LITTLE CURRENT – Donnie McCulloch has left the building. The popular downtown merchant and co-owner (with his wife Carrie) of Breakaway Sports fielded his last shift just over a week ago.
Known almost as much for its welcoming atmosphere as for its clothing and sports equipment, Mr. McCulloch has held court with a steady stream of customers and friends perched on the large wooden bench situated near the front counter.
The McCullochs first purchased the business in July of 1989; it was known as Current Clothing and Sportswear and the owners at that time lived upstairs above the store. The McCullochs decided early on that they were not going to follow that route—or rent the upstairs apartment for that matter.
“I wanted to,” supplied Ms. McCulloch, eliciting a grimace from her husband. “Don didn’t want to.” Tackling a new retail operation was more than enough of a challenge at the time.
“Besides, you really have to be careful who you rent to,” said Mr. McCulloch. That and you want to be able to get away from the place.
Over the last few years, Mr. McCulloch has put in a lot of time at the store. “We really have been here seven days a week, especially in the summertime,” he said. “You don’t have time to go do any fishing or anything yourself.”
Therein lies the crux of why the couple decided to sell the business and retire.
Those familiar with Breakaway Sports would likely be astonished at the sheer size of the building, as the store only utilized a small portion of the downstairs, with the rest dedicated to storage and oft-sought minnows that reel in a steady school of anglers throughout the winter.
The previous owners of the business had operated a hardware store, noted Ms. McCulloch, but their supplier had gone into receivership and other distributors would not take them on as they already supplied other Island businesses. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the previous owners had to re-align their business model.
When the McCullochs first took over the business, they concentrated heavily on sports (hockey) equipment and fishing tackle, with one wall dedicated to each in its season. But as time went on, the clothing side of the business gradually grew in proportion as the other sank. It was a question of supplying what the customers needed.
The division of labour was settled early in the operation, with Mr. McCulloch handling the in-store merchant role, while Ms. McCulloch did all of the ordering and bookkeeping. Both were very comfortable in their respective roles.
“When we started Don was still working at E.B. Eddy,” said Ms. McCulloch. “So I ran the store for the first few years and didn’t pay myself. Then Don left his job, he didn’t say anything beforehand, he just left. He came in and I had to show him what to do.” Luckily, Mr. McCulloch was a quick study. That was in 1992.
“Oh, yeah, Don’s a great guy,” laughed Ms. McCulloch. “You heard that!” interjected Mr. McCulloch, laughing.
“Don did the ordering of the hockey equipment and I did the rest,” said Ms. McCulloch.
As for the chatting bench… “That wasn’t what the bench was originally intended for,” laughed Ms. McCulloch. “We put it in so that customers could try things on without toppling over. People were always teetering on one leg.” Apparently the bench works well for the purpose of trying things on too—there were also change rooms in back of the store that allowed customers to try on the high quality clothing and sportswear that became Breakaway’s hallmark.
It was only over the last 10 or 15 years that the bench came to be a favourite gathering spot for Mr. McCulloch’s large group of friends.
“It seems everybody was retired except for me,” laughed Mr. McCulloch.
“The new owners will have a lot of old guys coming in to chat,” Ms. McCulloch chuckled.
There have been plenty of changes over the years. When the McCullochs first took over the business there were old uneven sidewalks and a plethora of hydro poles, “that was a great thing,” said Mr. McCulloch.
But when the grocery store (Dunn’s) left and both pharmacies departed there were some scary times.
“With all the online ordering going on, it really had us concerned for a while,” said Ms. McCulloch. “But the pandemic has really been a boon in that way. A lot of people have been doing their shopping locally. I really wish people could realize what a difference that has made for a lot of Island businesses.”
The Breakaway Sports retail model was a bit of a challenge for some of their suppliers. “We are a small community,” noted Ms. McCulloch. “People don’t like to be wearing the same thing as other people, so I would only order a couple of each item. The salespeople had a hard time understanding that, but it worked for us.”
“The other thing is the summer people,” said Mr. McCulloch. “We have had great support from the summer residents. A lot of people would come over from Sudbury to shop because they like to shop in a small store.”
But when it comes to how the business has survived and thrived over the years, the couple is both adamant. “It’s the local people who support you through the year,” said Mr. McCulloch.
“When we first started, I thought it would be the tourists who made the difference,” said Ms. McCulloch, “but that’s only a couple of months a year. We are so thankful for the support we have received from the community over the years; without them, we wouldn’t have lasted 32 years the way we did.”
That local loyalty allowed the store to support countless community causes over the years.
“We never even claimed any of it,” laughed Ms. McCulloch. “I never had any idea what Don had given away in any week.”
The store has not seen a lot of theft over the years, but they were robbed on one occasion and burglarized on another.
“You know, people talk about how they felt after being robbed,” said Ms. McCulloch. “I never thought much about it until it happened.” A man slipped into the back while she was with a customer and stole her wallet from her purse. “You feel violated,” she said.
The burglary was a much bigger hit, with literally thousands of dollars of merchandise stolen by a more “professional” gang.
“They dropped money on the way out,” recalled Mr. McCulloch. “One fellow on the way to work pointed out to them that they had dropped a bunch of loonies on the ground—he didn’t know.”
Those culprits were eventually arrested and charged with hundreds of thefts in southern Ontario. “But there were so many charges that they just dropped ours,” recalled Mr. McCulloch. It was disheartening.
The other challenge was the rollercoaster nature of retail trade in a small rural community.
“At the start it was very scary the way things dropped off after the summer,” recalled Ms. McCulloch. “But Don would point out that it was the same every year, and it was, you eventually got used to it.”
As for the strangest thing that’s happened to them, Ms. McCulloch recalled the time she found a small garter snake nestled in the front window.
“I think somebody must have brought it in as a joke,” she said. “It was just a tiny thing. Maybe they thought I would be afraid of it.”
Ms. McCulloch took the tiny interloper outside, but it slipped from her fingers and onto the sidewalk.
“Next thing I knew I was in the middle of the road stopping traffic so it wouldn’t get run over,” she laughed. “Jeff Crowell saw me and came and helped. He took the snake over to the grass where it was safe.”
The few negative incidents that occurred over nearly a third of a century in business could not sour the couple’s memories of retail lives well-lived, however.
“It has been really uplifting,” said Ms. McCulloch. “It’s crazy the relationships you create when you operate a store.”
Many of the friends Mr. McCulloch has made over the years are from away, many from the US.
“They stop in over the summer to catch up on what has been happening,” said Ms. McCulloch.
Come this summer the McCullochs will be missed on the front street, but they said they are very excited to see what the new owners have come up with.
“They are young, full of energy and have great ideas,” said Mr. McCulloch. “We are really looking forward to see what all they do.”
See future editions of this paper for an interview with new owners Sarah and Ben Quackenbush and their exciting plans for Breakaway Sports.