JOHN DeMONT: The Woman Who Made LaHave Bakery Worthy of Its Story

Media interviews, particularly those involving video cameras, are not something Gael Watson likes. But the correct configuration helps.

“There is something in this space,” he said the other day.

At that exact moment, she was sitting in the bookstore at the back of her building, which in addition to a bakery, coffee shop, and grocery store, also houses a craft cooperative, a custom skateboard maker, and an indoor skateboard oval. . .

Watson signified the specialty of being surrounded by books, in a rectangular room supported by hemlock posts and beams dating back to the early 19th century.

LaHave Bakery owner Gael Watson.  -Eric Wynne
LaHave Bakery owner Gael Watson. -Eric Wynne

From sitting a few meters from the same wooden doors through which the fish arrived in the schooners of the Grand Banks and, after being salted, left aboard the same boats for the Turks and Caicos Islands. Looking through the windows, which to this day offer a panoramic view of the River LaHave along which Samuel de Champlain sailed to Port Royal.

Ownership of LaHave Bakery also meant being inside a time-honoured, circa-1901 building that stands literally and figuratively smack dab in the middle of a settlement as famous as any in our province, which is why I was there. .

Once home, at various points, to ship outfitters, a fish-processing plant and a general store, in the early 1980s, the building “was fast becoming a ruin,” he told me. Watson.

The roof was gone, moss and trees grew on the top floor. The end of the building, where the bookstore now stands, had collapsed.

The other day he showed me the marks of the ropes that kept the walls intact when the winds blew from a particular direction, making the building appear to breathe in and out.

“I mean, it’s just a magnificent building,” he said. “It’s amazing and wonderful and your imagination ran wild.”

The LaHave Bakery.  -Eric Wynne
The LaHave Bakery. -Eric Wynne

Watson was predisposed to see romance in the building. He grew up in Montreal. Come summer, his father would replace the back seat of the car with a wooden dolly, dump the four kids, and drive to the family farmhouse in East Chester, NS.

He first saw the town of LaHave on a day trip during one of those golden summers. The historical significance of the place—a center for the Mi’kmaq, a staging place for Champlain and Henry Hudson, and later the capital of Acadia—only became apparent to her in a history class during her one uninspired year at the McGill University.

Watson eventually got there in a roundabout way, living first in Halifax, where she married, then a back-to-land existence in Jamaica, before moving to the south shore of Nova Scotia in the early 1970s to start a life from farmer.

When the building came up for sale in 1983, she and her then-husband Mike Watson decided to buy it with a couple of friends.

The entrance to LaHave River Books.  The bookstore opened seven years ago, because Watson personally
The entrance to LaHave River Books. The bookstore opened seven years ago, because Watson personally “really needed something to lift him up” and because the area had just lost a well-loved independent bookstore in Bridgewater. -Eric Wynne

When she and her husband drove to the local branch of the Royal Bank, conveniently located across the road from the bakery building, the manager said: “You have no money, you are not willing to give up your house, you have to give I something.

So, as collateral, the couple put up their four-wheel drive Massey Ferguson tractor.

What followed was not necessarily the kind of business narrative that comes along as a case study in a college business program.

The partners lacked a unified vision of what the building would become: condominiums, one said, an artist’s studio, another, a retail outlet for selling things imported from Mexico, another.

Within the first six months, Watson’s husband headed south to work on a ship; the other partners wanted out.

Some of the delights of LaHave Bakery.  -Eric Wynne
Some of the delights of LaHave Bakery. -Eric Wynne

Then there was this mother of two young children, an introvert who dreaded the idea of ​​dealing with the public, a business neophyte who had just taken on the entire mortgage on the new venture.

“It was a bit scary,” she said, even though she knew she wanted to open a bakery, because she had already been baking bread in her Crousetown home to sell to neighbors.

Although he had never run a business before, Watson had something of a road map: the meticulous journals kept by predecessors in the building that he discovered one day in a desk drawer.

“At first, it was blurry,” he said of what he saw flipping through the ledger pages. “And then I started noticing things.”

It was the numbers in the margins: “all these scruffy little divisions and multiplications.”

Today, 30 people work in the business.  That's a number Watson likes because it's exactly the size of the payroll when the fish plant located in the building was at its peak, and because continuity is important to her.  -Eric Wynne
Today, 30 people work in the business. That’s a number Watson likes because it’s exactly the size of the payroll when the fish plant located in the building was at its peak, and because continuity is important to her. -Eric Wynne

In school, Watson was never good at math, but she was “good at arithmetic,” she said.

It took him many hours to pore over the ledgers, but he finally understood “how they did this and how they managed week after week.”

His own calculations told him how much money he needed to make and how much bread he needed to bake and sell to reach those numbers.

“And so, from the beginning, those calculations told me that I couldn’t do it alone.”

Spartan discipline was required as baking is an all night business.

Watson was strict with herself about “never sleeping until I had the money to survive the next day”. That meant 15 years of naps an hour or two at a time as her only night’s rest.

Although Gael Watson turns 70 next month, he has no interest in selling the business he built.  -Eric Wynne
Although Gael Watson turns 70 next month, he has no interest in selling the business he built. -Eric Wynne

Their youngest child, a daughter named Sadie, grew up in the bakery, one of the “flour sack babies” who slept in the stacks of flour sacks there while their mothers helped Watson bake bread overnight.

It sounds brutally hard, those years of working all night, of going to Halifax in the morning to try to sell your bread at farmers markets and random shops, or just handing it to strangers on the street, of browsing up and down. down the coast, in his bakery boat, looking for sales and income.

The way Watson tells it, he had no big vision for his company other than to fix the building and not lose it. However, over time, almost organically, other pieces materialized: a café from the beginning, then, 27 years ago, a skateboard shop opened by his son Jessie, followed by the cooperative craft store and the fair supermarket. before COVID arrived.

The bookstore opened seven years ago, because Watson personally “really needed something to lift him up” and because the area had just lost a well-loved independent bookstore in Bridgewater.

Gael Watson says she could see herself still in the bakery at 92.  -Eric Wynne
Gael Watson says she could see herself still in the bakery at 92. -Eric Wynne

Today 30 people work there. That’s a number Watson likes because it’s exactly the size of the payroll when the fish plant located in the building was at its peak, and because continuity is important to her.

She likes things that last, which is why, even though she’s turning 70 next month, she still loves being there, “walking up and down the stairs and the hardwood floor in the store that’s been there since it was built 120 years ago.” years” when “things were made so they didn’t need to be replaced.”

When I asked him about the future, he said what thoughtful owners of most family businesses say: He has no interest in selling. A property trust has been established. Her children are passionate about what she has built.

Watson also said that she could see herself “still there at 92”. At that point, she would be “all twisted and with a cane and in a bad mood.” Which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be out of place in a building steeped in history, where the past tends to be ever-present.

Butter tarts from the bakery.  -Eric Wynne
Butter tarts from the bakery. -Eric Wynne

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