If there had been a collective like the Downtown Market years ago when Jessica Raaymakers was raising her family and running her own small business, she says she would have definitely signed up.
“I would have loved to be able to lease space like this to sell my chocolates and have someone else be there every day so I wouldn’t have to be,” she said. “It’s the answer if you’re a local vendor.”
Raaymakers started Mae Allen Confections more than 25 years ago when the only places to sell handmade goods were craft sales and church bazaars.
She later became one of a handful of local artisans and small businesses to locate at 140 Christina St. North, the building where long-time downtown anchor Taylor’s Furniture operated for many years.
In 2018, Raaymakers had the opportunity to lease the first two floors of the building herself. She immediately rebranded as the Downtown Market and turned it into a collective where about 30 local retailers sell everything from stoneware, River Run craft beer and honey, to clothing, kombucha, body lotions and more.
“This building means a lot to me,” said Raaymakers, looking up at the unique second floor mezzanine.
“My grandfather used to talk about when the tornado came through downtown Sarnia in 1953 and he helped rebuild this store.
“He told me about walking along the steel beams that you can still see.”
Despite the pandemic and all the challenges it has brought to retail, the Downtown Market is at capacity and there is a waiting list of vendors who want space.
Raaymakers has fine-tuned the collective model by building a checkout that she mans at the front of the store, allowing all her tenants the luxury of dropping off their products and walking away.
Everything sold in the market is generally local, handmade and eco-friendly, she said. “And I don’t allow overlap. There can only be one soap maker, one pottery woman, that sort of thing.”
This week, Raaymakers is preparing for what she hopes will be one of the season’s biggest holiday shopping events on Dec. 2.
First Friday, billed as Sarnia’s monthly downtown cultural walkabout, is picking up steam after the pandemic and merchants are hoping the holiday rendition will pack galleries and restaurants, and fill shops with live music, treats and customers.
The Downtown Market is teaming up with most of the other businesses on its block to create a unique shopping experience that includes vendors on all three floors at 140 Christina St. North. Ten guest vendors will locate on the third floor, with access from 162 Cromwell St. Christmas in the Courtyard is planned at The Tin Fiddler Brewpub, and Bluewater Tattoo is participating at 184 Christina St.
“First Fridays are always busy for us,” said Raaymakers. “Each one we’ve had this fall has been better than the one before it.”
A couple of blocks south, at the corner of Wellington and Christina streets, The Lawrence
House Centre for the Arts also has a full evening planned for First Friday.
Rhonda Melanson will read from her new book of poetry, accompanied by musician Missy Burgess, from 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. The centre’s main floor gift shop and gallery is full of locally-made items for sale, and artist Susan Perry is exhibiting her work on the top floor.
“First Friday is being really well-received again,” said Leonard Segall, Lawrence House chairperson and a First Friday organizer.
“It’s back to being a festive event with people walking up and down the sidewalks, meeting one another, and finding a lot to do.
“It’s really a great opportunity for our community to focus on arts and culture. We hope December is one of our biggest.”
For a full list of what’s happening First Friday Dec. 2, visit SarniaFirstFriday.com.