Real Estate

The Move: How two Toronto entrepreneurs revamped a retro Nova Scotia general store

Audra Williams and Haritha Gnanaratna wrote an unhinged letter, chased government funding and pulled up what they call "a lasagna" of carpet to realize their dream: Rosefinch Mercantile and Tea Room in Port Medway, Nova Scotia 
Isabel Slone
A man and a woman standing in front of a green two-storey building
Couple Audra Williams, left, and Haritha Gnanaratna in front of their home and store The Rosefinch Mercantile & Tea Room in Port Medway, N.S. on Tuesday, January 9, 2024 Darren Calabrese

The buyers 

Audra Williams, a 47-year-old communications officer at a public sector union, and Haritha Gnanaratna, a 36-year-old shopkeeper

The budget

 $450,000

The backstory

Gnanaratna emigrated from Sri Lanka to Toronto with his family in 1990, while Williams made her way to the city from Ottawa in 2011. The two met via a dating app in May of 2018 and, by November, they’d moved into an 800-square-foot apartment, spread over two floors in an old Victorian home in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. Both had steady jobs: Williams was a freelance communications specialist and Gnanaratna worked in events. They also ran Temperance Tonics, a non-alcoholic cocktail business, on the side. 

Williams and Gnanaratna loved their urban existence, but by 2020, they’d started to feel like Toronto didn’t love them back. Their monthly rent held steady at $1,800, but the cost of living forced many of their good friends—and their beloved brunch restaurants—to high-tail it elsewhere. “Our evening wind-down activity was looking at real-estate listings and daydreaming,” Williams says. 

READ: The Move: Two die-hard digital nomads finally settle at a former parsonage in Nova Scotia

After running out of new local listings, the couple expanded their search wider and wider. In April of 2021, they found a listing for a 4,000-square-foot, $450,000 commercial building in Port Medway, Nova Scotia, complete with a general store, commercial kitchen, top-floor apartment and an acre of land. The commercial kitchen seemed like the perfect place to run Temperance Tonics, but Williams and Gnanaratna weren’t ready to get real about moving. “I was seven years behind on filing my income taxes and we had no down payment saved,” Williams says.

Still, the pull of the Port Medway building was strong. Williams had lived in Nova Scotia while working as an ASL interpreter in her 20s, but Gnanaratna had never ventured east of Ottawa. That September, they toured Halifax, the Annapolis Valley and Nova Scotia’s South Shore to see whether or not coastal life agreed with them. “As a white lady, it wouldn’t have been as much of an adjustment for me to move somewhere that’s less diverse than Toronto,” says Williams. “We decided we’d go wherever Haritha felt most at home.” Gnanaratna took a liking to South Shore’s temperate weather and welcoming vibe. Within three months of the couple’s tour, he’d secured a job as live-in manager of a café in the town of Mahone Bay, which came with free room and board. 

The couple bade farewell to their Toronto rental—still well below market rate—in January of 2022. Within six weeks of their arrival out east, however, Gnanaratna’s employment situation fell apart. The café owner had unexpectedly decided to sell the business, which meant that Gnanaratna and Williams no longer had a place to live. Their new life had suddenly crumbled before their eyes.

The hunt

For several months, Williams and Gnanaratna bounced around Nova Scotia, couch-surfing at friends’ houses until they could find a more permanent living situation. In April, they took a drive, only later realizing how close they were to Port Medway, the tiny town that housed that dreamy general store. They popped by for a visit, and soon noticed the property was still on the market—at the same price as before. “As soon as we got out of the car, Haritha’s whole demeanour changed,” says Williams. “He started talking about what we would do if we got the place, which I thought was the most absurd idea. But then, I decided: I will not let this man have another disappointment.”

A photo of a bookshelf next to a light blue door. Atop the bookshelf is a sign that says, "WE SHALL NEVER REBUILD HALIFAX UNLESS EVERYBODY WORKS"

Williams didn’t let the couple’s lack of a down payment deter her. She found the sellers on Facebook and sent what she calls “the most unhinged message possible.” She explained how much they loved the building and the potential they saw in it: as a living space, as a headquarters for Temperance Tonics and as a community hub where the couple could throw events. Eager to sell, the owners agreed to let them tour the property two days later, on Easter Sunday. 

Over the next four months, Williams and Gnanaratna managed to secure a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada, after submitting a robust business plan and five years of financial projections. The couple also received funding to reopen the former grocery store and post office from FarmWorks, a community economic development fund in Nova Scotia. With extra donations cobbled together from family and friends, they finally amassed their down payment, taking possession of the Port Medway property in August of 2022.

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After moving in, Williams and Gnanaratna learned that they’d need to bring the building’s commercial portion up to the province’s accessibility code before they could officially reopen with a sit-down café. Gnanaratna managed the day-to-day renovations, while Williams took on a full-time job at the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada to support them financially. With no construction background to speak of, Gnanaratna levelled the floors and rebuilt the outdoor ramp that stretched across the building. “I would go downstairs and he’d be watching a YouTube video about how to knock down walls,” Williams said. Before installing the new yellow and cherry-red checkerboard floors, Gnanaratna also had to tear up what he described as a multi-layered “lasagna” of carpet, linoleum and laminate flooring, which had been laid down by previous owners over the past 50 years. 

A photo of a general store setup. The floor is patterned with maroon and yellow checkers.

Slowly, the couple’s dream of owning and operating a quirky, modern general store began to take shape. Rosefinch Mercantile, the result of their hard work, opened last September. (The name comes from the common rosefinch, a bird found in both Wales and Sri Lanka, flicking at the couples’ respective ancestries.) The decor is cheerfully retro, thanks to its buttery yellow and pale pink walls, interspersed with green columns. The grocery store-meets-gift shop-meets-café carries staples (like eggs), seasonal specialties (like eggnog lattes), as well as eclectic homewares, like artisanal soaps and tea towels bearing the likenesses of Canadian civil rights activist Viola Desmond and Tommy Douglas, father of universal health care. 

A photo of a "ROSEFINCH MERCANTILE AND TEA ROOM" sign, advertising fresh coffee, tea and cocoa, baked treats, curios and gifts, and groceries.

Each morning, Gnanaratna navigates his way past the couple’s five-strong clowder of cats—Trixie, Cinnamon Bun, Leo, Evie and Najda, two of which they adopted in Nova Scotia from a nearby vet—then opens the shop for 10 a.m. Some days, Williams, who works from home in the second-floor apartment, will take a break to steal a snack (and a kiss from Gnanaratna). The couple still has more plans, big and small, for their new shop. For starters, they need to find an accessible door handle for their new seating area. After that, they plan to turn the Rosefinch into a community events space, one that hosts intergenerational skill-sharing classes and alcohol-free pub nights and nurtures a community garden. “It all just feels right,” says Gnanaratna. “It’s a very bucolic life.”