Old store reinvented and open for business

The 117-year-old general store in Namao, Alta., was once known as Johnny’s Store; it is now home to a local craft market

NAMAO, Alta. — Johnny’s Store has been a fixture in this central Alberta community for 117 years. Its iconic white, black and red exterior with vintage round metal Coca-Cola signs at the junction of highways 28 and 37 is a well-known landmark.

“I remember them being there forever,” says owner John McNeilly referring to the Coke signs.

McNeilly, 62, grew up in the store run by his parents, John and Ollie.

“They took over from my dad’s older brother, Robert. He was a big, red-headed Irishman.”

It’s no surprise to learn that during Robert’s time operating the business, from the early 1930s to mid-1940s, the store was known as Red’s.

Before Robert McNeilly, the store changed hands a few times. It’s not known if it even had a name. The store was built in 1902 by Jeremiam “Frank” Johnson.

For decades, local residents, including farmers, military families from the nearby Royal Canadian Air Force station, now CFB Edmonton, and coal miners, would frequent the store for mail, groceries, hardware, animal feed and gas, and to catch up on community news.

The proprietors weren’t always behind the counter.

“We’d go to the coal miners’ shacks and deliver groceries,” says John.

Those memories are from the late 1950s and early 1960s before he started school.

“We used to heat the store with coal too.”

As the years passed, times changed. Every household got a phone. Natural gas started to replace coal. More vehicles drove further on better roads. Jobs in nearby cities took customers away. Johnny’s wasn’t the hub it once was and evolved into more of a convenience store.

However, some things didn’t change. Even today the original wood floor continues to creak and squeak and buried under coats of ceiling paint is said to be the hole from a stray bullet fired from a careless gunman years ago.

It was the character of Johnny’s that attracted the attention of Hollywood. Starting in the early 1990s, several TV shows and movies have been filmed there including Ray Bradbury Theatre, Fargo, Bordertown Café, and Blackstone.

During the movie years, the building was leased by Keith Reed, who called it Namao Store. He made a decent living for over two decades, but business began to suffer when the construction of the northwest portion of Anthony Henday Drive, Edmonton’s ring road, affected the flow of through traffic. Reed left in 2012.

John McNeilly, who was retired from Edmonton City Police by then, ran the store with his wife for a couple years until health issues forced them to close shop in mid 2014. They put the store up for rent. In mid-2016, it opened for about a year, but the doors closed again the next fall.

The gas pumps are gone now, although the tall “Gas N Go” sign remains. McNeilly thinks it was erected in the late 1960s.

Johnny’s is no longer a convenience store, but it has rallied once more. Amanda Dubé reinvented the space and now houses the rustic Maristins Market at the store, which opened March 1 last year.

The shelves are filled with a huge selection of locally made products from dozens of artisans: chocolates, candies, pickles and preserves, knitted and crocheted pieces, jewelry, baby items, candles and home décor.

The shelves are now filled with a large selection of locally made products, including jewelry. | Maria Johnson photo

“Local vendors have the opportunity to showcase their products and build their business,” says Dubé, who previously sold her own wood items online, while juggling a busy marketing and communications career around the demands of motherhood. She found online marketing frustrating.

“I would take orders and then the customer would be a no show. And weekend markets are time consuming and expensive.”

When Dubé realized the store had closed in fall 2017 and was for rent, an idea began to take shape.

“I wanted to be able to give people a place where they could just leave their products, not worry about it and make some money. That was really exciting”.

“I met with the owners and shared my vision.”

The McNeillys were on board.

Dubé says the location has pros and cons.

“This is a main highway. During the week, people are in a hurry to get home after work to see their families. But Saturdays are very busy. There’s always a different crowd. Sometimes it’s families with kids, sometimes seniors out for a drive,” she said. “Our first year of business was absolutely wonderful.”

McNeilly is happy to see Johnny’s Store take back a place in the Namao community.

“Amanda’s doing well with it. The first couple years is when you have to figure things out in a new business, when you have the problems. She’s doing a really good job.”

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