken with them. I also love wool appliqué and needle punch,” said Jane, who creates patterns and stocks supplies.

She used to teach crafts from her home but now she uses a room adjacent to the exchange for classes in wool arts and other crafts that catch her fancy. It saves her on lugging materials and makes it easier for crafters to pick up supplies.  

“Being in the store instead of at home means I can share my passion with a lot more people and I’m enjoying that. We also post a lot of craft information on Facebook and it has been working well for us,” said Jane.

John has a woodworking studio in the basement and when he is not at his regular job, he builds frames, shelving and display cases, including some decorative pieces from old apple crates.

“We’ve very good at finding new uses for whatever we come across. If you look around you’ll find some old doors and trim boards from our house have made it into the store,” he added.

Some re-crafted wooden knitting bobbins from a Stanfield’s mill in Truro that date back to the early 1900s are among Jane’s favourite items.

“My grandmother went to work in that mill at age 16 and every time I pick one up, I wonder if she might have touched it. I love to see things like this get a new life.”

The Wiles recently stayed open for the downtown Art at Night event and were delighted with the visitors who came into their shop.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but it was very good for us in terms of letting people know what we have and I think we scooped ice cream for two hours straight,” said Jane.

Both Jane and John said their new venture has been well-received.

“My brother and sister-in-law live in Pictou County, but aside from them, I knew nobody so between moving to Westville and opening this shop, I’ve had a great time getting to know new people. They can see what is available in crafts and tell me what they’d like to see for sale or what classes they’d like to take and I’m always happy to listen,” said Jane.

John has already teamed up with a painter in the same building to do some custom framing of folk art pieces the Wiles will then sell in the exchange.

“We want to be part of the community and work with other businesses where we can,” said John.    

 

Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at r.maceachern@ns.sympatico.ca

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