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Gary: Edmonton
Shades of Whyte:
The Raven in Edmonton

Story and Photos by Gary Singh

the Granny Wall of Fame at Nokomis on Whyte Avenue, Edmonton

f Edgar Allan Poe skulked his way down Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, he would have stopped for women's clothing at Nokomis. Not that I was channeling the author, but a sidewalk placard of a raven—the store's logo—beckoned me towards the front door. An artist's rendition, the logo was a black bird painted on a white A-framed sign, with "Nokomis" written in long, drawn-out cursive. It seemed to communicate something. With no knowledge of the establishment, I segued in.

logo of Nokomis: an artist's rendition of a raven set on a white background
Ever so coercive, the raven beckons one into the store

At the time of my visit, a welcoming summer day in Edmonton, Nokomis carried only Canadian-crafted and designed clothing from over sixty different designers. Racks, tables, antique dressers and torso mannequins occupied sporadic pieces of real estate inside the place. I spotted a piano bench, an antique sewing desk, mirrors, fitting rooms and beautifully goofy kitsch on the walls. The wooden flooring creaked underneath my shoes and the whole place had an oddball Victorian playland sort of feel. I don't usually walk into women's clothing shops, but something about that raven just drove me to examine the place.

Canadian handcrafted clothing on display at Nokomis
Canadian handcrafted clothing inside Nokomis

Named after an Ojibwa word for grandmother, Nokomis was one of countless independent businesses I discovered on Whyte Ave, the bohemian spine of Edmonton's eclectic Old Strathcona neighborhood. At Nokomis, the Granny Wall of Fame occupied one entire corner. Hundreds of photos of peoples' grandmothers were attached to the walls above the counter. Customers received a ten-percent discount if they brought in a photo of grandma. More photos existed where those came from. They were stuffed in two albums behind the counter-the overflow collection of grannies.

photos of peoples' grandmothers at the Granny Wall of Fame at Nokomis
The Granny Wall of Fame at Nokomis

"The original owner of the store inherited it from her grandmother and wanted to show her respect and gratitude for all grandmothers," explained Nokomis owner Jessica Kennedy. "It's such a lovely concept, I had to stick with it. And the other reason I think it really fits, too, is that generations ago, families sewed clothes for each other. Grandmothers would sew clothes for the granddaughters, mothers for their daughters, and that doesn't really exist in our culture currently."

eclectic shops along Whyte Ave., Edmonton

public ashtray along Whyte Ave., Edmonton
Top photos and above: The urban eclecticism of
Whyte Ave in Edmonton

Whyte Avenue, across the board, functions as Edmonton's Bohemian corridor of idiosyncratic retail, its anti-Rodeo drive. Street murals appear everywhere. Musicians set up and jam at random spots on the red brick sidewalks. Floral arrangements hang from every lamppost and public ashtrays appear every 200 feet.

As I stood across the street from Nokomis, eating a hot link from Fat Franks hot dog stand, I observed a woman screaming at herself while she paraded in a discombobulated fashion down the sidewalk. She managed to approach every newspaper stand and every sidewalk placard, kicking each one over. One by one, with calculated precision, she toppled them, yelling at each one in the process. Shopkeepers began to stick their heads out of doorways to see what was going on. A nearby pedestrian pulled a cell phone out of her purse and began calling the cops.

hot dog stand along Whyte Ave., Edmonton
Fat Franks provides a vantage point from which to observe the activity on
Whyte Ave.

When the screaming woman ambled in front of Nokomis, she gave a full boot to the raven sign, knocking it flat onto the sidewalk. As I witnessed the raven crash to the ground, another person with a hot dog appeared at my left. He had also been observing the woman do her thing to the placards.

"That kind of stuff never happens around here," he said, wolfing down his dog. He knew I was a non-local.

We both then watched her as she moved on down the sidewalk, in broad daylight, occasionally yelling at a newspaper stand, before finally disappearing over the horizon. In a strange way, it seemed like an omen—the raven getting knocked over—although I didn't know what it could possibly mean. I finished the hot dog, said goodbye to the fellow and wandered down the street.

