Brad Robinson is in a reflective mood as he stands in the shop his family opened in 1921. Today, it makes up one tiny part of the Lake of Bays superstore that is Robinson’s General Store in Dorset.
“It’s been a great life,” he said. He recalled one recent morning when he woke up to a view of Lake of Bays that brought tears to his eyes.
“I thought, ‘How did I get so lucky to look over this lake my whole life?’” he said.
Now, his family’s journey with the general store is coming to an end. After 100 years in business, the Robinsons have sold the store to a young couple, Mike and Katie Hinbest, who are taking over May 1 with a promise to keep the store, and its traditions and spirit, alive.
“We decided it’s time to move on,” Brad said. “I’m ready to retire.”
Mike Hinbest has been working on the purchase of the general store since last summer.
“It’s quite a big animal,” Hinbest said describing the process. The Hinbest family moved to Huntsville two years ago from Orangeville, where they owned a NAPA Auto Parts location.
Hinbest was looking to purchase a “family-oriented” business in Muskoka. He came upon a listing for Robinson’s General Store online and decided to check out the store.
“As soon as we walked through it for the first time, we knew this was the place for us,” Hinbest said. “I love that it’s this 100-year-old icon of family memories.”
Hinbest said they plan to keep all of the same stores and products, including the grocery store, Red Onion boutique, Home Hardware and the dry goods gift shop. All of the current staff are staying and, just like in previous years, they plan to hire more workers for the traditionally busy summers.
One big change is coming this summer: they plan to open an affogato café this June, outside, beside the Home Hardware garage.
“Chatting with people around, it was a missed opportunity of what people were looking for,” Hinbest said: locals are looking for a place to get coffee and socialize, he said.
In a century, Lake of Bays has transformed from a small stopover village for lumber workers into a major tourist spot known countrywide. Robinson’s General Store has undergone a similar transformation.
Brad was 20 years old when he took over the store in the mid 1950s, at the time only 1,200 square feet. Today, it’s over 14,000 square feet.
That major expansion was Harry Robinson’s idea, Brad’s father. Since 1921, they’ve made 14 additions to the general store.
“My father said, ‘We will make the store so good that people will have to come,’” he said. Today, they can dock over 50 boats in their marina and hold 150 cars in their parking area.
Brad ran the store for 37 years before his daughter, Joanne Robinson, and her husband Willie Hatton, took over in 1991. They’ve been in charge for the past 30 years.
“It’s been a lot of work,“ Joanne said. ”It becomes your whole life, and it’s hard to do anything outside of it.“
Hinbest said Brad offered him a significant piece of advice when they discussed his takeover: more than anything, it’s important to be out and about in the store, getting to know the customers and the staff.
It’s that friendliness and sense of community camaraderie the Robinsons grew up with and which Hinbest said he hopes to maintain.
“The people, the traditions and what we represent to the community is of the utmost importance to me,” he said.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY
With the Robinsons passing their family business to new hands, our reporter wanted to find out what’s going to change — and what will stay the same — about the ever-evolving general store.
Zahraa Hmood is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering the municipalities of Muskoka Lakes, Lake of Bays and Georgian Bay. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.