Jen Brace lives downtown, works downtown and frequently performs downtown in her own band.
“I really don’t like going anywhere else,” she smiles. “I’m a believer in the culture that downtown has built. I’ll never leave here.”
Growing up in Sarnia, the 34-year-old Brace can recall how a vibrant retail area fell on hard time in the 1990s. She’s watched how downtown reinvented itself and slowly grew into a thriving commercial core again.
Part of that success is due to First Friday, the cultural monthly walkabout that came on the scene about eight years ago and continues to generate a positive vibe on Christina and Front streets.
“First Friday is something you want to get involved in. It’s like a community project,” said Brace.
She has performed with various bands or on her own at several First Friday events. This First Friday, Nov. 7, she sings and plays guitar at Ups N’ Downs with her boyfriend Shawn Bentley on drums and vocals.
Together they make up Jen Brace’s Kitchen Lovers.
“We play a lot of stuff people know and like from the 50s and 60s,” she said. “Patsy Cline, The Kinks, Neil Young, Roy Orbison.”
They are also fans of newer indie music like that of Sebadoh and Bobby Conn.
“It’s an eclectic mix,” said Bentley. “It’s not what everyone else plays.”
John Mallon, owner of Ups N’ Downs, not only hires Jen Brace’s Kitchen Lovers band regularly and booked them for November’s First Friday, he also employs Brace in her day job as a waitress at the pub.
“First Friday is as strong as it’s ever been,” said Mallon. “There’s the odd one that seems quieter but then the next one is the best ever. It never fails to amaze me.”
First Fridays are a result of a group of merchants and artists who brainstormed in 2006 about ways to set downtown apart from other shopping districts.
Shawn McKnight, long-time downtown businessman and promoter, said it was actually two local artists Kit Hard and Rose Canino who proposed the First Friday concept.
“Then Steve Chitovas at Grace Brothers Antiques grabbed onto the idea and ran with it. I made sure we kept it going,” McKnight said.
Every First Friday, at least 20 downtown stores, restaurants and bars offer something special such as the work of an artist, a musician, or a craftsman.
McKnight estimates at least 1,000 to 3,000 people descend on downtown for the evening, enjoying the extended opening hours, the air filled with music, and a chance to enjoy something different.
“Sales go way up. It’s a real financial bonus,” said Eric Parsons, owner of Coffee Culture at Front and Lochiel.
“It brings people downtown who don’t normally come. We’re just packed. I really like that, because we’re not licensed, people often bring their kids in to see their first band.”
Once introduced to the stores and restaurants, customers frequently return, said Parsons who sits on the First Friday committee.
The monthly event has also been responsible for attracting new businesses, he added.
It’s often listed as one of the reasons new merchants choose to locate downtown.
“It’s a really inexpensive way to get exposure,” agreed Heather Park, co-owner at the One Tooth active wear store that opened two years ago on Front.
“We’ve had all kinds of things in here for First Friday, like Irish dancers, jewelry makers and mitten knitters. It’s fun. People come in who never knew we were here.
“We get really busy and the time just flies by.”
For a full list of First Friday events Nov. 7, visit http://www.sarniafirstfriday.com.