Yellowknife’s Aurora Emporium Art Gallery has reopened for the first time since March, hoping locals will fill the gap left by the pandemic’s impact on tourism.
Jeanne and Geoff Morrison have owned the art gallery, which specializes in Indigenous works, for eight years. Morrison, who is Sahtu Dene on her mother’s side, said she’d always wanted to own a store that specialized in Indigenous goods.
“It’s vital to the economy that people support the local crafters and artisans,” she said, “especially our Indigenous people up in the High Arctic where there are not a lot of opportunities for employment.
“They rely heavily on people to buy their product when they make it, and so I think it’s really important for them to be able to have a store where they can come in, sell us their wares, and get a fair dollar for their product.”
The store supports more than 200 artisans and craft makers around the territory, according to Morrison, the majority of whom are Indigenous.
Shelves feature everything from moosehide cardholders to beaver shear scrunchies and birchbark baskets. Paintings of the Western Arctic landscape fill the walls. Carvings of polar bears and seals watch customers as they shop.
However, in keeping with most small businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic presented Aurora Emporium with a range of new hurdles.
The gallery closed down on March 14, at the height of the pandemic’s initial impact on the North. Morrison said she and her husband needed to use the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and rent relief programs to keep their space.
With border restrictions now keeping tourists out and suppressing travel, the store is missing a good chunk of its clientele.
Morrison estimates 75 percent of Aurora Emporium’s customer base is tourism-related.
Still, after weeks of reconfiguring the layout and testing different options, the gallery has reopened – with new ground rules. For example, half-hour appointments must be made by calling (867) 688-8555, which will help limit the number of people in the store at any one time.
Masks are required, hand sanitizer should be used when coming and going, and a quick symptom-screening test will be carried out upon entry.
If there’s space in the appointment schedule and the store itself, Morrison said the gallery is accepting walk-ins.
Since reopening almost a month ago, Morrison said she has been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who have come to look around the gallery.
“It’s been great for the local people – and us – to see them come through the door,” she said, “and people that I’ve known who have shopped here with us for the last year are coming back and saying, ‘It’s great to see you open again.'”
However, for the Morrisons, the new rules have been challenging. They feel the distance takes away from the warm, friendly environment the couple spent years cultivating.
“I’m a people person, and it’s really difficult not to be able to shake somebody’s hand, not to be able to hug a person I’ve known for 40, 50 years here in Yellowknife or in the Territories, or meet a new friend and give them a hug,” Jeanne said.
The social restrictions have been tough for the Morrisons’ dog, Emma, too.
The pooch ordinarily welcomes customers with a friendly tail wag and a lick or two, but the couple have restricted who gets to pet her during the pandemic.
“She’s so used to coming into the gallery, laying down and getting all the love that she can get, and she doesn’t know what’s going on,” Morrison said.
“Emma’s our little greeter, and she’s really sad right now.”
Yet the fact of the store being open and continuing to operate can’t be taken for granted this year, Morrison added.
“It’s all positive from here forward,” she said. “We’ve gone through the major hurdles, trying to figure out how to reconfigure the store to make everybody comfortable. We now know our hours, and we know our product.
“We’re welcoming back all of our customers, as well as all of our artisans that we have supported over the last eight years.”
To book a shopping appointment at Aurora Emporium Art Gallery in Yellowknife, call (867) 688-8555.
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.