Laura O’Keefe and Carlo Colacci are the perfect Toronto couple. The newlyweds are affable, ambitious, and head-over-heels for each other. He is the entrepreneur behind one of Toronto’s favourite retailers, and she is a beloved teacher with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). Their how-we-met story is straight out of a romantic comedy. After a brief introduction by mutual friends, they reconnected a year later, on a group outing to Sea-Doo on Lake Ontario. Carlo remembers, “We were partnered up… and within three minutes, I had flipped the Sea-Doo. The boat went flying, we were swimming back to get out of the water as quickly as possible. I let her drive after that.” Both of them felt a little shy, and Sea-Dooing didn’t afford many opportunities to flirt. Luckily, a few years later, Carlo threw a party that Laura attended, the two had their first real conversation, and they’ve been together ever since.
Carlo credits his wife with teaching him patience, and “how to slow down and enjoy life while doing a million things.” The virtue is somewhat a professional requirement for her, as a first grade teacher at a French immersion school in the TDSB. Laura has wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember—“I actually wrote it in my autobiography when I was in grade seven,” she says—and she was hired before she had even graduated teachers college. She always wanted to teach young children, but first grade has been especially rewarding, as it’s such an important year for the students, academically, socially and developmentally.
Laura has worked tirelessly for the past six years to ensure not only that her students learn, but that they also grow to love learning. “Working with kids who are really anxious at the beginning of the year—they’re coming home, and they’re crying every day, and their parents don’t know what to do—helping that child feel comfortable, and then helping them learn to love school, I think that’s been my greatest accomplishment. And I’d say every one of my students leaves at the end of the year and feels good about coming to school.” Carlo proudly adds that parents often request that their children be placed in Laura’s class, and keep in touch with her for years after their children have moved on from her classroom.
One of the great perks of teaching, of course, is summer vacation, and in 2011, Laura and a colleague decided to use their summer months to launch a new project. After being certified as children’s yoga instructors, they founded L.M.N.O.P, a camp for kids aged five to nine. For two weeks, based out of the Lower Ossington Theatre and Trinity-Bellwoods Park, they taught their charges yoga, art, drama and storytelling. “Now that I’ve met Carlo, I have other dreams too, like maybe one day having my own business… growing up, I had this vision that I could only be a teacher. He’s taught me that you can do other things, and you can be creative in other ways. He’s taught me to become more of a risk-taker.”
Risk has played an integral part in Carlo’s own career. In 2004, at the age of 25, he decided to quit his corporate job and start a business in the fashion industry. He founded Shared, a line of Toronto-made t-shirts, and enjoyed success with international and local retailers alike. In 2008, Carlo and his business partner Joyce Lo set up a Shared pop-up shop next to the Drake Hotel on Queen West. Jeff Stober, the hotel’s founder, asked them to put together a proposal for a permanent retail concept, and the Drake General Store was born.
Neither Carlo nor Joyce had much retail experience, but they had a strong vision for their store. “While working on Shared, Joyce and I would travel a lot, and we love to go out and shop. So we sat down and envisioned the perfect store for us. We thought, we really like to shop, and if we like what we create, hopefully everyone else will too. And our concept was to bring all these different elements into one shop—international brands, local artisans, just really going near and far to find the perfect item.” Like an old-timey general store, theirs would sell a wide array of products, a one-stop shop reimagined for contemporary customers. The décor intentionally reflects this mix of the old and the new, juxtaposing homey, woodsy elements with more modern pieces.
The General Store stocks Canadiana, novelty gifts, housewares, toys, clothes and accessories; t-shirt line Shared has evolved to become the store’s in-house clothing brand. It’s the type of store that begs you to browse. You might find a map of Toronto brunch spots, a build-it-yourself ukulele, or the perfect cozy t-shirt. The store has been so well-received by Torontonians that is has grown into a mini-empire. In 2009, a second Drake General Store opened in midtown. “Rosedale was a non-obvious choice for us, but we felt it had similar characteristics. A nice mix of art, retail, food and beverage. It wasn’t big box.” In 2010 a third outpost launched at Bathurst and King streets across from the Thompson Hotel, and this spring, Carlo has been kept very busy with further expansions. A Yonge and Eglington location opened for business in early May, and at the end of the month a General Store-within-a-store is launching at The Bay’s flagship location at Yonge and Queen.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Carlo also sees a lot of room for growth on the online side of his business, at www.drakegeneralstore.ca, which ships to customers the world over. “We’ve built a really great name for ourselves in Toronto, but now we want to take that international.” Eventually, he’d like to see the brick-and-mortar stores spread beyond Toronto too, to the rest of Canada and to favourite cities abroad. As if he weren’t busy enough already, Carlo has also been dabbling in interior design. Jeff Stober of the Drake is opening a new restaurant in the financial district and a hotel in Prince Edward County this year, and after seeing what Carlo did with the General Stores, asked him to be involved in the design for both projects.
This past March, Laura and Carlo were married in Palm Springs, California, a city where they had shared a memorable trip early in their relationship. One hundred and ten of their closest friends and family joined them at Frank Sinatra’s former estate for a beautiful ceremony set against the backdrop of a mountain range. “We want to go back,” says Laura. Carlo adds, “Every year we’re going to Palm Springs to renew our vows.” Next up is a move; the couple recently bought a house together near Dupont and Ossington. The space, built in the 1920s, is currently being renovated to their specifications. Fittingly enough, it used to be a store—something Carlo might know a thing or two about decorating. With Laura’s help, it’s sure to be exactly the right space for this picture-perfect couple.
WORDS: RONIT RUBINESTEIN
PHOTOS: ALEX BROWNE
HAIR & MUA: MICHELLE SILVERSTEIN, DEZZY-B
NATALIE SHEMUEL & LEXY ROBIDOUX
LOCATION: THE DRAKE GENERAL STORE & R.H. MCGREGOR SCHOOL
CLOTHING BY: CABARET VINTAGE & THE DRAKE GENERAL STORE