The story of the Williamsford Mill
Fostering A Love for Books
When you were little, what do you remember about the pastimes that you enjoyed? Did any of them help define who you became? Maybe you had such a love for nature that you followed a path in conservation or environmentalism. Maybe you just loved fishing and it became a hobby that brought you peace on Saturdays down by the local river.
But if you think back, you must recall something that you loved doing that made you feel alive, grounded, and connected all at the same time. To be a child is to explore the world without judgement or filters. You could just be.
For me, it was always words.
Words I read in a book, or words that I put to paper. Words that came from the mouths of others. I would hear them, and dissect everything they meant; underneath the overtones and between the lines. I spoke naturally and my filter stayed off for a very long time, so I spoke a raw truth.
I read about mythology, history, fantasy and lore. I read true crime and poetry and my mind dove in and out of places I could create within those books.
Then I began to write my thoughts and feelings down. I journaled and that turned into writing poetry. My angst during adolescence flowed onto paper and it helped me get through some challenging times.
I went to college to become a journalist. Turns out I wasn’t so good at following stern guidelines with my writing. I needed freedom and I needed to leave the filters elsewhere. But that’s not what journalism was about unfortunately. So I left that career to follow other pursuits.
What is important to me is that on the cusp of turning 41, my love for words and stories, poetry and conversation still exists. It brings me peace to curl up with the words inside a novel and to walk into a bookstore and breathe in the familiar scents of pages being turned. It all meant knowledge, imagination, and endless exploration, even when I wasn’t in a dragon’s tale or Shakespearean times.
Over the years I have discovered such fun and amazing used bookstores, but I want to tell you about one in particular that I happened upon one day. The connections we make in life are rarely coincidental. I always feel a tug in whatever direction I go… as long as I’m listening to the universe and what it’s whispering in my ear.
A Chance Happening
A few years ago, I was single, had every other weekend kid-free, and spent a great deal of time soul searching. At times I would simply throw some stuff in a backpack and jump in the car without any destination. Other times I planned out little retreats for a few days that would allow me time to hike, write, read, and a lot of times work. One such occasion was in February of 2018.
I found an Airbnb in Wiarton that was on Georgian Bay. A woman lived there and rented out a room. It was cheap and comfy and I had access to the whole house. It was numbingly cold when I went, but man, did I ever have a blast. I froze my butt off walking around and taking in the majestic waters of the bay and climbing through mounds of snow to take a selfie at the Wiarton Willy sign off the highway. I hunkered down at night by the fireplace, while I wrote, got caught up on business, and read a great novel. I cooked for myself and relished in the peace and quiet of being alone.
On my trek home, I passed through Owen Sound just to explore. Owen Sound is truly one of my favourite places to visit. The trails and waterfalls in the area are full of adventure. As I drove Highway 6 through a small Hamlet called Williamsford, I passed by a Mill.
I briefly looked to my right and saw a sign and the only word I caught was Books, so naturally I pulled over to the side of the road and did a U-turn. I couldn’t have imagined what I just stumbled upon - an old Mill that had been converted into a used bookstore and café. Thankfully I wasn’t on a timeline to get home, because I spent 3 hours exploring the wonders inside. Books in every nook and cranny, a comfy couch by a fireplace, and the most delicious home-cooked food a woman could ask for. Glorious times my friends, as I took in all the sights, sounds, and smells of that four-floored palace.
Everyone Has A Story
Since that day, I’ve visited several times. This past visit was planned out so intricately, so that I could catch the owners alone in the Mill and pick their brain about how they came to own such a unique building and what their plans for the future were. They were so gracious about talking to me candidly and letting Will and I explore the grounds while nobody else was there.
They were undergoing some renovations during the closure from COVID-19, so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect to have hours on end to discover more about the owners Peter and Tamara Bolton. We shared some laughs and some facts about one of the oldest mills in all of Ontario.
It was built in 1850, and when Tamara and Peter bought it in 2006, they thought it would be a turn-key operation.
Little did they know that it would take them nearly four years to renovate and repair the mill to be able to open to the public.
The Mill was a fine dining restaurant from 1975 till a few years before Tamara and Peter bought it.
They were licensed to have weddings and receptions in the basement and out the back of the property by the river.
Great Books had its start as a bookstore in 1977 called, “Great Northwest Book Company’ on Jarvis Street, near the CBC in downtown Toronto. It moved a few times, but spent 12 years on the historic Main Street of Newmarket, where Tamara grew her collection and her knowledge on books. She was a teacher by trade, so her love for books came honestly. She started her collection by going out to thrift stores, doing research and gaining knowledge of the value of some books. She became a book scout and would pick something up cheap from a yard sale or such, and then sell it for an increased value online.
Peter was the handyman and had the years of experience fixing up old buildings. “This is the fourth building that’s over 100 years old I’ve gutted right to the bones and renovated,” said Peter.
Over 100 people looked at the mill when it was for sale, but the real estate agent told Peter that people were scared of the place. At the time it was producing hydro with one turbine. There was a lot of work running the generators. In theory it was in such rough shape that it could have been torn down. There was talk of bulldozing it. “There were holes in the foundation you could crawl through. But I wasn’t afraid of it,” declared Peter.
Peter paints a vivid picture of the money pit they bought.
