Skip to main content

David Dunkley, a fine milliner, in his Toronto shop on Oct. 4. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, much of Dunkley’s business disappeared but has begun picking up again as events return.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

After 52 years of fixing clocks, Peter Schafer says this is the busiest he has ever been.

Before the pandemic, he could expect to receive five calls in a day. Now, Mr. Schafer says he gets nearly 20. As one of just two remaining clock repairers in Ottawa, he said, he has benefited from an unexpected wave of pandemic spending.

“When the pandemic started, my phone stopped ringing and I said to my wife, it’s finally time to hang up the skates,” said Mr. Schafer, who took over Schafer’s Clock Repair Centre from his father. “Suddenly, the calls started coming from everywhere.”

Despite lockdowns, event cancellations and gallery shutdowns, some artisans say they are benefiting from Canadians’ increased time spent at home and accrued disposable income – especially those who cater to wealthier clientele, who benefited disproportionately over the past year and a half.

While many businesses have suffered, the pandemic has spurred an interest in spending on niche areas such as fine art, restoration and custom work: After dropping last year to the lowest level since 2014, gross domestic product from the visual and applied arts sector has rebounded to prepandemic levels, reaching $2.88-billion in the second quarter this year.

The number of people working in the sector also rebounded, rising to nearly 145,000 in the second quarter after dropping to a low of around 125,000 the year before.

“Folks who do high-end work, specifically that which serves a decorative function, have seen an uptick as people started putting more resources into their living spaces,” said Janna Hiemstra, executive director of a Craft Ontario, a not-for-profit organization supporting artists.

David Dunkley, a professional milliner based in Toronto, said it was thanks to a loyal clientele that he was able to keep his shop open last year. Typically, Mr. Dunkley makes a living creating bespoke headwear for weddings, funerals and special occasions. When the pandemic started, demand halted.

“Last year was a tough year to be a hat maker. Without the support of our communities, I don’t think any of us would still be here,” said Mr. Dunkley, who studied with the former milliner to the Queen Mother.

When the pandemic began, Mr. Dunkley shifted his focus to casual hats, bespoke masks and projects for the film and television industry. He said he is one of just two fine milliners remaining in Toronto, but believes that there will always be clients for businesses in small niches: “People still wear hats, and I never see that changing,” he said.

Sara Spafford-Ricci, principal conservator at Fraser/Spafford Ricci Art & Archival Conservation Inc., said her business, too, has seen a jump in commissions from private owners, who, after months of sitting at home, have decided to seek out art restoration services.

The Surrey-based art conservation firm, which has previously conserved several Group of Seven paintings, remained open while gallery, museum and government employees were sent home. Ms. Spafford-Ricci said that at certain times, they were some of the only conservators taking on projects in Canada.

“As time has gone on, I’ve realized that we’re recession-proof, partly because of the nature of our clients,” Ms. Spafford-Ricci said. “Some people do think conserving art is essential. Even if it is a frill, they have extra money to do it.”

But not all artisans have been so lucky, she said. The cancellation of in-person art shows and conferences slashed the income of many artists. She estimates that some visual artists saw income decrease by 80 per cent during the past year and a half.

Supply-chain issues have presented a further challenge. Julia Reimer, owner of Firebrand Glass Studio in Black Diamond, Alta., said the price of the glass she uses in her commissioned pieces has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Some of our major suppliers have gone out of business, and it’s a real worry when you come down to just one supplier for the main material you use. We’ve worked really hard to not increase our prices,” Ms. Reimer said.

The footwear business has also seen a shift in consumer spending. “People have been working from home, and haven’t been wearing their office shoes,” said Jim McFarland, former president of the Shoe Service Institute of America, an industry organization also serving Canada.

For shoe repair businesses in cities’ downtown cores, he said, office workers make up the majority of customers. As a result, Mr. McFarland estimates that 1,500 cobbling businesses across the United States and Canada have disappeared since the beginning of the pandemic, down from around 5,000 in 2019.

But, he said, the industry is seeing renewed interest from millennials in their late 20s and early 30s, as some reject fast fashion in favour of more durable and environmentally friendly footwear – a hopeful turn for an industry that has been consolidating for decades, said Mr. McFarland, who also runs his own cobbling shoe repair business in Florida.

Nonetheless, for some artisans, business is only getting busier. Niche experience, less competition and increased demand have left clock repairer Mr. Schafer confident in his outlook. But, he says that for him, it’s not about the income, anyway – it’s about loving what he does.

“As long as my eyes are good, my ears are good and my fingers are good, I’ll keep doing it until I can’t,” Mr. Schafer said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said gross domestic product from the visual and applied arts sector was $2.88-million in the second quarter this year. In fact, GDP was $2.88-billion.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct