What I notice first: people walk in and immediately freeze, eyes circling the room. Without moving, they climb the shelves that serve as walls, scan their way through the bricolage constellating the entrance, sweep up the stairs to the airy loft. All before landing on the store's central focus — arguably Whistler's best coffee bar.
What I notice next: regulars head directly to the order counter, brushing past the n'er beens with urgency and authority. Some have places to be but need their favourite brew. Others are planning to work, chat, or read on cut-log stools around the community table, or in any of three sets of colourful Muskoka chairs: out front where dogs congregate; in a backyard enclosure with ersatz campfire and waterfall; in a convivial ring in the shop's rear quarter. Around them mill the newcomers, gobsmacked by a marshmallow-firing crossbow, wilderness art and culture mags, quirky cookbooks, a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a trailer, hand-painted paddles.
Such is the scene at Camp Lifestyle and Coffee Co., the perfectly named establishment that keens to things all-natural, things tried-and-true, things fashioned with the noblest of intentions — and often with whimsy in the mix. Camp is the epitome of two terms that, while hackneyed and untrustworthy elsewhere, here ring true: genuine and authentic.
Descending from her office on high, owner Lynn Gentile moves through both space and crowd largely unnoticed, depositing this, rearranging that, greeting friends, gauging reaction, digesting chatter. Tending to and tweaking the near-north-themed experiment she and husband Marty opened in Function Junction in August 2015. "Our goal was to create a place with a West-Coast vibe for community to gather and be inspired," Gentile tells me. "We sourced local and sustainable products from primarily Canadian artisans. Other items come from socially and/or environmentally conscious companies giving back. You vote for or against the planet with every purchase, so we're trying to do our part."
That is obvious with Camp Collective, the intriguing main floor showcase: purses and courier bags of recycled bike tires/seat belts; West-Coast growlers; Sitka clothing; candles; leather goods; Canadian-made sunglasses, wooden watches and jewelry, and a popular recycled aluminum water bottle manufactured in Washington's Liberty Bottleworks' zero-waste facility; the interior finish baked on with a BPA-free, food-grade coating.
What isn't obvious is the story behind this unique concept. Gentile, a successful interior designer, traded in a high-level design position in Toronto to move west 19 years ago. Marty, the husband she'd meet here was another Toronto boy and firefighter who now owned Whistler's Terracraft Landscape. Gentile thought Marty's patio store in Function could use a makeover to draw people in. Most Whistler stores were name-brand outfits, so the mandate would be to help the little guy. "After Christmas 2014, I knew we were going to do something, and the idea of 'north' had crept into it," recalls Gentile. "I'd woken up in the night and gone downstairs to write out some ideas and the first paper I came across was a cover from inside a box of chocolates. I was scribbling potential names — Outpost, Polaris, Aurora — when I noticed the paper was triangular... like a tent... in a Camp! Anyone with a connection to nature could relate. The rest was easy — Camp Grounds for the coffee bar, Camp Counsellors for staff, Camp Site for the outdoor patio, Camp Home for the design desk..."
Gentile's thoughts were old Muskoka General Store, but with a contemporary feel and another key difference — appeal to both sexes. With coffee culture hot, she also saw a place for locals. "Function is a fringe neighbourhood like Gastown and East Van once were, and it will develop as a more community-centric place even if the muni continues to oppose streetlights and sidewalks."
The concept took. Within weeks of opening visitors asked: is there one in Vancouver? Can you open one in Colorado? Gentile thought that funny "because we didn't really even know what we were doing."
The introduction of Camp Logowear this past summer brought some clarity; it flew out the door, customers drawn to a local shop with its own brand. Add in the Canadian-made sweaters (Vancouver), log bowls (Alberta), wool caps (Manitoba), pillows (Ontario), and a line of blankets (PEI) and "true north" was indeed standing strong and free.
"It's been fun connecting with all these talented young entrepreneurs and designers," notes Gentile. "I was taught long ago to read labels, and so that's why I want ours to always reflect the ethical sourcing. We hope to amuse, inspire and engage customers to think and act sustainably."
Closing time is 5 p.m.. And every day they have to kick people out at five and bolt the door because folks keep coming, yanking the handle, bummed to find it locked. They arrive because when they've asked where to go in Whistler that might be, well, different, the answer was Camp — because it's cool.
Not only cool but clever, with the retrofitted acronym — Coffee And Meaningful Products — demonstrating that with the right title, you can truly say it all.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.