The year was 1984 and Jesse Watson’s parents had just purchased an old, ramshackle building along the banks of the LaHave River off Highway 331.
The building had once been home to the LaHave Outfitting Company, serving as a fish factory and ship’s chandlery, but the roof and one end of the structure had simply fallen in.
Most of the windows were broken. The whole south wall would swing with the wind.
Simply put, they had bought a ruin with a bit of old-world charm.
But Gael Watson — Jesse’s mother — said she was drawn to the cavernous space from the beginning.
“This wonderful, huge, groaning structure appealed to me in a way,” she said. “ I was intrigued.”
Jesse remembered the building as a place of spontaneity and magic for him and his friends growing up in rural Nova Scotia.
“My friends and I were able to run pretty wild,” recalled Jesse, now sitting in the restored building. “When I got into skateboarding when I was about 13, we were able to build ramps on any of these spaces.”
The building, in addition to housing Gael’s newly opened LaHave Bakery , was home to Jesse’s forts, bike ramps and makeshift skate parks throughout the 80s and 90s.
Thirty four years later, the building still houses the burgeoning bakery but has added a recently minted bookstore and Jesse’s own skateshop—all housed in one sprawling building along the river.
LaHave River Books is the most recent business to take up residence amongst the scuffed floorboards and rough timbers.
The bookstore is located on the bottom level, closest to the water with a view that co-owner Andra White said she enjoys every day.
“It feels like home to me,” said Andra White while eyeing a flock of seagulls through the window. “And I love having lunch upstairs at the bakery.”
Andra and Gael have worked together for 20 years on various literary projects.
However, a few years ago, Gael approached her about partnering up on a bookstore, leading to the opening of LaHave River Books in 2016.
The move, explained Andra, is one which has given new life to a space previously used for boat repair.
Books of poetry and mounds of mystery novels have taken the place of lathes and woodchips.
“Gael knows a lot about business. I know a lot about book work but we both love to read. It’s been a really good partnership,” said Andra.
A set of winding stairs and the smell of fresh baked bread leads customers up from the bookstore to the building’s heart.
In addition to owning the building, Gael is also the owner of the LaHave Bakery, located on the ground floor.
And according to Jesse, the bakery has become a beacon in the community after 34 years.
“I’ve definitely seen a rebirth of energy,” he said. “Other people are seeing that these businesses are possible, with the bakery as a nucleus.”
Gael added that it has taken years of hard work to get the business and the building to where it is today but that there is something special about the space.
“It’s got history. People worked in it 100 years ago and it’s a gathering place,” she said.
But the building certainly has its quirks.
From the bakery, there is another flight of stairs which opens up onto a hosting room with large windows overlooking the river.
Closest to the water, there is an old office door emblazoned with the words “LaHave Outfitters” and a half-dozen birds can be seen flying about.
When asked about the bird room, Jesse couldn’t help but laugh.
‘That started by looking after my grandma’s birds. Now, there’s a new generation down there,” he said.
And it is in the space where he built forts with his friends and looked after his grandmother’s finches that Jesse decided to start his own business in 1996.
His company, Homegrown Skateboards, occupies the top level of the building.
“I feel more like the building chose me than I chose to do a shop here. It was definitely an evolution of having a space to do the things I was interested in,” said Jesse.
Currently, Homegrown Skateboards makes its own boards, does screen-printing and has a ramp all within the building.
Jesse explained that the idea of starting a rural skateboard company started when he was younger and saving up to go to Halifax to buy boards.
“It got me thinking: ‘ Why aren’t we doing that here?’” he recalled.
Like his mother’s bakery and the bookstore, one of the main attractions is Homegrown’s location.
“I don’t have to worry about what the bigger scene is doing because I’ve got a location that is so unique. I really like sharing the space,” said Jesse.
He added the support of the community has allowed him to make his business and life in rural Nova Scotia.
And it is this same support — forever intertwined with the building — that Gael relishes.
“We all have a place here. And I think this old building has had its arms open to everyone,” she said.