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Shelves once stocked with Gaspe history

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Tears roll down Carl Bond's cheeks as he stands outside the 96-year-old general store overlooking the glittering bay where Perce Rock looms in the distance.
The door is locked, and, for the first time in 38 years, store manager Bond no longer has the key. "It's a whole lifetime all gone down to nothing," says Bond, 55, who started working here at age 16.
The Robin store - owned by Robin, Jones and Whitman, Canada's oldest retailer after the Hudson's Bay Co. - was where villagers bought everything from sugar to septic tanks, cashed their cheques and gathered for gossip.
Its closing strikes at the heart of the community and deals another blow to a region reeling from the shutdown of paper mills in New Richmond and Chandler, the Murdochville copper mine and smelter and the collapse of the cod fishery.
The store closed the week before Christmas, when creditors cut off financing. Bond was forced to hand over the keys to the bankruptcy trustee.
Now the 240-year-old company, which also owns five other stores in the Gaspe and Cape Breton, has until Feb. 19 to pay its creditors or face bankruptcy and disappear from the coast where it once held uncontested sway.
Founded in 1766 by Charles Robin, a merchant from the Channel Island of Jersey, the tiny chain is the remnant of what was once a fishing giant, with tentacles in Great Britain, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and South America.
"It was an empire," says Robert Hudon, author of a recent novel based on the company's early days titled Le Maitre de grave.
"The Robins" - as local residents call the company even though ties with the family were severed in 1886 - shaped life on this hardscrabble coast for more than two centuries and made Gaspe cod a staple of Mediterranean cuisine.
"Charles Robin controlled life in the Gaspe, politically, economically and socially," says Jean-Marie Thibeault, who teaches a course on the history of the Gaspe at CEGEP de la Gaspesie et des Iles in Carleton.
Shingled Robin stores painted the company's signature yellow once dotted the Gaspe coast, Lower North Shore, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
In their heyday, the bustling stores were an institution, says Barachois resident Cynthia Patterson, 50, whose great-aunt worked at the Robin store in Gaspe town in the 1920s. "She used to say: 'When you worked for Robin, you didn't just have a job, you had a position.' "
"Poissonnerie meubles" - fish and furniture - announces a hand-painted sign on the side of the Barachois store . It's an apt description of the eclectic emporium where snow shovels stood cheek by jowl with boxes of King Cole tea and skeins of yarn, and you might find a bucket of herring next to the cash. Through the window, soft drink bottles sit expectantly in the refrigerator and a poster advertises a Christmas dance.
Barachois's 250 inhabitants must now drive 40 kilometres to the town of Gaspe for groceries. The store closing also cut a vital social link, Bond says. "Nobody sees anybody any more," he says. "It's hard. It seems to get harder every day. People keep asking me, 'When is it going to reopen?' "
"It's like a death in the community," says Patterson, co-founder of Rural Dignity, a group that has lobbied to save rural post offices and train service. "You keep thinking, I have to go to Robin's to pick up this or that - and then you remember, it's closed."
Gerald Element, 59, captain of a tugboat that dredges local harbours, says the closing has hit the village hard. "Since 1960, we've been losing everything in the town," he says. "We had a theatre. We had banks. This was the last thing we had."
The plight of the Robin stores has roused passions over the company's role in Gaspe history. Were the Robins oppressors or founders? The question leaves few indifferent, partly due to a Radio-Canada teleroman, A l'Ombre de l'epervier (in the shadow of the kestrel), that presents downtrodden French-speaking fishermen as victims of a rapacious English-speaking merchant.
"If you think of the history and the services he provided, Charles Robin was a founding father of Canada," bristles Enid LeGros, a ceramic artist who is the sister of the owner of the six remaining stores, Lawrence LeGros, who refused to be interviewed.
Enid LeGros, whose exquisite works in white porcelain and raku evoke the colours and shapes of her beloved coast, says the closing of the stores is deeply painful for the family. "There is a great sadness."
But many Gaspesians see the Robins as tyrants, says Thibeault, whose two grandfathers fished for the company. "My grandfathers saw them as people who made them work very hard for very little," he says. "The Robins were exploiters, but that was the norm."
Early accounts dwelt on the desperate poverty of the fishermen, whom the Acadian Recorder described in 1827 as "literally in bondage." Charles Robin himself wrote of the fishermen's "poor miserable Huts, which would make you shudder did you but see them."
