Mandy Gosewich is the fourth generation of retailers in her family to set up shop in the ByWard Market, long considered the tourism, shopping and pedestrian hub of Ottawa.
She runs a tiny boutique with a big personality called STUNNING! The 329-square-foot store offers just the right amount of glitz and glam, with its faux crystal chandeliers and replica tin ceiling tiles.
Customers are greeted at her front door by her cute little cockapoo, Pearl. Her store is whimsically decorated with family keepsakes and belongings from generations past.
For many small business owners like Gosewich, their shops are a labour of love.
“We do it because we love it,” she said during an interview at STUNNING!, located at 6 York St., just off Sussex Drive. “You can’t be in the business and just be like, ‘Meh, whatever.’ You’ve got to have a real passion for it.”
For years, Gosewich has been selling unique and eye-popping jewelry, selected by her, to Ottawa’s fashion and social scenesters. But, once the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the demand for cocktail party bling went the way of the double-cheek kiss.
“I wasn’t going to make a living anymore just selling jewelry,” Gosewich acknowledges. “I had to change the concept of my store.”
The astute businesswoman turned “fashion accessories” into “fashion + accessories.” On the surface, she merely added a plus-sign symbol to the store name but, behind the scenes, the resilient retailer has been investing long hours, day after day, to ensure her survival through the ongoing global economic and health crisis.
“It’s been more work than I’ve ever signed up for,” says Gosewich, who found herself doing the work of an entire team of employees.
By August, the pressure and workload got to Gosewich. One day, after a three-hour bout of crying, she realized she was feeling burnt out. Her sales have dropped, on average, 10 per cent during the pandemic. She accepted that she needed to bring in help, even if it meant spending money and relinquishing some control.
“I’m proud of myself for what a survivor I’ve been,” said Gosewich, thinking back to those early pandemic days.
Gosewich says it was her fear of the unknown that kept her going when the outbreak first hit. That, and fellow retailer Chantal Biro Schad. She encouraged Gosewich to get cracking on her website so that it could handle online sales. Biro Schad owns a fashion boutique right around the corner.
Gosewich did, and the orders started rolling in. Her website is powered by Ottawa-based Shopify. She temporarily turned her shop into a makeshift assembly line for packaging up online purchases. She did her own deliveries, giving friendly waves to customers from outside their homes as she dropped off their items.
“I got to see people. That, to me, was like sunshine,” she said.
Gosewich also began carrying more women’s clothing, focusing on items that are comfortable to wear in the current work-from-home environment.
When restrictions eased enough for her to welcome customers back into her store, she had to worry about new protocols for physical distancing, masks, hand sanitizer, plexiglass installation and limits on customer numbers.
“It was like, ‘What is this is this? A business, or am I in a hospital?’” she said.
STUNNING! could not have survived these past seven months, Gosewich said, without the love and support of friends and customers, both loyal and brand new.
“I’ve been so … grateful isn’t even the right word to describe how fortunate I feel. People have been unbelievable.”
As much as Ottawa is criticized from time to time for supposedly being boring, there’s something to be said for having a large public service sector earning a steady income, said Gosewich.
"Forget about Ottawa being ‘the town that fun forgot’; Ottawa is now the city that has a job."
“Forget about Ottawa being ‘the town that fun forgot’; Ottawa is now the city that has a job.”
A family of retailers
Gosewich opened her shop in 2013, financing her new business with wedding money her parents had saved, should she choose to get married.
Her mom, Dena, used to run Next to Nothing Lingerie while her late dad, Herb, owned Ritchie’s Sports Shop on Bank Street for 44 years, until 2004. His first business was in the ByWard Market, where his father, Sam, owner of Ottawa Imperial Cap Company, manufactured and sold all kinds of hats from the 1940s to 1970s.
Gosewich says she gets her style and sense of humour from her mother and her business acumen from her father. Herb passed away five years ago, at age 87.
“It’s funny but I think a lot about my dad, especially during these times, and I think, ‘Oh my God, what would Herb say? How would he adapt?’ I’m my father’s daughter, so I understand prudence, I understand being savvy. My father always said, ‘If you can’t afford it, you don’t need it.'”
Gosewich subscribes to the “look good, feel good” mantra. She shudders at the thought that women could be spending their entire day eating, working and hanging out in the same pair of pandemic pants, looking schlumpy.
“It’s so easy to get into a rut,” she sympathizes. “You can’t wear the same black leggings, sweat pants or flannel pyjama bottoms all day and feel good about yourself.
“I firmly believe to feel good you’ve got to look good. Sometimes, you’ve got to really push yourself to make that teeny tiny little effort not to feel like a dumpling.”
Gosewich brings in fashionable clothing and accessories that will coax customers “out of their comfort zone.”
“I buy well, I merchandise well, and I sell well, because I love everything that I bring in,” says Gosewich, who selects items that appeal to her own fashion sense, which blends sophisticated Boho with eclectic and edgy. “My style is not cookie cutter.”
She also sells other fun, kitschy items, including sequin pandemic masks and funny decorative plates.
Gosewich fervently hopes the ByWard Market returns to its former bustling self once the pandemic is over. The historic district has been around for nearly 200 years, growing into a commercial and economic centre during the construction of the historic Rideau Canal.
“The ByWard Market is the heart of the nation’s capital; it really is,” says Gosewich, who also calls the 'hood home. “This is where it all began. It’s so important for people to continue to shop, stroll and sip in the ByWard Market.”
Gosewich says she longs for the day when boisterous laughing and hugging are a thing again.
“I’m really looking forward to when I can see people smile – without their masks.”