What are all those fancy, colourful leather gloves doing in the backstreets of Prescott, in a historic stone enclave beside the CN Mainline?
The opening of a small in-house museum has gone part way in answering that recurring question: The story of Italy’s Portolano Products Inc. presence in this St. Lawrence Seaway town is described with photos, documents and artifacts. It also goes some way in explaining why a Naples-based glove maker set in the town 35 years ago – the only Portolano factory outlet of its kind in Canada (though its products are available at major retailers across the country).
Now operated by the fourth generation of Portolanos, the Italian company began selling leather gloves into the U.S. and other countries in 1911.
The factory outlet’s manager Sandra Shay was speaking to dignitaries gathered on a recent rainy Saturday morning to open the Portolano mini museum exhibit “One Stone at a Time” at the entrance to the outlet store which tells the story of the company’s time in Prescott along with details of other businesses in the industrial enclave.
The Portolano museum is contained in a former waiting room where men took a seat while their wives shopped. The retail store features hats, scarves, purses, wallets and other clothing items at discount in addition to the trademark gloves in an array of colours. Somewhat off the beaten track, many tourists find their way to the shop by accident.
Stating that brick and mortar businesses have to try harder if they want to compete with online retailers, Shay said the museum is another way of attracting customers looking for an experience along with their purchases. She added Portolano is a rare factory outlet in the Seaway.
Prescott remains Portolano’s only site in Canada. No manufacturing was ever done at the location even though a workforce of glove makers trained by Louis Fischl, an expert in the trade, was once in place.
The Portolanos, who had been supplying Fischl’s Prescott factory and came for a look after he ceased operations, were drawn in by the presence of a bridge into the U.S. and a chance to establish a bonded warehouse for distribution across Canada.
At the time, the mostly stone industrial square had been vacant for a few years following the collapse first of Elliott Brothers cabinet and casket makers, and later Fischl’s glove company. Representatives of both families were at the opening.
“People who come to the store crave history,’’ Shay said. “They want to know why we’re here.”