By Shelley Cameron-McCarron
Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
In Nova Scotia’s Cobequid Mountains, halfway between Truro and Tatamagouche, Kayla Conoley and Brent Halverson are living a dream — young entrepreneurs running a very old-school business. The couple are the proprietors of the Earltown General Store, a business serving its community from its perch just off Highway 311, at the crossroads in downtown Earltown, since the 1890s.
Pull open the door to the one-and-a-half storey red-sided general store and it’s like a step back in time. Inside, shelves that groan with beckoning baked goods, have a gingerbread detail work you wouldn’t find today. The floor is “quite wavy,” laughs Kayla, 32, who’s run the store with her partner Brent for the past eight years. “It’s an old building and it’s shifting with the ground.
“The bones of it are still intact. It looks like an old store. It has the original shelves and definitely a nostalgic feel,” she says. “It’s taken on a piecemeal vibe as different parts have been added. It’s a mix of antique, retro, and modern.”
Kayla, originally from Ottawa, and Brent, who’d spent his adolescence in the area, had met in Halifax, where they were both Nova Scotia College of Art and Design students. Each had dreams of starting their own business and used to bounce ideas off each other. Then, in 2012, Brent’s mother Brenda tipped them off the old general store in Earltown, known then as “Murphy’s,” was for sale.
“We started dreaming about that and what it would be like to move to the country,” says Kayla. “It was just that, a romantic idea at the time.”
The more they thought about it, though, the more it seemed to make sense, economically and personally.
“We both wanted to have more control over our creative vision,” says Kayla. “Having space in our lives to be creative, to be part of a community, and to build something of our own was most exciting.”
In spring 2013, they moved to Earltown to take over the store from Murphy Stonehouse, who’d run it for about 40 years. In fact, in its 130-year history, the general store has only ever had four owners. Each of the first three owners ran it for about four decades apiece.
Kayla, who was just 24 when they took it over and Brent a couple of years older, says it was a turn-key operation. They soon started to make the transition into making the store more of their own, putting their own spin on it, and focusing on local foods.
Inside the approximately 1,300-square-foot main floor, customers find a delightful rabbit’s warren of discovery with specialty spices and mustards, hand-knit wool socks (some made by Brent’s mom Brenda), and local produce filling shelf space.
There’s beef jerky (a tradition carried over from Murphy’s day), made in the Annapolis Valley, and pepperoni from Brothers in Halifax. They do their own relish, bread-and-butter pickles, mustard pickles (they fly off the shelves), and a large line of small-batch jams, jellies, and marmalade. Customers come too for their selection of cheese and charcuterie meats, seasonal goodies like local maple syrup, and in-season vegetables sourced from farms just down the road.
The old general store’s also a great snack stop, a place to grab a cold drink, chips and bars, or a cup of Earltown Blend coffee from Java Blends. Pre-made sandwiches were popular pre-pandemic and they’re hoping to ease back into that.
And of course, there are the baked goods — breads, cookies, cakes, and sweets made in-house. When travel was freer pre-pandemic, customers flocked from as far away as New Brunswick, to scoop up armfuls of sourdough bread for their freezers.
Everyone has their favourite bread, Kayla says, but the multi-grain sourdough is a staple, and the brown bread, introduced by Brenda, is from her mother’s recipe, Brent’s grandmother Evelyn’s bread. “It’s something people will say about it, that it’s just like their grandmother’s. That’s always heartwarming. It’s one of those things that comforts people and makes them feel good.”
They also offer dry goods but are transitioning away from everyday groceries to making more of their in-house products.
“Bread, baked goods, and beef jerky are what everyone comes in for. They come in and have an experience,” says Kayla, who jokes they’re stuck in the 1990s with no cell service. But, she notes, that’s not always a bad thing. “It’s where you can go to take a breath and have a good time in the country.”
Located nearly 25 kilometres north of Truro and about the same distance to the village of Tatamagouche, she says people who have never been to the area are charmed to find the store, standing sentinel at the road’s edge. “People are often surprised. That’s always a good feeling.”
While it’s hard to imagine the Earltown General Store today without its robust bread offerings, Kayla says they never expected to lean so much into the product as they have. It wasn’t really part of their original plan. But she says their vision for the store is ever-changing and takes in mind what the community is looking for.
Jumping in as proprietors was a leap of faith, she admits. “It’s a learning curve, and you’ve got to keep on wanting to learn.”
At first, Kayla missed the city, but that soon changed. They have a home with a garden, and room to daydream about space to have a beehive, space for freedom of movement. “I love the skies, the quality of the air,” she says.
And they love the freedom to create new things.
“We’ve made a lot of community connections, and it’s nice knowing the names of the people who come in. We have a four-year-old now and we’re able to create our own schedule with him. It’s a nice lifestyle we’ve been building for ourselves.”
When they opened, it was just the two of them working at the store, but pre-pandemic that number had swelled to 11. This summer, they’ll employ about five to six people.
She says they value their staff, the community, and the relationships they’ve built, and they hope to do more community building in the future.
“What excites me now is figuring out what we want to do next, post-pandemic, seeing where things go. It’s an interesting moment to shake things up for yourself and see what we can do next.
“We’re looking forward to trying out some things.”