Twenty-second in a series of pioneer profiles
Ninety-nine years ago, Arthur Lymbery was persuaded to open a small store at Gray Creek, then an isolated East Shore outpost with thrice weekly sternwheeler service.
Later, it became the busy terminus of the Kootenay Lake ferry, and he added a post office, gas pump, and auto camp.
Those things are gone, but the business remains in the family, now a two-story emporium that claims to be the “Woodstove and Fireplace Capital of the Kootenays” and “The Most Interesting Store You’ve Ever Seen.”
The slogans are from the clever mind of Arthur’s son Tom, employed in the store since boyhood, and now its proprietor emeritus.
While Arthur sold anything anybody needed — a billiard table and sun dial were two more unusual items in the 1920s — Tom took things much further, adding an insurance agency, woodstoves, and chainsaws.
“I needed a chainsaw, but when it came in, it sold before I got to use it,” he says. “A local man asked ‘What do you do after you’ve sold everybody one?’ We still haven’t got to that point.”
(When ICBC’s Autoplan insisted on street addresses instead of box numbers, the store’s cul-de-sac was christened Chainsaw Avenue, described in a travel guide as a “once-in-a-lifetime address.”)
A new, much bigger store opened next to the old one in 1979, complete with grocery, hardware, and clothing departments. With an inventory of 20,000 items, the store’s brochure boldly declares: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
Lymbery has extended his marketing genius to the community at large. He coined the term Best Shore, and when BC towns were encouraged to erect berms for Expo 86, created some unusual welcome signs.
“We didn’t qualify for any grants, but I thought here’s a good time to put up a sign,” he says. “I made them with a chainsaw. You can rout a lot quicker with a chainsaw than a router.”
The signs declared Gray Creek a metric-free zone — due in part to mix-ups between imperial and metric measurements that caused headaches when building the new store — and touted the community as home to a huge gold boulder supposedly lost in Kootenay Lake. (Lymbery became part of the story when two would-be treasure hunters arrived in the late 1960s in hot pursuit. They left empty-handed, but he still has a sign with the company logo.)
A voracious reader — he usually has three books on the go — Lymbery ensures the store is well stocked, especially with local history titles. “If I wanted a book, it was just as easy to buy several and sell the rest,” he says.
A lifelong resident, save for a few years of high school in Vancouver, he’s often asked about Gray Creek’s past, and usually has the answers. He’s a past vice-president of the BC Historical Federation, has been president of the Gray Creek Historical Society since its inception, and leads tours of local historic sites each summer.
He and wife Sharon spend several months each year in Mexico, and on their most recent trip, he got a good start on an as-yet-untitled memoir, based on Tom’s Corner, his monthly column in the East Shore Mainstreet. (He also writes Tom Sez, a list of quotidian observations.)
Lymbery, 83, sold his insurance business but never really retired. He stops by the store every day, although his son and others are now in charge. His grandchildren have become the fourth generation to work there. As its centennial nears, the store is planning a celebration — and eyeing further expansion.
Previous installments in this series