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Reconstruction plus pandemic forces Elgin Street gift shop to go virtual

Charlene Blaszczyk has experienced more challenges over the last five years than most retailers experience in a lifetime.

Anyone looking for an example of how challenging it's been for Ottawa retailers recently doesn't need to look any further than Charlene Blaszczyk, the owner of The Gifted Type.

After enduring the collapse of the newspaper and magazine industry, followed by two years of reconstruction on Elgin Street, and finally a year locked down with pandemic, Blaszczyk's decided enough is enough. 

She took over the iconic storefront at 254 Elgin St. 15 years ago, first as magazine, news and cigarrette stand Mags & Fags, and then turned it into gift shop The Gifted Type. But Blaszczyk's now decided to simply move her store online.

“It's hard saying goodbye to such an amazing space,” the 40-something entrepreneur says from her new office and warehouse space above the old store. “At least I have the opportunity to continue doing it online. It keeps me going forward.”

In the meantime, she'll continue to sell one-of-a-kind gift items such as jigsaw puzzles, board games, cards, art supplies and baby shower gifts that have made The Gifted Type a popular retail destination.

Moving forward into the digital retail universe, she's making shopping online less anonymous, more interactive, with gift ideas, custom cards and wrapping and delivery services.

“Our focus now is unplugging, and reconnecting,” she explains. “Unplugging your cellphone, and reconnecting with other people, a letter to friends you haven't seen in years, your parents. If the pandemic did anything positive, it's making us realize what's really important -- the people in our lives.”

“It's why I won't use Amazon,” she adds. “I'm a firm believer in the expression 'buy local or bye-bye local.' If you don't support it, it goes away.”

And if she can help it, Blaszczyk has no plans to go away. 

She bought the original store Mags & Fags, where she had worked, in 2006. Mags & Fags was one of the best newsstand stores in the city; the place to buy international newspapers, cigarettes, magazines and cheeky greeting cards you couldn't find anywhere else. It was a magnet for readers and regular customs from all over the city.

“I bought the store because I fell in love with the people here,” Blaszczyk remembers. “Mags & Fags was a beast. It had it's own personality. Everyone who worked and shopped here were my people. Edgy, dirty, original. Any other store you're taught not to engage with customers on controversial topics. Working at Mags was the opposite. The store had such a strong personality, and people loved it.”

Business was great until it wasn't. With the print industry imploding and cigarette smoking sanctioned, she decided to reinvent Mags & Fags into The Gifted Type, a boutique gift shop with a dry sense of humour, in 2016.

With The Gifted Type, Blaszczyk knew her brand was strong enough to withstand the city's plans to close Elgin St., but COVID-19 was another matter altogether.

She saw the writing on the wall.

“I knew this was a big thing and it was going to last a long time and would affect the viability of the store in the future,” Blaszczyk says. “The pandemic, that's what ultimately made the decision to close the shop. It's the right thing for me to do right now.”

She's off the street for now, but she's open to returning to bricks-and-mortar retail in the future if the situation for retail improves.

“My motto is, 'Everything will be okay in the end, and if it's not okay, it's not the end,'” she says with a hint of optimism. “It looks like there's going to be a lot of retail space around the city. You never know where we might turn up.”

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