“The first day we owned it, one of the furnace’s failed. The second day we owned it, the other furnace failed. They told us they had blown out the plumbing systems so the pipes wouldn’t split and crack. I go down to the basement to turn the pipes all on. I turn the pump and I’m standing there and after a ten second delay water just starts pouring out of the ceiling. One of the water tanks had frozen with water. The water was all rusty coloured, so we spent a tonne of money putting in a water system in. It was just everything.”
They were renovating the Mill and building a house down the street. Tamara was still teaching. Then the global financial crisis hit. “We were assuming we would eventually get a mortgage on this place to get it finished. We called the bank and said we needed a commercial mortgage and they basically said they weren’t doing commercial loans right now. And so we had to pay cash when we bought it and then had to continue to use our own money to do the renovations. So we had to stop work on our own house, so we still don’t have a deck on our house. If you ever opened the door and stepped out the back, you would fall 12 feet,” Peter told me.
Together the couple fell in love with the old Williamsford Mill when it came on sale and decided to buy it and move to the slower pace of life in the country. Except they had no idea how much work would be involved with the dream they had. “We probably overpaid because we started to fall in love with the place,” Tamara shared.
“You can imagine all the boxes of books in the way as we were renovating. I’ve got a plainer and a router and a table saw set up right in the middle of the floor and we would start plaining boards and the saw dust would be everywhere. We made all the staircases here surrounded by boxes,” said Peter.
“This would make an amazing house. We always said if it doesn’t take off, we could zone it residentially and build a house and then sell our books online,” commented Tamara. The property comes with 14 acres. 10 acres is on the other side of the highway where the mill pond is. It’s so pretty by the river. They even thought of putting a little cottage out back.
In July 2010, they finally had their Grand Opening and now offer a full restaurant, where they serve healthy homemade breakfasts and lunches with a focus on organic local food. “We needed a place for our bookstore and we thought we would just have a small café. But suddenly it turned into serving seared salmon and tenderloin dinners. The choices started to grow and grow,” Tamara told me. But they never thought they would have so much trouble finding staff to help them, so they had to learn how to do a lot of the day to day operations themselves. It’s pretty much the two of them running the show. At one point they were open 7 days a week, but it was really tough and they were burnt out. So they started opening Wednesday-Friday, 11-4, Friday and Saturday 9-6, and Sunday 9-5. They did special events in the evenings too. But the problem was always getting staff to work for them. They need at least two people running the kitchen. They had chefs before, but they haven’t worked out. “I hadn’t been in the food industry, but I always cooked. So I ended up taking over the kitchen. It’s really been the Peter and Tamara show. I have to be the one to answer questions about the books, so I’m always running out from the kitchen to handle that. Peter has become quite the chef, so I proposed he become the head chef,” Tamara laughed.
When I asked the couple about how they advertised their bookstore and café after it opened, they both said, “word of mouth.” “In Newmarket we had a population of a million people within a 10 minute transit, but clearly we don’t have that here,” Peter said. They did some radio spots, and some articles were written about them. “There are so many things to do in this area too. So many people make it a destination to visit the bookstore and then tour on. There was a couple that drove here all the way from Sudbury as a day trip. They drove here, bought a couple boxes of books and stayed for supper and then drove home,” said Tamara.
While the couple brought most of the books to the Mill, they’ve also got rid of a lot of stuff, and have since bought a lot to add to her collection.
They are maxing out on space, so they are having to be selective about what goes on the shelves. The sales come from a mix of rare books and just regular stuff you would find anywhere. If someone is looking for something specifically Tamara will have an idea where it is. She’s the lover of books and would rather spend her days just focussed on that part of the business.
Tamara talks fondly about their decision to live out their days at the mill, but laughs that it was always Peter’s idea to leave the city for a quieter pace of life. But it’s so hard for the two of them to keep up to everything at the Mill and at their home, because the properties require so much work.
The couple has four kids who have never been interested in the business. They hate the bookstore. Tamara laughs, saying, “It’s probably because we made them work here for years for free.” Her dream is to one day sell the Mill to a young couple who will love it and make it their own. It’s her wish that someone would keep it going as is. They’ve put so much work into growing the place into what stands strong and majestic today, that she just wants it to one day find a good home. They aren’t going to do it forever. In their early 60’s, Tamara knows that one day not too far down the road, they will want to retire.
Now that the Mill is a turn-key operation, I ponder what will happen with this beautiful, archaic building during these uncertain times. Thankfully Tamara and Peter are mortgage-free and can hopefully weather the storm that has become a reality in 2020. If they were making mortgage payments, they admitted they would be dead in the water. Tamara has seized the opportunity to drag out books from under the staircase and hidden away in nooks, so she could price them and get them on the shelves. She admits to getting so much done during the time they’ve been shut down. Peter even has the time now to do all the little things like cleaning the light fixtures.
Williamsford is really a stretch of highway about 100 yards long.
Who would imagine such a gem hidden away in such an area?
But sometimes you find the most unique places to explore in the most chance happenings.
You should really take a drive one day to see it for yourself.
So as you can imagine for a book lover like myself, the temptation to fall in love with the Mill was alluring. I could imagine spending my days engulfed in the scent of old and new pages, and mingling with people from all walks of life, with their own fascinating story of what brought them to the bookstore. My imagination has been wandering since I spoke with Tamara and Peter. They followed their dreams and had the ambition to stay the course, even being faced with some of the toughest challenges. They built something incredible with their bare hands, and their life savings. Who knows what will become of the Mill in the next 100 years, but I certainly hope someone as passionate as Tamara and Peter will carry on the legacy of what they created together.
To visit the bookstore and café website: www.greatbooks.ca