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Toronto you've heard of the 100 Mile Diet, now get ready for The 100 Mile Child

Two years ago, Katie MacDonald went on a mission to find a made-in-Canada toy for her 4-year-old niece in an industry dominated by mass-market toys made in China. It was a search that turned out to be more difficult than she and her husband Ian Rodhouse, assumed. The couple, unemployed after returning from teaching in England, decided to open an online store for local, ethically-produced and non-toxic toys.

"It was difficult to find anything that would not be harmful to her," says Rodhouse. "We got the idea that we can't be the only people who are looking for these kinds of ideas."

In November 2010, the online store, Wildminds.ca, was re-incarnated as The 100-mile Child. Located on Danforth Avenue, it is the kind of store that makes the parent focussed on ethical consumption go ga-ga. There are Toronto's Cate and Levi hand puppets that use reclaimed wool sweaters, the toy trucks made out of untreated wood from Kitchener as well as Zabazoo's popular rock-balancing game, Rukshuk, also from Toronto. There's even some space for little girl nail polish, without the harsh chemicals, of course.

The store's name is a play on words based on the 2007 best-seller, The 100-mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating by Vancouverites Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, who documented the highs and lows of strictly sourcing all their food locally and with the smallest carbon footprint possible.

For a toy store, and one that is new, it is a rather strict and almost impossible regimen to follow -- to have all their products local, ethical and non-toxic. Although there are currently products from as far off as Vancouver, it was a decision that had to take into consideration that many local producers were small-scale and the store needed toys that would be guaranteed to arrive.    

"It is one of our concerns and a justification to bring in some stuff from further afield," says Rodhouse. "But we will get as much as we can from the smaller manufacturers, the more local people."

The couple opened The 100-mile Child just after Halloween in Danforth Avenue's popular Carrot Common after careful consideration of the local demographics and number of schools in the neighbourhood. It had the added attraction that MacDonald had grown up in the area as did its proximity to health food store The Big Carrot.

"All the people who are like-minded are coming to this area," says Rodhouse. "It's a great place for us."

It may seem counter-intuitive these days to go from an online only store to bricks and mortar. But for the couple, who ended up both working full-time for the Toronto Regional Conservational Authority as educators, keeping the website going had become an uneasy balancing act as customers would want to come and see the products for themselves in their home. 

"It got a little bit chaotic," says MacDonald, who arranged to work part-time so she could handle the business.

"It was a really tough decision to make, but I felt in order to really go with the business, it had to be one or the other. And we had already gotten so far with the business that we wanted to make it work."

It was when retail space suddenly opened up in The Carrot Common that they decided it was time to give their initial gamble another push. MacDonald gave up her job teaching children about water conservation through Watershed on Wheels  while Rodhouse pitched in part-time, keeping his position as an outdoor educator at the Lake St. George Field Centre in Richmond Hill.

The change from a part-time website to a stand-alone store was immense -- from permits for signs they did not know about to new computer systems for recording sales -- especially important since the amount they took in a week was as much as they made in a year when they were online only. While the learning curve was steep, at least they had stock ready for their store as part of their at home inventory.

The location also helped in other ways. MacDonald once found it to be a struggle to find local suppliers who fit their needs, now producers walk in their door to show off their wares. A now popular line, Prince Grace Bowtique, maker of hair bands and hair clips, came to their attention after a doctor who worked on the block urged owner Beth Donovan to bring her merchandise to the store.

It may be early days yet, but MacDonald is thrilled with the response the store has received in the neighbourhood during the all-important Christmas season.

"We exceeded the sales target we set out in our business plan which is truly wonderful news," says MacDonald, "and, of course, a huge relief."

And yet despite the attention to "the 100 mile ethos," customers have shown that Canadian trumps local.

"People seem happy that it is Canadian-made," says Rodhouse. "but whether it's within a 100 miles or a thousand or two thousand seems less important than the fact it is Canadian.

But of course, the most important question is the most obvious: Have The 100-mild Child folks tried the 100-mile diet?

"I would like to say I had, but no, I haven't," says Rodhouse. "But Katie and I are vegetarian."

Piali Roy is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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