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Two Highway 11 institutions turn the page

Two of the great institutions of Highway 11 are facing equally great change, with the Highway Book Shop seeking to close a chapter of its history while Thornloe Cheese seeks to grow and expand.
Thornloe Cheese 1
Thornloe Cheese's Cindy Chamberlain cuts some of the company's award-winning products at the company's Highway 11 location, whose success is sparking expansions.

Two of the great institutions of Highway 11 are facing equally great change, with the Highway Book Shop seeking to close a chapter of its history while Thornloe Cheese seeks to grow and expand.

Located at the gateway to Temiskaming Shores, the Highway Book Shop is now on the block as Lois Pollard, its 88-year-old owner, seeks to sell this piece of Northern history after more than 50 years.

The store, which sits on an 11-acre site at the doorstep of Cobalt, is known as much for its endless, towering shelves as it is for Pollard and her late husband Douglas, who first built the store in 1957.

Pollard, a trained librarian, still works regularly alongside the seven staff at the shop. The store is now filled with more than 600,000 books from throughout the 20th century on nearly any imaginable topic.

“The hope is that it’ll remain a book store in whoever’s hands it ends up in,” says Pollard.

“This place has a lot of history, a lot of name recognition, and a lot of memories.”

It’s something that has been in the works for nearly a decade. In anticipation of selling the business, Pollard and her late husband Douglas put a halt, in 2002, to their decades-long tradition using their own in-house printing press to publish books from countless Northern Ontario authors.

In fact, the press was the original basis for the business, with clients using old paperback novels and books as barter to pay against their printing bill. It wasn’t long before Douglas rapidly discovered that people were far more interested in these and his collection of technical manuals.

“It was the nucleus from which the book shop sort of spontaneously grew,” says Pollard. “He was always interested in reading, but he had not thought of establishing a store. It just happened.”

Douglas passed away in November 2009, and was posthumously awarded the Order of Canada for his dedication to promoting Northern Ontario writers, including First Nation authors.

This work has contributed to the store’s expansive and inclusive nature, which has captured the imagination of countless travelers, though Pollard says it’s now serving as a double-edged sword.

With many reaching books back to the early 1900s, the sheer number of titles is daunting to prospective buyers of the store, many of whom are looking for more of a boutique type of retail.

This has prompted Pollard to slash prices in the hopes of drastically reducing inventory and making the store more palatable for purchase.

Although banks are hesitant to lend to small business, Pollard says she’s confident the store will be sold, and doesn’t buy into the talk of technology making books obsolete.

Rather than sapping interest in physical copies, the advent of electronic book readers such as the Amazon Kindle and digital documents have had the opposite effect, reinforcing and strengthening the love of reading, says Pollard.

Even the Internet has proven a useful tool for the store, which has catalogued some 100,000 titles for sale online.

“We’re known worldwide now,” says Pollard.

As one chapter closes at the Highway Book Shop, another is beginning further up the road at Thornloe Cheese, which is pushing forward with expansion plans amidst newfound global recognition for its products.

Since being snapped up by the Guelph-based Gencor Foods in 2007 from dairy giant Parmalat, the 68-year-old roadside cheese factory and store has seen a rebirth in popularity.

Following the acquisition, the company has shifted its focus to offer entirely new lines of cheeses such as probiotic and Asiago cheeses. Even old favorites that had been abandoned by the previous owner have been revived, like the BBQ-flavored curds.

By manufacturing snack-sized 50-gram bags, Thornloe Cheese is also being carried in gas stations, where the probiotic line is being marketed as a healthier alternative to a bag of chips.

“This whole area is more used to the cheddars and such, and they’re developing new tastes for these new cheeses, which is interesting to see,” says Yves Gauthier, past-president of Gencor who now serves as a consultant to the company. “We’re not a fancy cheese area, but people are really responding.”

These moves haven’t gone unnoticed, with some products netting national and international awards.

The new Asiago cheese took top prizes at the 2008 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, while the Romano took the title of Grand Champion Specialty Cheese at the British Empire Cheese Competition that same year.

In 2009, its St. George and Evanturel cheeses – the latter named for a nearby township – were finalists at the Canadian Grand Prix.

This status, and a lot of legwork by company officials, have helped products to be carried in new locations such as the grocery chain Sobey’s.

Success has been such that the company is spending upwards of $500,000 on new equipment as part of an ongoing plan to expand.

This includes new product molds, cooling trucks, packaging machines, and cream separators.

To enhance the location’s status as a place to stop in and focus on the signature products, particularly during the slower winter months, the company will also grow out the storefront to include a coffee stop.

“In any business, you’re either going forward or backwards,” says Gauthier, who runs a farm in nearby Earlton. “If you stay still, it doesn’t take long to get passed by.”

Thornloe Cheese’s recent renewal hasn’t come easy, however. Both the global recession and the strike at Vale’s Sudbury operations “definitely” had an impact on the company’s sales.

The Thornloe location is one of the only remaining plants in the industry to use 100 per cent milk in the production of its cheese, which changes both the taste – “to what cheese is supposed to taste like” – and the price.

The slightly elevated cost has also posed some challenges in getting placed in bigger food chain stores such as Wal-Mart, which now carries a number of Thornloe Cheese’s products.

“It’s hard to compete price-wise, to go up against these lower-priced cheeses that use a lot less milk, and not get crushed,” says Gauthier. “Hopefully, quality will prevail in the end.”