by Grady Mitchell | Although clothing store Eugene Choo has been a Main Street staple for well over a decade, owner Kildare Curtis took a winding path to get there. He was born in a small town outside Calgary to Irish immigrant parents, one of six kids. His mother is an artist, primarily a painter, and his father a grocer. When he was very young his dad was hired by the government to run a grocery co-op in a remote northern community. For two years the family lived in Fort Franklin, a fly-in only town on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, well within the Arctic Circle. His earliest memory is skimming off the snow-laden roof of a Quonset hut. Kildare remembers that supplies were barged in once or twice a year. Beyond that, everyone was on their own.
He moved to Vancouver in 1989 to attend Emily Carr University, which he quickly dropped. “I think I just got distracted,” he laughs. He worked some retail jobs at record and clothing stores, and then, under the recommendation of an old friend, began apprenticing as an electrician. “I had a vague interest in electricity, I guess.”
One day, the friend suggested Kildare – stylish man that he was – open a clothing store. “It was hard not to take it as, ‘what are you saying about my electrical skills!?'” he jokes. But the advice proved solid. Kildare had finally found his calling.
“That’s how this unfolded,” he says, looking around his store. “In a really organic way.”
The first incarnation of the business, just one door down from the current address, was a vintage clothing store called “Big Daddy”. That was in 1997. It was a sort of joint venture with his sister, who rant the shop next door. In many ways Kildare’s career landed him perfectly between those of his parents, with the business sense of his father and the creative flair of his mom. It’s typical of the Curtis children, Kildare says. “All but one of us are, in a sense, in some sort of curatorial work.”
In 2000 he switched from vintage to new clothing and changed the store’s name to Eugene Choo, after his best friend in elementary school. Eugene’s dad, Kildare recalls, cleaned the windows on the Calgary Tower, and was accordingly viewed as a superhero to the young boys. As far as Kildare can figure, Eugene has no idea there’s a store named in his honour.
“Over the years there have been, I’d guess, close to ten different people who have come in front of the store,” Kildare says. “and when it’s happening I know it’s happening. They have their picture taken and then come in and say, ‘my name’s Eugene Choo!’ And none of them have been the guy.” (If you’re out there, Eugene Choo from Calgary, now’s the time to step up. At the very least we bet you’d get a gift card.)
In his almost twenty years on Main Street, Kildare has always chosen to forgo paid advertising. Instead he funnels that money back into his community, whether it’s by sponsoring a fundraiser or an art show or donating to a local elementary school. He trusts (and time has proved him right) that word of mouth and personal relationships go much farther than pages in the classified section. His customer base been has built up just as organically as his career path.
“I think the store’s really an extension of personality,” Kildare says. He’s still on the floor almost every day, chatting with customers. In addition to the friendly atmosphere, he makes sure there’s something for everyone on the shelves.
“I never want to walk into a store and not be able to afford something.” As such Eugene Choo stocks something for every budget.
To learn more about the store, do some online shopping, or come forward if you’re the real Eugene Choo, visit their site.