Kids say and do the funniest things, right?
To prove that point yet again, the website www.babygaga.com posted an article listing amusing responses youngsters in the States came up with after being asked the age-old question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Answers included tattoo artist, king and — how great would this be? — a dog.
Closer to home, Tara Davis, owner of Tara Davis Studio Boutique, a combination art gallery and gift shop that specializes in wares fashioned by, as it says in the front window, more than 100 "dreamers and makers," a large percentage of whom call Winnipeg home, guesses she’s one of a select few who knew precisely what she wanted to be eons ago, and successfully turned that dream into reality.
"I was probably three or four when I started playing ‘shop,’" says Davis, 42, seated in the rear section of her brightly lit space at 246 McDermot Ave.
"I would take all my mom’s belongings and put price stickers on the bottom of them, then sell everything back to her. I know the term hustler has a bad connotation but that’s exactly what I was, this little hustler, especially if there was a garage sale going on, when I’d be out in the driveway pushing all my old toys on passersby."
The shop celebrates its 10th year in operation — the first two of which were spent in Nelson, B.C., more about that shortly — in January.
'He jokingly told me that small business entrepreneurs sometimes need to be a little crazy in the head and perhaps this might be a perfect fit' — Tara Davis, recounting advice from her father, with no fear of discussing her bout with mental illness
Davis, sporting a flowing, floral top and fashionable, wide-length culottes, has always been one to stand out in a crowd. Even when she was attending St. Mary’s Academy, an all-girls school that requires students to wear a prescribed uniform, she did her best to put a personal spin on her look. Chuckling, she remembers showing up for class with platinum blonde or fire-engine red hair, skirting a rule that stated students’ coifs had to be a natural shade, "no pinks or purples, allowed" she says with a wink.
When she was 11, Davis accompanied her mother and grandmother on a trip to Europe. Seconds after their flight touched down in Paris, she knew she’d been bitten by the travel bug.
"I was 17 when I enrolled at university but honestly, the only reason I went at all was because I was too young to see the world on my own," she says. "I showed up for class every day and my marks were decent but in my head I was already gone.
Davis moved to London in 1995. With a two-year working visa in her back pocket, she landed a job at the Hard Rock Café. As often as possible, she’d use whatever money she’d saved up to fly to Amsterdam or Rome for the weekend.
Funny story: she was still a server at the iconic watering hole in 1996 when members of a fledgling, American pop group stopped by for a drink. At one point they asked her if she wanted to accompany them to a nearby club, where they were going dancing. It wasn’t until a few months later, when she returned to Winnipeg for Christmas and spotted posters of NSYNC plastered on a friend’s little sister’s bedroom wall, that she realized if she’d played her cards right, "I could have been Mrs. Justin Timberlake."
During her stay in England, Davis dated an architecture student who, impressed with the clothing and jewelry she was making for herself, told her she should seriously consider a career in design. She heeded his advice when she returned to Winnipeg in 1997.
After completing a 10-month jewelry art course at Sturgeon Creek Collegiate followed by an art-for-non-majors course at the University of Manitoba, she was accepted into Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design. During her fourth and final year of studies there, Davis, who had been living with mental health issues for some time, was diagnosed with a severe bi-polar disorder. Unable to attend class, she returned to Winnipeg and moved in with her mother.
"At the time I could hardly function," she states, taking a sip of water from a plastic pitcher, her vessel of choice. "I could barely eat, and needed my mom to feed me. For months, I rarely left the house but luckily my parents had connections with some of the best (mental health) doctors in the city, one of whom saw me every week for a year, often outside of office hours, to make my sure my meds were balanced."
'People want local, but they don't necessarily want local that they just saw at three craft sales on the weekend' — Tara Davis, on the challenges of stocking a store of locally made crafts
In 2005, Davis joined Artbeat Studio, a non-profit program that provides support and studio space for artistically-minded individuals living with mental illness. Initially her father had to drive her to and from the organization’s Albert Street premises but after six months, she was able to bus there on her own. In time, she became a studio assistant, teaching others how to weave, a skill she picked up during her tenure in Ontario.
