Jennifer Norn never thought she would be in charge of the family furniture business—especially after 70 years of operation in the Alberni Valley.
Norn is the third generation to run Jowsey’s Furniture, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary throughout the month of May. She worked at the store as a child “only if I needed pocket change,” she said. “I didn’t want to run the store. I went off to be a teacher.”
Norn met her husband Mark at university, and the two of them began their teaching careers in the Kootenays. They had been working for six months when Norn’s parents put the store up for sale (they kept ownership of the building, just not the business). The family that bought the store decided in 1995 to close it. That’s when Norn decided to come home.
“My dad (Brian Dodsworth) phoned me in the Kootenays and said, did I want to run a furniture store, and I said no. My husband said yes.”
The young couple—Norn was just 22—moved back to the Alberni Valley and re-opened Jowseys in January 1996, with Mark at the helm. Jennifer worked alongside him until they started a family, and she stepped away for a few years to raise their children. Now, she is a mainstay at the store and is content to be carrying on the family business.
Norn’s grandparents, Aili and Jack Jowsey, opened the store in 1947. The couple had come to Port Alberni from Saskatchewan in the 1930s, where they had a farm in MacRorie. “My grandfather didn’t want to farm. He really wanted to sell things. He liked that idea,” Norn said.
The couple worked in Anderson’s Café when they first moved to the Alberni Valley. Jack worked in a department store on Johnston Road (where Boomerangs Café is presently located) for five or 10 years before opening Jowsey’s Home Variety & Electric just down the road in what was then known as Alberni. “He and my grandma opened their own store in the same location. It had radios and cameras and hardware and buttons and school supplies.”
Jack and Aili lived on Ian Avenue, and Jack would ride his bicycle to work every morning.
“They had the first TV in the Valley. It would sit in the window and people would watch it. They had all these nose prints on the window,” Norn related.
Jowsey’s is also known for its loyal employees. Doug Burrows worked for the Jowsey family for 42 years, retiring in 2011. Bookkeeper Rita McKinnon has been with the store since 1993. Norn has been there for 21 years.
Norn appreciates and cultivates an atmosphere of family at her business, and says that and good customer service have kept them at the top of their field. Employees don’t work on commission—Norn would rather pay good wages and have everyone working together.
“I want us to be a team,” she said. “We’re one team; everybody can help everybody, there’s no territorial stuff.”
When Burrows retired, Norn decided to get out of the appliance business—he had been available to fix customers’ appliances, but once he left that service became more difficult to keep up. “Furniture is something I understand better,” she said.
With hundreds of former employees and a similar number of loyal customers, Norn knows there is a gold mine of stories about Jowseys out there. She has a few to tell, too. The scariest break-in they ever had was clever in theory, but the crooks weren’t.
Many years ago, when Jowsey’s still sold a multitude of items, there used to be a vacuum shop next to Jowsey’s—not the same shop that’s there now, Norn said. One day there were a couple of men that came into Jowsey’s and, as her father recounted, were “acting weird. He said to Gloria (Cain, another employee) those guys are crooks. Get their phone number.”
She came up with a ploy and got them to give her their real phone numbers.
“They broke into the vacuum shop, drilled a hole through the wall and stole some electronics,” Norn said. “The police were able to track them down from the phone number and we got all our stuff back.”
Norn would love to hear other people’s stories about Jowsey’s, whether from former employees or people who have shopped there through the decades. People who share their tales will be eligible to win a $1,000 gift card. E-mail your tales to firstname.lastname@example.org, drop it off in person at 4957 Johnston Rd. or post it on their Facebook page.
Jowsey’s will celebrate throughout the month of May with a number of contests and events. On Saturday, May 6 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. they will host a free car wash in the parking lot, a fundraiser for the ADSS Grad Class. They will also have a draw for a La-Z-Boy recliner that day.
On the following Saturday, May 13, they will hold a celebration for present and former staff and the public with a cake cutting in the early afternoon. Time to be announced.