OK Gift Shop Stores Close – the End of an Era
“There is no doubt the 12 years in Japan had a big influence in my life, but in a sense not any more or any less than some of the other experiences, be it the five years working in the woods or the four years as a ship chandler. There is kind of a saying in Japan that those born in the single digit years of the Showa era (1925– 1935) have the most varied experiences in life because they have lived in the pre-war days, the war years, the post war era and the many transformations of the societies from the 50s, 60s, 70s 80s into the 21st century. And in my case, I spent my formative years in Japan which allows me to be as Japanese as I wish, to be conversely as Canadian as I wish, or both at the same time. The history of our lives is what we are today. If we can take the best of our history into our future, we can make our community, our country and the world, a better place to live.” – Gordon Kadota
When Gordon Kadota established O.K. Gift Shop Ltd. in 1973, it was a natural extension of his cultural duality, someone who was comfortable moving effortlessly between the Canadian and Japanese cultures. Although he was born in New Westminster in 1933, Gordon’s mother took him and several siblings to Japan to visit their grandparents. While there, Japan entered World War Two with the attack on Pearl Harbor and they were unable to return home. Gordon remained in Japan for the duration of the war and finished high school there. Still, his heart pulled him back to the country of his birth. As he told The Bulletin in an interview, years later, “I knew I wanted to come back to Canada. I was born here and I chose to come back. For me, it was coming home. Yet, when I did come back, I was a stranger.”
On his return to British Columbia in 1952, Gordon worked for about five years in logging camps and sawmills. “I worked at a sawmill at Green Lake. At that time there were no roads, so we took a ferry to Squamish and the PGE to Mile 40 — which is Whistler now. The work was seasonal, so I went to UBC in the fall and winter, but dropped out after two years.”
In the mid-50s, Gordon began to see the possibilities of the tourist trade between Canada and Japan and began a series of jobs in the fledgling tourist and travel industry. Recalls Gordon, “Back then, there were hardly any tourists from Japan coming to Canada. So until the mid-60s, most of my work was with out-bound travel to the Orient. In 1964, the Vancouver Visitors Bureau organized a travel mission to Japan, in anticipation of relaxation of currency control in Japan. That’s when I started to be involved with travellers from Japan. The tour groups started to come in ’65 and ’66. Japan Airlines started coming to Canada in 1968, so tourist movement increased.”
During the same period, Gordon became involved in the Japanese Canadian community, which was just starting to rebuild on the coast following the wartime exile. He was one of the active leaders in the Nisei United Church Fellowship Group and also became involved in the formative years of the Vancouver JCCA where he met Mickey Tanaka (nee Nakashima) who was editing the English section of the JCCA Bulletin. He began to help out—mimeographing, stuffing envelopes, and licking stamps. Because he could read and write Japanese, he got involved in the Japanese section and eventually took over as editor. After serving on several committees, Gordon was elected General Secretary for the Vancouver JCCA in 1963 and President in 1965.
In the early seventies, Japanese were beginning to see Canada as a desirable travel destination. In 1973, Gordon set up Canaway Consultants and also started O.K. Gift Shop in partnership with popular talk show host Kyosen “Kay” Ohashi (sometimes called the Johnny Carson of Japan).
Gordon approached his new business like everything else in his life, with a focus on details and accountability. From its inception, “Good Value and Service with Sincerity” were the standards towards which every executive and employee had to strive. While price competition is a fact of life in any business, O.K. Gift Shop steadfastly maintained that good value and good service to the customer had priority over any other means of promoting the business. To this extent, proper staff training, selection of merchandise, adequate space, were all significantly important facets towards establishing a lasting reputation.
By 1983, ten years after its formation, the company was enjoying dramatic growth and had stores in Vancouver and in Banff, Alberta. In 1986 a third store opened in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
The company expanded numerous times over the years, including the construction of a four-story building on Alberni Street in downtown Vancouver that opened in March, 1988.
Eventually, a number of affiliate stores opened in New Zealand and Australia.
Like all travel-related businesses, O.K. Gift Shop felt the impact of the 9/11 attacks in New York and the 2003 SARS epidemic, along with changes in travel patterns and a decline in visitors from Japan and the US. The company continued on, however, guided by Gordon’s sure hand.
In July 2016, co-founder Ohashi passed away, and then in 2019, Gordon also passed away, leaving the company under new management with Ohashi’s widow, Suzuko Ohashi and Gordon’s daughter, Ayako Archer, now managing the company.
Earlier this month, O.K. Gift Shop announced that it was closing the Vancouver and Niagara stores, leaving only the Banff store, which would serve customers by appointment only for the time being, due to the COVID-19 crisis.
I talked to Ayako Archer by email.
I’m sure it was a difficult decision to close down two of the three O.K. Gift Shop locations. Coming as it does amidst the Covid-19 crisis, there is an added poignancy to the news. You and Suzuko took over the operation of the gift shops when your dad passed away last year. Can you talk about what the business means to you and those involved in running it for so many years?
After my father’s passing, I was new to the company, having to suddenly leave my previous career as a personal chef. But having spent the last seven months immersed in everything OK, I am so grateful to the dedicated staff, many who have been with the company for over 10, 20 and 30 years. My experience in business from my mother’s company, Times Square Travel, which closed in 2002, is a very good foundation for what I’m doing now.
Many people knew Gordon as the face of O.K. Gift Shop, but he started it with Kyosen Ohashi, who became a good friend. Around that same time, you also met Suzuko, Ohashi’s wife. What do you remember most about that friendship?
There was a true friendship was between Gordon and Kay (Kyosen). They shared a love of professional sports from pro golf to the NFL. Every year the Super Bowl took over from company business and family dinners. From faxes to emails, there were heated discussions of official point spreads and claiming their first choice of possible winners. Each had their favourite team, but their betting was done strategically, often involving complicated negotiations. Suzuko and I just smiled and nodded.
Your father was one of those people that you read about, and you say to yourself, how does one person fit all that into one lifetime? That he managed to run a number of successful businesses, including O.K. Gift Shop, and still give so much back to the community, is really key to how much respect he had among those of us that knew him. What has it been like stepping into his shoes?
I really haven’t had much time to look down at my shoes, especially now with the Covid-19 crisis. With the pandemic, I have had to make even more difficult decisions. I am always asking myself, what would he do? How would he take care of the employees and consider their personal situations during the worst time the company has ever endured, including events such as 9-11 and Sars? My father kept the company financially stable, which allows us now to take care of the staff during this difficult time as well as having to close the company responsibly.
You’re closing the Vancouver and Niagara locations but maintaining the Banff location and you’ll remain in your position as Managing Director. Do you have any plans for changing or expanding the business going forward?
That remains to be seen. Please come and visit us in Banff when the world rebounds!