Best of the city: Plants and Leather

Erin Elmore and Katie Gilray of Plants and Leather. (Provided by Katie Gilray)
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Nanaimo is brimming with independent retailers who proudly sport local and handmade clothes, shoes, accessories, books, and in some cases, plants. These shops give Nanaimo much of its charm and appeal. From galleries to design boutiques and a plethora of cafés dedicated to the Nanaimo bar, there’s something to be found for everyone.

If you are looking for another unique emporium among the many that appear seemingly overnight across Nanaimo, Plants and Leather might pique your interest.

The vintage shop is nestled on the lower level of Lois Lane just under China Steps, between Terminal Ave and Victoria Crescent. Plants and Leather offers a calming retreat from the bustle and commotion of downtown. The front of the shop, basking in the sunlight that reigns over the rubble left from the historic block’s fire in 2017, is engulfed by greenery.

In the front window the plants hang from a grid of metal bars, and just behind them, the foliage of tropicals and succulents layer the shop. Some pots are hung from macramé holders, others cover tables and shelves and bookcases. Standing on the inside and looking out, even in the rain, the world seems bright and alive.

The collaboration of the emporium combines co-owners Erin Elmore’s endearment for plants and Katie Gilary’s prowess with leatherwork to create Plants and Leather.

“I think we were motivated by our frustrations of working for other people. I personally was sick of making someone else   rich and compromising a vision,” Gilray said about their resolve to open the store. “With Plants & Leather we can execute our own art and passions without a boss telling us to do it their way. It’s liberating.”  

(Provided by Katie Gilray)

The two united mid-2018 and opened the doors on October 31. The process was a fast one, according to Elmore:

“It happened so fast. We were like ‘why don’t we open our own shop? You know it would be so easy. Half of our house is full of stuff we can bring into the shop.’ We wouldn’t really have to buy much to put in it. And, so, the next day we started going around and looking at places to rent. We hummed and hawed for a bit. But the next day we were like ‘let’s just do it! Let’s just fucking do it!’”

They took the place where Trader Jake’s China Steps Emporium (whose corners were piled with oddball items) used to be and quickly moved in—although, for entrepreneurs, starting up is littered with paperwork and government sinkholes: GST and PST, hydro and phones, names and numbers.

“Neither of us really like doing that, but it’s gotta be done. The thought of all that stuff is awful but once you start making your phone calls it starts rolling along and it just kinda happens,” Elmore said.

Despite the meticulous and grueling work of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, Plants and Leather opened with a boom. By Halloween, the shop was freshly painted and fully stocked.

“[Katie and I] do a lot of the shopping ourselves. Just thrift shops and estate sales and a lot [from] family, actually. Always collecting vintage this, and vintage that from thrift shops and garage sale-ing,” Elmore said. “My mom’s been shopping for me because she has a really good eye for that sort of thing.”

Though the clothing and décor are sourced secondhand, the wares are exquisite and eclectic. Nothing I have seen at any garage sales or thrift stores. Unique and vintage finds: long wool jackets reminiscent of the swagger jackets of the 1950s; bright and colourful synthetic zip-ups from the ’80s with checkered prints and distinct designs.

The hangers of clothing beg to be combed through, lining the entirety of the wall and fighting for dominance of the small room. The vintage dresses and hand-picked pants face off against the plants for customer appreciation.

“There’s a few greenhouses that I order from in [the] Vancouver area and there’s two or three here on the Island. In the States, you can get all the coolest plants, but Canada’s just not there yet,” Elmore said, her education and adoration for horticulture on full display. She glanced wistfully towards the greenery.

“Maybe bringing them in—like certain super specialty ones like the Variegated Monstera and then bringing the clippings in and planting them. Making sure they’re rooted and healthy and stuff, and then selling those. But there has to be a market for that, and I’m not sure it’s quite there yet, here.”

As for her green thumb, Elmore associates it with her grandmother. “I guess for me, I’ve always gardened with my mom and my grandma. Especially my grandma, [she] was a big gardener. And then one of the first jobs I had, when I moved to Nanaimo, was working at Green Thumb garden center, and I loved it. I loved plants so much that I ended up going to Horticultural school here in Nanaimo.”

Apart from plants and clothing, the store also displays unique and handmade leather accessories. Purses, wallets, handbags, all made by Gilray. “I began to teach myself leather so that I could make art and money while I traveled,” Gilray said. “It’s amazing what you can learn from books and youtube.”

As for the other items in the shop—handmade pottery,  painted ceramics, watercolour greeting cards—Elmore and Gilary source them from local artisans; people who have become friends.

“We try to source out so many local artisans. We’re trying to involve the community and other people. We’re not, you know, little trolls in our store doing our own thing,” Elmore said, laughing. “We try to involve other people.”

(Provided by Katie Gilray)

A group of vibrant young adults that had been perusing the vintage clothing racks approach and pay using the store’s Square point-of-sales system—the only thing that screams “21st century” inside the emporium. On the check-out desk there are dangling emerald earrings, long necklaces, and decorative bracelets that can only be from the Jazz Age. A lounging couch stands beside the desk and hosts boxes of old photographs and greeting cards.

“Kat Holmes from VIU just brought her cards in and she does them all by hand. Watercolours and that, and they’re really beautiful. And then the pottery. And some handmade bow ties. We’re just trying to get people to come in and bring their stuff. I think it’s all about the community, really.”

“Katie and I, we didn’t really know what needed to happen to open a business. But we just went for it—we did it, and it happened. And I think that’s good to show people, too. We had no idea what we were doing, we just did it.”

At the end of our interview, Elmore pulls a burgundy velvet dress from the pile of clothing waiting to be hung on the racks. It’s in remarkable shape for something a hundred years old—soft and carefully cared for. It’s a reflection of the store’s nurturing and eccentric character.

For Nanaimo artisans, Plants and Leather is a haven for their magnificent and functional creations that offers a tender and distinctive local platform for their products. For those who hope to shop local for vintage clothes and lively plants, the emporium homes a variety of exquisite treasures just waiting for you to find them.