A 25-minute drive west of Barachois in l'Anse a Beaufils, a once bustling fishing village, culture has taken up some of the slack left by the moribund fishery. Local residents have created a performing arts centre in a former fish factory.
Remi Cloutier, 43, who once trained horses at Blue Bonnets racetrack, has turned a former Robin store into a museum. With its original gleaming oak shelves, Cloutier's museum-store stocks "everything from baby powder to coffins," he says. Store ledgers filled with spidery script reveal why resentment toward the Robins still runs deep.
Under the so-called "truck system," the company advanced credit to the fisherman for his purchases in return for his catch in the coming season. The system, immortalized in the mining song Sixteen Tons by Merle Travis, persisted on the Gaspe coast until the 1930s.
"People had a bill to the Robins," says Isaac Lemieux, 79, a retired fisherman in Barachois whose father fished for the Robins. "They would work all through the summer to pay it off."
A store ledger for 1895 records that fisherman Pierre Anderson bought sugar, tea, crackers, flour, nails, hooks, line and other necessities for a value of $159.10.
After turning his entire catch over to the company, Anderson still owed $16.86 on his total bill. "You could end the season and still be in debt," Lemieux says. "There were cases where people lost their land. Those were rough times."
Lemieux remembers when his own father quit the Robins for another buyer. The Robins manager would try to knock down the price of the fish, Lemieux recalls. "He'd break the fish and say, 'that's inferior.' My father said, 'that's enough.' " Then he turned to his sons, who had come to help deliver the fish. "He said: 'take the fish out of the yard.' "
It was a brave move for a man with 17 children to support, Lemieux says. "It was rare somebody would be plucky enough to say: 'I'm getting out of here.'" But Lemieux adds that the Robins' continued presence in the Gaspe makes up for many of their past wrongs.
One can't judge the past by today's standards, says author Hudon, 61, a retired insurance broker whose book was inspired by tales of the Robins he heard from his clients over more than 30 years. "The Robins were people of their time," Hudon points out. "Whether it was the Price Brothers (in the lumber trade) or the coal mines, it's the same story:
You load sixteen tons, what do you getAnother day older and deeper in debtSaint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't goI owe my soul to the company store.
In Paspebiac, 100 kilometres west of l'Anse a Beaufils, a dated neon sign still glows outside the locked and deserted Robin supermarket and furniture store, where the company has its head office.
Across the street, business is booming at the newly renovated IGA. "People say: 'Hey, now we have a store just like in town,'" owner Marc Desbiens says.
"People want freshness. They want variety." The town of 3,900 is too small to support two supermarkets, Desbiens contends.
Robert Whittom, 60, was among about 30 employees who lost their jobs when the Robin stores closed. The chain employed 130 two years ago. "For sure it's hard. You feel a sense of belonging," says Whittom, who worked in Robin's accounts department for 37 years.
Whittom is philosophical about the closing. "We've seen competition come in, our industries closing, the exodus of young people. Factors beyond our control."
Beside the Robin stores, a road winds down the hill to the bay. Here, on the barachois, a triangular point of sand formed by the action of the tide, a dozen windswept wooden buildings bear witness to Charles Robin's empire.
This was the hub of the Robins' export business until 1964, when a massive fire destroyed most of the buildings, forcing the company to abandon the fishery. It was declared a provincial heritage site in 1981.
Retired fisherman Marcellin Parise, 72, who fished for the Robins with his father and two brothers starting at age 12, often comes during the summer months to demonstrate boat-building and share fishing lore with visitors to the site. "It was the sea, the smell of the sea, the sea air," says Parise, who still pines for the days when he fished for cod. "You can breathe out there. Often, I saw the sun come up over the sea."
"Charles Robin chose this place because of the barachois and because of the wind," says Marie-Josee Lebrasseur, director of the Site historique du Banc-de-peche de Paspebiac.
Ideal conditions for curing fish allowed Charles Robin to develop a better quality of salt cod than elsewhere in North America, Lebrasseur explains.
In his 1997 bestseller Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky writes that the Gaspe cure produced the only North American salt cod good enough to satisfy discriminating palates in the Mediterranean countries. Salt cod was a staple in southern Europe because the Catholic religion banned meat on Fridays and holidays, Kurlansky writes.
The Gaspe cure was the Robins' greatest achievement, author Hudon says. "The goal of my book was to restore pride to the people who worked for this company, because they produced the best salt cod in the world."
"There was a unique heritage here that I think it is important to make known. There is every reason to be proud of this product that was exported to every continent."