The website for Toronto's Fresh Home and Garden describes the store as "one of Canada's most significant outdoor furnishings retailers." Even if you find this boast hard to swallow, it's also hard not to be even slightly impressed by the place.
Housed in a hundred-year-old foundry building at 16 Eastern Avenue, Fresh Home and Garden (or just plain 'Fresh') has 10,000 square feet of show room, stocked with items ranging from glass wear, to lanterns, to ceramics, table umbrellas, and of course, all manner of deck and garden furniture.
Duncan Fanning, who co-owns the store along with Ian Beck, comes from a family involved in the patio-furniture business, and spent some time working for Sheridan Nurseries before opening his own establishment (formerly known as Up Country Garden) fifteen years ago.
"We like to think that we understand what our customers want."
Mr. Fanning told me.
"We're on the floor all the time, so we're speaking with them all day everyday, and you hear through them what their needs are, and then you go out and you find the product."
This quest to find just what their customers are hankering after has led Fanning and co. through Europe and Asia, until, as he said laughing,
"you begin to circle back. You try to find product that suits Canadians."
"Torontonians have very specific requirements, and they're not met always by an American maker, or specifically by European makers, so we have to, you know, use our lenses to be able to find a product that really speaks to them directly."
When I asked what it was, exactly, that spoke to Torontonians, Fanning gave me a list:
"Scale is always important. Design is always important. Quality is always important. Price is very important... We don't live in spaces that are as large as Americans, so American-designed furniture doesn't always work. And we're not always as far-reaching and avant-garde as Europeans are, so it's this balance of contemporary, you know, versus being ultra-modern."
This stylistically balanced merchandise is displayed in what the website calls "customer-friendly vignettes around narrative themes." In other words, while the place is big enough to give one a bit of a warehouse vibe at first, it's far more creative and inviting. Apparently, some employees are indeed specially trained in the art of display arrangement, but Fanning added that it's also a group effort.
"Everybody in the store works as a team, so we're always focused on our customers, we're focused on the product, and we consult with each other to see what's working best, how we can achieve a better aesthetic, what we need to do if a particular piece of furniture isn't, you know, working to the level that we need it to."
In response to all this work, and to the sheer volume of items on display, Fanning said that frequently, customers were "just overwhelmed by the selection, the size." Not so overwhelmed, however, that they don't come back.
"It's always a pleasure to work with clients and watch them evolve."
Fanning told me.
"We get to see them from their condo experiences, where they have a small balcony, to where they have their first, you know, dating experience, maybe, with us. Then they get married, and then have kids, and then get a cottage. So watching those experiences ... just watching the evolution of a family, and seeing them come back, and hearing the stories of how pleased they are with their purchases, or how much pleasure they bring them, that's always rewarding for us."
Of course, there's more to Fresh Home and Garden than its cheerful use of shock and awe. When I asked him what his store's strengths were, Fanning's response was twofold:
"Our strength would be our customer service... We try to work with everybody who comes through the door... so we don't present as an elitist place, nor do we ever want to be considered as such. And, you know, we try to keep it fun. Because if our clients aren't having fun, then they're missing the point of being here."