In days gone by, small town general stores were one-room wonder emporia. They sold all kinds of covetable stuff like beautiful fabrics, a new saw, doll house or penny candy.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Today, in urban centres they call these stores lifestyle boutiques. And the catchphrase "stylish essentials" replaces the tried and trued general store adage "if we ain't got it, you don't need it."

There's a fine line, really, between general store and lifestyle boutique. Especially in smaller Manitoba towns where you'll fined some truly exciting retail therapy under one roof.

"I like to say we ran Eaton's out of town. We were here before them and we're still here," says Stefan Tergesen. Stefan is a fourth generation owner of H.P Tergesen & Sons in Gimli on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. It's the oldest operating family owned store in Western Canada. And on a summer day it's packed with multi-generation families browsing its eclectic selection.

When it opened in 1899, pioneers brought in cordwood, eggs or fish to sell, and walked away with housewares, tackle for horses or shiny new shoes. Today its goods are less survival and more surfer. Billabong, Quicksilver and other skater brands hang next to thick Icelandic sweaters. There's also a great selection of Icelandic/Canadian literature. (The town was settled by Icelanders). Tergesen's tin-pressed ceiling and walls and original hardwood floor give it charm to spare. The original cash register is still there too.

At Lady of the Lake in Brandon, a shop, cafe and pub, you can come in looking for a brightly coloured scarf and leave with a great antique desk to use as a buffet at the cottage. For lunch, you can have a spinach salad with Saskatoon dressing made from fresh-picked berries. Walk it off as you wander through the 5,000 square feet of shabby chic home decor, gifts and vintage furniture.

The Arctic Trading Company has been serving the northern community of Churchill and its visitors since 1978 when it was opened by Penny and Keith Rawlings. Most of its inventory is the work of native and Inuit fine artists. Jessie Wastasticoot works on site, making like Edward Scissorhands with tufts of caribou fur she has affixed to leather to make beautiful pieces of art.

Among the unavoidable souvenir t-shirts with polar bears and beluga whales are slippers, mukluks and mittens made in store. While you can buy these off the rack, most customers take advantage of a made to measure service. "People love the fact they can customize a pair of slippers or mitts. They can pick the beaver fur, rabbit, Arctic or blue fox and the colour of suede," says Penny. In most cases, the custom items are ready the same day.

H P Tergesen & Sons
82 1st Avenue, Gimli
Tel: 204-642-5958

Lady of the Lake
135-B 17th Street North, Brandon
Tel: 204-725-4181

Arctic Trading Company
Box 910, Churchill
Tel: 204-675-8804