Bruno Belanger took over Gemma’s, his mother’s business, because he says he wanted to try out his marketing ideas to expand the store. (Natalia Balcerzak/Photo)

Skeena Voices | Behind the shelves at Gemma’s

Storeowner Bruno Belanger shares his story paralleling his business

Bruno Belanger is a firm believer in the idea that if you can visualize it, you can make it happen.

“Thoughts create things, so be careful with what you think of, but also preparedness means opportunity,” says Belanger. “If you’ve prepared yourself for what you want out of life, those opportunities are going to come.”

As the owner of Gemma’s store, named after his mother, that mindset has kept his business and life moving forward.

Born in Saint-Moïse, QC, Belanger was the eldest of six in an entrepreneurial family always looking for innovative ways to make an income.

He says that during the first few years of his childhood, they were “spoiled” with nannies as his parents were busy working as dealers of Case Tractors to supply farmers with their equipment, while they also ran other businesses.

But in the 1960s, there was a recession and no one was able to make their payments. The company pressured Belanger’s father to repossess the tractors from his customers.

“My dad had a big heart… some of the French families had 12 or 14 kids. He says ‘I can’t take their tractors away, how are they supposed to survive?’ He put his entire corporation into bankruptcy and left.”

For over two years, Belanger didn’t hear from his father until one day they found out he changed his name and found refuge in Burns Lake, B.C. His mother joined him first to build a new beginning as he and his siblings waited in Québec.

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When they reunited, his parents chose to settle in Terrace. His father found a job in logging, eventually opening up a few businesses in town, and his mother worked as a chambermaid at an old riverside motel near the Skeena Bridge.

“We came here with nothing,” says Belanger. “All of us lived in one of those motel rooms… our outings as kids were going to the thrift shops to buy clothes.”

His mother started up Gemma’s Bath Boutique on June 1, 1979, at the Skeena Mall after being encouraged by his father to pursue her love of trinkets as she was “always decorating his showrooms.” When she decided she wanted to retire and sell the shop, Belanger jumped at the opportunity to take it over at the age of 26.

He had been working in marketing at the local radio station and says he had business strategy ideas he wanted to apply. Within a few years, he was able to increase annual profit sales from $100,000 to half a million dollars.

“I implemented my marketing skills, brought in inventory and learned about business very quickly by working with other business people.”

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That first year of business, his mother took him to the Edmonton Gift Show in Alberta. On the way back, a strange foreshadowing occurred when they stopped by his uncle’s home and she was asked to do a quick tarot reading.

“She looks down at the cards and all of a sudden she quickly flipped them back, saying the cards weren’t talking,” Belanger recalls. “Shivers went through all of my body and I knew she must have seen something that she didn’t want to tell me.”

They continued their journey until they neared McBride, B.C. and the vehicle wouldn’t start. Belanger walked to the trunk to look for a flashlight. He says he heard an urging voice that he calls an angel, telling him to tie his shoes.

“As I bent down, an 18-wheeler came at full-speed and ran over the top of me… upon the impact, I was sucked underneath the semi and thrown down into the ditch,” he says. “The car was squished like an accordion and my mom was in the front seat… I just asked God to let her go in peace.”

In 1986, on his way to the same gift show in Edmonton on a VIA rail passenger train — tragedy struck again as he was involved in one of Alberta’s worst rail accidents in history. His train collided with a CNR Freight train that killed 23 and injured 95.

As a survivor of both events, Belanger says he made sense of his grief quietly through writing or going for a motorcycle ride “to pray”, but he felt it was important to continue working on making his business better.

“My wife and I are quite spiritual, we believe that thoughts create things and we believe in life-mapping and story-boarding,” says Belanger. “We believe in affirmation, we sit down every New Year’s Day and talk about what we want for our future.”

From an early age, both Belanger and his wife, Krista, often created vision boards to visualize what they wanted out of their lives. But it wasn’t until Krista proposed to him on a paper napkin later on during a leap year, that he recognized everything they could accomplish together as two.

“We had made a huge vision board with lots of pictures on it and hung it up,” he says. “But [I knew that] in order to accomplish everything on there, I’d have to be with her for another twenty years.”

They spontaneously married in a hot air balloon above the Arizona desert at sunrise. He says that since their wedding, they remarry every leap year by going to “energy-filled places” around the globe such as the ancient ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.

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As decades have gone by, Belanger says he and his wife want to downsize and simplify their life, closing down the Gemma’s clearance store as a way to reduce his workload.

But at 63, he’s still running in and out of the main store. He’s renewed his lease for up to ten years, but with a clause to pull out anytime he wants.

“To close it down permanently, it would be really tough. I’m hoping I could find the right person who would want to take over the business and I’d help them,” he says.

Although it will be hard to let go, he knows that he still has items left on his vision board to carry out.

“Once you make a decision and run with it… it makes things a lot easier.”

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