Feeling better, Davis got a part-time sales job at a boutique in Osborne Village. Six years later, by which point she had graduated to full-time manager, she reconnected with a fellow she knew growing up. She was "pretty smitten," she says and after the two of them spent five months travelling throughout Southeast Asia, they moved to Nelson, a picturesque, former mining town in the B.C. interior.
One afternoon, she was walking down Baker Street, Nelson’s main commercial hub, when she spotted a for rent sign in the window of a vacant storefront. Ever since she began selling her own jewelry, paintings and apparel at pop-up markets in Winnipeg a few years earlier, she’d contemplated opening a store stocked top to bottom with the work of "dreamers," like herself.
Figuring this was her golden opportunity, she contacted the person responsible for leasing the space. Following a tour of the 340-square-foot property, she immediately called her father, a successful realtor, whose advice she had always deemed invaluable.
"He jokingly told me that small business entrepreneurs sometimes need to be a little crazy in the head and perhaps this might be a perfect fit," she says with a laugh.
Within 24 hours, she came up with a name for her biz, as well as the required three months’ rent. Just four days later, Tara Davis Studio Boutqiue opened to the public, featuring an assortment of handmade clothing, gift items, stationary and art pieces she had rapidly sourced from makers she knew in Winnipeg, together with crafters she’d formed relationships with in B.C.
The Nelson operation was a hit from the get-go, Davis says. But because she’s a "prairie girl at heart," she began making plans to return to Winnipeg in the fall of 2011. Knowing she wanted to build upon what she’d established out west, she flew back expressly to check out the available main floor of the Sures Building, a 137-year-old, three-storey structure that, during its long history, housed a grocery wholesaler and garment maker. She signed on the dotted line, knowing the increased area would enable her to more than triple the number of people whose work she could showcase, from 30 to more than 100.
"It’s been interesting plus a bit of a challenge figuring out what and what not to stock through the years," she says.
The Winnipeg edition of Tara Davis Studio Boutique opened in March 2012.
"People want local, but they don’t necessarily want local that they just saw at three craft sales on the weekend. In the beginning I tried to bring in things my mom or my sister would like, figuring that was my demographic, but now I concentrate on what I feel is a right fit for the store, in general.
"The majority of my clients used to be in their 40s and 50s but that’s ever changing, I’m seeing more people in their 20s and 30s, all the time."
Kristen Wiltshire is a Winnipeg artist whose paintings have been displayed on Davis’s walls and whose line of hand-rendered greeting cards and prints have been for sale at the store ever since she and Davis met at an emergency shelter and drop-in centre six years ago, where both were volunteering. (A huge mental-health advocate, Davis regularly donates her time to a number of organizations dedicated to people living with maladies similar to hers.)
"Oh my yes, Tara’s boutique has so many beautiful items," Wiltshire says, when asked if she’s ever dropping off stock and spots something on the shelves or glass display units she just can’t live without. "I am always drawn to the unique jewelry, such as gorgeous pieces featuring bold messages written in braille, or cheeky cards that make me laugh." (Our favourite: one that reads, "You & birthday cake go wayyyyy back."
"It is incredibly important and in fact life-changing when a shop owner prioritizes local makers," she says. "One of the concepts Tara and I have talked about is that every time someone supports a small business, an actual person does a little happy dance. Tara allows that to happen for over 100 makers and that’s a lot of dancing."
Lastly, because hitting the road to recharge her batteries is so important to her well-being, Davis made a commitment to herself years ago that despite the fact she is a hands-on business owner who is almost always the first person to greet customers on their way into her establishment, she would never let her suitcases gather dust for long.
"Intertwining the ability to travel with work has been fully part of this process," she says, pausing to shout "Hey" to a regular customer poking through some home decor. "I’ve had some wonderful adventures in the last 10 years; I’ve been to India, Kenya and Tanzania. Sure, I lose some sales when I close for a spell but when it comes to your health, you can’t put a price on that."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Sunday, December 1, 2019 at 10:32 AM CST: Formats text