PEMBINA, N.D. -- A small airport is tucked near the border of a foreign country.
An antiquated DC-3 sits inside an isolated hangar. Tons of packages large and small are spread underneath the plane's wings. Business is carried out day and night.
A location for a foreign drug cartel facilitating the shipping of illicit drugs over the border?
Actually, try clothing, car tires, DVDs and building materials -- and it's all for law-abiding Manitobans.
Many Manitobans think of this speck on the U.S. side of the border as simply a couple of gas stations where they can order duty free liquor and cigarettes on their way home from vacation. But if you drive east a few hundred metres you realize Pembina is really a town with a few businesses, a large school and a large Motor Coach Industries plant.
And to an increasing number of Canadians -- especially on long weekends such as Louis Riel Day -- it's becoming known as a home away from home, at least for their mailbox.
Manitobans are using private parcel services on the American side of the border to take advantage of the deals they find on the Internet.
The one at the airport is Pembina Parcel Service, which recently expanded, but it's only one of a few private companies, including Mike's Parcel Pickup and The Corner Parcel Pickup, perched near the main border crossing for Manitobans into the United States.
It's especially helpful when many American companies offer free shipping to locations in the United States, but add exorbitant shipping costs to send packages an hour drive north of the border. And, with many companies, they only ship in the United States.
David Lavaty, a Pembina Parcel employee, said many Canadians time their shipments with vacations down in the United States or long weekend travel so they can bring back the purchases with their duty free limits.
But Lavaty said many others just pop down to Pembina to pick up the package, take it to Canadian customs where they pay GST and PST and whatever duty rate applies -- no duty if the item is manufactured in the U.S. -- and then return home.
On a recent weekday, there was a steady stream of Manitobans popping in every few minutes to pick up their items.
Almost immediately, a pickup truck with Manitoba plates left with a three-metre-long box filled with exercise equipment.
"I'll look in Canada first, but if I can't find what I'm looking for or if it's prohibitively expensive I'll come here," said Bruce Giesbrecht of Winnipeg as he stood inside the hangar beside a large box that showed it was a fixture for a bathroom.
"I got an excellent deal and free shipping. I paid $700 and it would have cost me $1,200 in Winnipeg. It's the kind of deal you can get in the States."
Giesbrecht said another thing that makes it cheaper to pick up things on the American side of the border is the brokerage fees charged for items shipped to Canada. "UPS has a large brokerage fee if you don't clear it yourself."
A few minutes later, Fred Berard, also of Winnipeg, popped in with a friend to pick up a few parcels containing some parts for his son's pickup truck.
"They are more than half the price they are in Winnipeg," Berard said.
"One of these parts is $25.68 and it was going to cost more than $100 in Winnipeg. It's also convenient and you can order online.
"Even with the cost of gas it works out better. And even with the taxes it's still cheaper."
Berard said he made the journey last year to pick up a specialty printer for his son.
"It was half the price -- he paid $250. I've even seen people here who have ordered huge flat-screen TVs as well."
Pembina Parcel is the granddaddy of the local package services, but in recent years -- not coincidentally, as the Canadian dollar scratched its way closer to parity with its American counterpart -- several others have joined it in Pembina, as well as one a 30-minute drive west to Neche.
There's also similar businesses in Walhalla and others scattered near major border crossings across the country.
Pembina Parcel was started in the large garage beside Hetty Walker's house about 20 years ago.
"A friend of her's she knew in Canada asked if she could ship a package to her and she said yes," Lavaty said. "And then a friend of a friend of a friend did it, so she thought she is home so why not get additional income. It went from there."
Lavaty, who started out by painting Walker's house and then helping her move heavier packages sent to her garage, said there are a few more customers who come in at the beginning of long weekends and other weekends, but most of their business comes in during the week.
"That's the morning mail there," he said, pointing at a luggage cart filled more than a metre high with boxes and large padded envelopes.
Tom Nord, now one of the partners in Pembina Parcel, said everyone is always surprised when they see the DC-3 parked over their packages.
"It's famous -- it was in the movie Traffic (nominated for an Academy Award for best picture in 2000)... it was also used by Texas Instruments to perfect terrain following radar."
And because they're at a working airport, Lavaty said, it's a bonus for some customers.
"We had a Manitoban fly here with their own plane, pick up their items and fly off."
A quick glance around the storage area sees numerous boxes with the ubiquitous smile denoting a package from Amazon.
But there are also rolled-up rugs, stacks of tires, a washing machine -- even a brand-new ATV parked and ready to go. There are also several boxes indicating they contain percussion instruments used by marching bands.
"We get everything under the sun," Lavaty said.
"We get a lot of packages because of eBay. Even Menards ships here now. A lot of what we get here comes down to free shipping."
Down the road a bit, in a building that shows in an earlier era it was a bank, Amy Smith, co-owner and the sole employee of the 24-hour Corner Bar Parcel Pickup clarifies that, no, she doesn't man the place 24 hours a day.
But Smith said she is willing to pop out in the middle of the night to fill an order.
"A lot of time they're truck drivers," she said. "They can't be here at five or six at night. I've had three or four of them.
"I'm here all of the day during the week and when someone phones in, the phone hooks to me."
Smith's business is the baby in the local parcel services game, only opening in July.
But Smith hopes being available 24 hours -- and providing a coupon with every parcel pickup that gives a person a free 12-ounce pop, coffee, or, yes, beer -- increases the flow of traffic.
Farther up the street, an overhead sign incorporating both American and Canadian flags denotes Mike's Parcel Service on one part and Mike's Hardware on the rest. Inside, the hardware part is a throwback to a bygone era, but in the back it's a product of today's Internet shopping.
Owner Mike Ohmann said he opened his doors in 1991, and through the years, as Canadians asked if they could send their deliveries to him, he started the parcel side of his business.
Ohmann said there's one thing he can't understand about the difference in pricing between the two countries.
"Some windows are built in Winnipeg and a guy said he lives a few blocks from the factory. He said the same window for $1,300 in Winnipeg costs $900 at Menards. Why is that?"
It's their duty... or not
DUTY rates for some commonly imported goods:
Clothing: 16 to 18 per cent
Toys, gaming consoles and games: duty free
Footwear: 20 per cent
Tires: seven per cent (only new tires permitted entry)
Car parts: six per cent
Televisions: five per cent
Books: duty free
Furniture (wood, plastic, upholstered): 9.5 per cent
Computers and peripherals: duty free
digital cameras/camcorders: duty free
Jewelry: 8.5 per cent
Christmas decorations: duty free
Linens: 20 per cent
DVDs: five per cent
Large appliances (washers, dryers, dishwashers, fridges, freezers, stoves, ranges): eight per cent
NOTE: Goods manufactured in the U.S. or Mexico are duty free, but you still have to pay PST and GST if not under your duty free allowance.
-- source: Canada Border Services Agency