Shades of Whyte:
The Raven in Edmonton
Story and Photos by Gary Singh
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 raventhe store's logobeckoned
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.
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 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
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
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.
Fat Franks provides a vantage point from which to
observe the activity on
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 omenthe raven getting knocked overalthough 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.
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."
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.
Off-Whyte Tattoos, in the
alley after a huge
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, a beautifully imperfect metaphor
for Whyte Ave
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."
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