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A trading-post dream brought to fruition

Kate Grigg, Special to the Packet & Times

Bob Willsey and staff celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Mariposa Market this month. The store’s welcoming staircase is one of Willsey’s favourite features. KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES

Bob Willsey and staff celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Mariposa Market this month. The store’s welcoming staircase is one of Willsey’s favourite features. KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES

What is a dog doing up here, Bob Willsey asked himself. Because in the middle of nowhere, the Yukon border was no place for a dog. And because a bear, head popping up among the berry bushes by a creek, didn't, at first glance, look unlike a dog.

It was when Bob saw the bulk of it, the black mass bounding toward him that he knew it was a bear and that this bear, this surprised, upset animal, didn't know he was harmless, a young mining geologist taking soil and water samples. This bear didn't set store in silver and gold, didn't long, as young men do, for romance and adventure, didn't dream of the future.

This bear, charging after him as he pulled off his safety glasses and tossed them down -- as a decoy, a distraction -- as he flung away the hammer and chisel he carried, this bear was a force of nature. And that no matter if man invented the wheel or landed on the moon, alone with a bear he was little more than a cave man caught in a primitive battle.

Bob tore at the straps of his 50-pound knapsack, the last thing he had to offer the bear, his last chance to run faster. Forgetting the knapsack was buckled at his waist and with the straps dangling there would be 50-pounds of soil samples and paraphernalia pounding against his backside as he ran, slowing him at that crucial moment -¦from 70-miles-an-hour to 10."

Absurd, Bob says, laughing at himself and the larger predicament of being human. As he laughed years later when they made that first big cake celebrating life and community at the Mariposa Market only to find they couldn't get it from the kitchen to the eating area, couldn't navigate the doorway. Had to trundle out the back with the enormous confection, make adjustments, struggle through another point of entry. More absurdity, Bob says.

But there is something charming about a big cake, a cake big enough to share with a town, big enough to get stuck, like something out of a children's story. And something charming about a man, who seeing a downshift in the mining industry, left the bush, left campfires and camaraderie, claustrophobic pitch-black tunnels and rickety ladders, left helicopters and running bears and a job with Imperial Oil to apply his master's degree in business administration to a family endeavour.

To create a kind of modern-day trading post in downtown Orillia, "experience shopping," Bob calls it. A sort of genteel version of the trading post that once existed at The Pas where Bob was born. Something akin to Cullen Country Barns in Markham, a gentler, more refined version of the general store in Wawa where people came and sat around the wood stove among barrels of peanuts and pickles. Where old signs and traps and rifles hung on the walls and bold squirrels ran in to steal nuts. Some place as welcoming and full of heart and heritage.

An old furniture store with a tall tin ceiling and a handsome staircase (109 Mississaga St. E. was best known previously as Anderson's Furniture) where a man like Bob could roll up his sleeves and bake all manner of toothsome temptations (the Mariposa Market offers an exceptionally extensive product line), or deliver stacks of sandwiches and cakes to office parties, or when he needed a quiet moment, retreat to the storeroom to rearrange the shelves. (Bob's father Stan and sister Nancy opened Nancy's Bakery on Mississaga Street in the early '80s, Bob following with the Mariposa Market in '87, and sister Susan getting onboard after her mother and sister opened Apple Annie's in the '90s.)

Where a man like Bob could take pride in preserving a piece of the past, keeping that necessary, soul-feeding connection. Take pride in contributing to the downtown core, standing tall with the art gallery (OMAH), the library, and the opera house. Take pride in providing a place people like to be, where they flock in happy droves every day of the week to trade in bonhomie.

And take pride most of all in his staff, some of whom have worked with Bob for more than 25 years, who start young and develop their skills, grow with the Mariposa, and create the kind of camaraderie Bob remembers from his camping days.

The staff is wonderful to him, Bob says. Though he's not as fast as he used to be; they're all more efficient than him in the kitchen these days. (Bob still lends a hand in the kitchen during peak seasons.) And when he slows down to the point where he gets in the way they'll get a big broom, Bob says, and sweep him away.

Another example of Bob's self-effacing charm. Because it's Bob who's done the sweeping -- Bob and the Mariposa Market have swept Orillia off its feet.

Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Orillia and tells stories of local people in her weekly column. If you have a story you think she might be interested in, email kategrigg@gmail.com.



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