Selling Canada to the world
Toronto store a Canadian institution for high-quality memorabilia
Most of us only think about Canadian memorabilia on July 1, but Warren Singh surrounds himself with it every single day of the year.
Since 1971, Singh has operated the Polar Bear gift shop on Toronto’s Queen Street, where he sells all manner of Canadiana, from maple leaf-emblazoned T-shirts to moccasins to ice wine-infused chocolate.
The 77-year-old Singh, who runs the shop with various family members, says he has always eschewed disposable trinkets in favour of quality memorabilia.
At a time when most tourist keepsakes are made in Chinese factories, Singh notes with pride that 70 per cent of his merchandise is produced in Canada, and includes higher-priced items like wool sweaters and native jewelry.
"This stuff is genuine," says Singh. "It's a niche business. It has to attract people who want quality. It's not going to attract people who want $5 T-shirts," he says.
Maple syrup a perennial favourite
Not surprisingly, he says the best-selling products are anything made with maple syrup, from bottles of it to maple tea to Canadian Wild Moose Droppings, which are chocolate clusters flavoured with the sweet liquid. Polar bear or moose key chains also sell well, Singh reports, as do the assortment of contemporary and archival postcards.
He says the most popular clothing items are sweaters featuring the logo of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Singh, who is originally from New Zealand and spent many years in London, England, says his interest in Canadian artifacts is largely the result of an unscheduled layover in May 1959.
After visiting his sister in Vancouver, Singh was flying back to London when his plane was forced to make an unscheduled landing in Frobisher Bay (now part of Nunavut), where he discovered for the first time the wonders of soapstone sculpture. It was in many ways an epiphany.
In 1962, Singh moved to Canada, and by the mid-'60s, he was operating a series of gift shops. When Singh opened the Polar Bear shop in 1971, he became one of the first tenants in the newly built Sheraton Hotel.
More than 40 years later, Singh says the majority of his customers are tourists from Germany, Great Britain and Japan, although his shop also benefits greatly from the numerous conferences held in the adjoining hotel.
While the spring and summer months are the busiest, as a result of brisk conference traffic throughout the year, Singh says the store never really experiences a lull period.
"Business people are still coming through all the time, looking to bring stuff back for their families and friends," says Singh.