Darlene and Ernie Smith will have their Awatin Art store open for its last day on Saturday, Sep. 28 in Campbell River. (Ernie Smith/Facebook photo)
Ernie Smith and his wife, Darlene, are sad but hopeful for the future, as their store, Awatin Art in downtown Campbell River, moves through its last days.
The decision to close the store permanently didn’t come lightly, but because of a high number of recent thefts, the pair can’t afford to stay open.
Ernie and Darlene opened the store together just three years ago, and despite their disappointment now, still have many fond memories.
“Yes, we had a total of three break ins in our store. We have an alarm system, and we have insurance. And all that really doesn’t help,” said Ernie, adding that the downside to theft insurance is the $1,000 deductible.
That hasn’t been worth accessing based on what the pair originally paid for the stolen items.
“We had a major theft, too,” continued Ernie. “Somebody walked into our store, and asked to see an expensive gold bracelet. The store person handed it to them and they ran out. But we got a picture of the guy we actually posted all over Facebook… and the police caught him.”
Unfortunately, by the time the thief was caught, the bracelet was already gone from his possession. Ernie wasn’t told how the police would resolve the situation (what charges would be laid, and the sentence to follow), but he knows he will not be receiving any kind of repayment; the thief just doesn’t have the cash to spare. The bracelet was worth $3,600 dollars, and was a highly valuable piece carved by Chief Darren Blaney of the Hamalco First Nation.
Ernie and Darlene ran the store on consignment, paying artists 40 per cent of the total worth of their items.
“It’s all just costing too much,” he said, adding that while he requested to put bars on the windows and doors of the store when they first opened, the building owner said no.
But of course, all is not lost. Ernie has some great stories to share from the time that he has been open. He and Darlene have been the facilitators of some local art repatriations.
“We had a person that came in to consign this old rattle,” said Ernie. “It was a really old rattle… It was a duck shape. The wood was sewed together because it was cracking so much, and it was just falling apart. But it was just a beautiful thing. I was in awe of seeing this thing come into the store.”
“So we ended up having collectors fight over it, and we sold it for $5,000. And that was found in the dump,” he said.
Another favorite story of his—even more powerful than the rattle—is the tale of a ceremonial mask that came into their care.
Ernie and his wife often travelled around to auctions, in Canada and the U.S. They purchased the mask at an auction in Vancouver, then took it back to their store, and put it on display. They knew it had been carved by a Sam Henderson, but figured it was the junior, not the senior Sam.
“We had it in this glass case, and this young native guy came into the store,” recounted Ernie. “And he looked at the mask and he said, ‘Dad, come over here and look at this mask…. They got grandpa’s mask in there’.”
After hearing some of the history of the mask—especially that it was the young man’s grandfather’s potlatch mask—Ernie and Darlene went home, mulled it over, and decided they should give the mask back to the family. The next day they heard from the head of the family, Chief William Henderson, who had found out about the mask from another relative. Ernie gave him the news, and the chief and some family came to the store to pick it up right away.
“When all their family came in the store and they saw that mask in there, they all started crying,” recounted Ernie. “That’s how attached they were. They were so emotional when they saw that mask. That’s why we decided to give it back to them…They had this connection to this mask and their grandfather.”
“We have a picture of Jonathon Henderson with his grandfather’s mask. It’s pretty powerful. Jonathon was even teary eyed from that, too. He was speechless,” added Ernie.
His last favorite story is the story of a lovely lady elder, who was married to Jonathon Henderson’s hereditary chief father. The woman went into the store one day, and discovered her deceased husband’s artwork on display, a painting of a bear.
Darlene didn’t know the price of it, so the elder had to come back the next day. The evening before both Darlene and Ernie decided they’d give this piece away, too, to bring it back to someone who would truly cherish it.
“She was very happy… she was crying she was so happy,” said Ernie, about the elder lady’s reaction.
The store’s last day open is Saturday, Sept. 28. Everything in the store is 30-50 per cent off now. After that, it’ll be online only at Awatinart.com. They hope to start up another store someday, but have no definite plans as of now.
“We’re pretty sad,” said Ernie. “But then again things happen for a reason… change happens and change is good. We’ll roll with the changes.”