Other parts of Edmonton are decidedly off-street-shopping-centric. If one just asks where to buy something downtown, one gets directed towards a huge shopping mall rather than a drug store, a corner market or something interesting. Everything is in the mall, I was told over and over again. Within an hour I was back on Whyte Avenue, walking up and down the eclectic mile-long road.

colorful art work along Whyte Avenue, Edmonton

colorful Indian art on door, Whyte Ave.
Top photos and above: More colors from the urban landscape of Whyte Ave

Again, I wasn't planning to look at women's wear at Nokomis, or even a few hundred photos of grandmothers, but the image of the raven logo remained in my head, insisting I hang out at the quirky boutique store. I never had a relationship with either of my grandmothers, so maybe that was the reason.

"What we're here for is to provide clothes for our customers," Kennedy said when I talked to her again. "But they also have heart and soul in them, they're not just mass produced offshore. I know each designer who makes them. I know them fairly well."

Continuing, she again brought up the family unit, how grandmothers made clothes for their granddaughters. The craft was passed down from generation to generation.

"There's still that intimate connection and relationship that was once there," she said. "It isn't necessarily here in our homes anymore, but I kind of have that in my store."

another look at the displays inside Nokomis
The sights inside Nokomis

I trekked up and down Whyte several times over the weekend, going in and out of quite a few establishments. Across the railroad tracks, in a pleasantly seedy stretch of the Avenue, I stumbled into an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet at Daawat Indian restaurant. The Vindaloo was nowhere near hot enough and the seats were much too low for the tables, but I ate enough for three. In order to visit the restroom, I had to slither out the back door into a covered mall-like alley the restaurant shared with an appliance repair shop, a tattoo shop and an old-school greasy spoon diner. Something about the juxtaposition of Mughlai Lamb, wrecked washing machines and the Off-Whyte Tattoo Parlor added to an already palpable do-it-yourself, independent, pieced-from-the-ground-up, business-making spirit exuding from almost all of Whyte Ave, even if there existed an occasional blasphemous presence of Chapter's Books or a Second Cup coffee chain. I guess no place is perfect.

poster on Off-Whyte Tattoos, a shop in the alleys off Whyte Avenue
Off-Whyte Tattoos, in the alley after a huge
Indian buffet

Which is precisely the verdict on Whyte. It is beautifully imperfect. One does not feel pushed into a monstrous shopping mall. A life-force runs through the neighborhood, with Whyte functioning like the spine, the serpent energy. Or, to be more accurate, the raven energy. Ravens represent the Jungian shadow, as we connect with the darker side of ourselves in search of balance.

"The raven was just such an image that resonated with everyone here, and our clients," Kennedy told me via phone, after the trip. "It's different. It's darker. It's a little bit edgier. I don't think any of the things we sell are darker and edgier, but we're a bit of an underdog. We just want to design clothing here in a really unpretentious way. And the raven is obviously really unpretentious too. It just has more grit and more street to it. And I think that's something, again, that I don't really think our clothes represent, but our clients represent. They're just regulars, you know, just regular Joe Schmoes. They don't have to be these fashionistas."

Shades of Grey, another shop along Whyte Ave.
Shades of Grey, a beautifully imperfect metaphor for Whyte Ave

red raven on Jessica Kenedy's blog
Nokomis is sadly no longer with us

Unfortunately for Nokomis, the fashionistas are starting to instigate higher rents on Whyte Avenue. To my dismay, Nokomis closed a few months after my visit, due to "economic reasons." Kennedy even placed one of the ravens on her blog with the caption, "red raven flies the coop." Upon a midnight dreary, the granny photos were being returned as I typed these final words:

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Related Articles:
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Let Gary know what you think about his traveling adventure.

* * * * *

Your tea adventures are especially interesting because I've always associated tea with British etiquette or a bevy of women wearing dainty victorian costumes and sipping tea with their little pinky sticking out. To see Tea from a man's perspective brings new light in a man's psyche. I've been among the many silent admirers of your writings for a long time here at Traveling Boy. Thanks for your very interesting perspectives about your travels. Keep it up! --- Rodger, B. of Whittier, CA, USA

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