BANFF – The 'Goro girls' are somewhat of a local institution.
Goro Canyon Smoke and Gift Shop in the Banff Park Lodge was so much more than a place to buy lottery tickets, magazines, gifts or souvenirs, but a community hub where friendships formed, laughter rang out and tears were shed with the three Polish sisters – Roma, Maya and Ewa – also all proudly Canadian.
But after 40 years, Goro Canyon is closing its doors on Feb. 28 following tough COVID-19 times and the deteriorating health of one of the sisters and the owner of the store, Roma Osicki, marking the end of an era.
“When one door closes, another window opens,” said Maya Wojnarowska, one of the sisters.
Ewa Wojnarowska adds: “We had a beautiful journey, I must say, with all the incredible people we’ve met over the years.”
Roma first came to Canada from Poland in 1974, followed by Ewa in 1980 at the beginning of the Polish crisis of 1980-81 associated with the emergence of the Solidarity mass movement. After martial law was imposed, Maya came with her mother in 1985.
“It was a very difficult time in Poland because of martial law,” said Maya, who had studied horticulture at university. “They give me passport and visa, which was very difficult to get.”
As for Ewa’s arrival in 1980 to spend time with her sister Roma and her family: “I was supposed to come for three months, but it was three months to 42 years.”
Roma, who was an assistant to the postmaster at Banff Post Office, started her business in the early 1980s and moved into the Banff Park Lodge.
“They took a risk, borrowed money, started a little, tiny shop,” said Ewa.
“That was the start of the journey. Then after the hotel was expanding, then they move us to give us more space.”
The store once served as Banff’s second post office.
There used to be a card file next to the cash register that contained customers’ favourite lottery numbers. Throughout the years, the store has sold many winning lottery tickets, including two $1 million tickets and four $100,000 tickets.
“We’re a lucky, lucky place,” said Maya.
Corrie DiManno, who is now the mayor of Banff, remembers her dad Tony DiManno bringing her into the store as a young child when she was visiting him from Texas, U.S., where she lived with her mom Paige Hayden.
“Whenever my sister and I would visit my dad in the summers, he would always take us into Goro Canyon, and when we were kids we gravitated toward the books, and then as we got older and became pre-teens we wanted to go find the magazines that had the pop stars in them,” she said.
“I can remember the Goro gals just being so warm and welcoming and caring… they always wanted to hear the update on how we were, and what we were up to, and how was school, and how’s our grandma. They just kept such great track of us and you could tell they cared.”
DiManno said many other Banff residents and visitors have their own fond memories of Roma, Maya and Ewa.
“I think it’s because of the atmosphere that the Goro gals created in there,” she said, adding the shop felt like a true intersection of community and visitors.
“They have such great customer service being in the hotel, but it’s also a place that so many locals run into for the newspaper, lotto ticket, a snack and to catch up with the Goro gals.”
Bernadette McDonald, a long-term prominent Banff resident and mountain culture writer, describes Maya, Roma and Ewa as a “Banff institution.”
When McDonald wrote Freedom Climbers, the history of Polish Himalayan climbing, she thought it would be fun to give the sisters a copy since they are from Poland.
“I could not have anticipated the response,” said McDonald.
“They were overwhelmed to read the history of their climbers, much of which they already knew, but all of which brought back wonderful memories of newspaper headlines, the pope greeting Wanda Rutkiewicz, the boys on top of Everest in winter, and other celebratory moments.”
That first literary encounter with Roma, Maya and Ewa morphed into a visit after each time McDonald returned from Poland for work – which was two or three times a year – or whenever she had a new book published in the Polish language.
McDonald said two of those later books were also focused on Polish climbers, which reinforced the bond with the sisters.
“They are such wonderful Canadian patriots, but my connection to them was through Poland,” said McDonald.
“Strangely, I don’t have one iota of Polish blood in my history, but I can confirm that their warmth and enthusiasm reminds me of so many friends that I’ve made over there.”
McDonald said their appreciation of the Polish stories is very emotional and heartfelt.
“It’s been wonderful to have that connection with them and I will miss going into Goro Canyon and sharing stories about paddling in the Polish Lake District or wandering the hidden alleyways of Krakow or climbing the splendid peaks in the Tatras,” she said.
With news of the shop closing down on Feb. 28 quickly spreading throughout the community, Maya and Ewa – Roma is in hospital – have been inundated with visitors wishing the sisters well and thanking them for their community spirit.
Local legends Eddie Hunter and Chic Scott dropped by last week, jotting notes in a book in which visitors and friends can leave heartfelt messages for the Roma, Maya and Ewa.
Scott said it was always a pleasure to see the sisters every Saturday morning as he dropped by for The Globe and Mail.
“Goro Canyon is a part of our community and a part of our hearts. We will all miss our visits and our chats,” he wrote, thanking the sisters for their generous donation of the paper to the Banff Public Library for so many years.
“Best wishes for where life takes you. Stay in Banff and enjoy the beauty and the friendships.”
Overseas visitors Lynda and Steve Hill, who have visited Banff from Wales and stayed at the Banff Park Lodge every year for 32 years, wrote the friendship that has grown with Roma, Maya and Ewa has been one of the reasons the family keeps coming back.
“The welcome you have given us each and every year has been special,” they wrote in the book, extending the sisters an invitation to visit Wales when retired.
“When we came to visit two years ago with our grandsons they were keen to meet the ‘3 sisters’. You welcomed them with open arms and made them feel special. They haven’t stopped talking about you since.”
Roma, Maya and Ewa take great delight in all of the locals they have bonded with through the years, as well as the visitors.
Among the visitors have been hockey great Wayne Gretzky, former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, Canadian news anchors Lloyd Robertson and Peter Mansbridge and a host of famous actors, including Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins.
“Anthony Hopkins came in for cigars,” giggled Maya of the actor who has shot several movies in Alberta, such as The Edge and Legends of the Fall.
The management of the Banff Park Lodge says Roma, Maya and Ewa will be greatly missed.
“It is with great sadness that the Banff Park Lodge says goodbye to one of its most endeared partners,” the hotel posted on Facebook.
“Roma, Maya and Ewa have been a mainstay at the Banff Park Lodge and have supported generations of both locals and visitors alike with their products, services and local knowledge.
“They have always offered their customers excellent service and spirited conversations regarding the destination and potential activities available within the Bow Valley.”
While there are many mixed emotions, Maya, who fulfilled her dream to visit Everest base camp in 2019, hopes to spend more time hiking in the mountains, while Ewa is looking forward to dedicating more time to her garden.
The sisters say it has been an honour serving residents and visitors and look forward to bumping into people on the streets of town.
“It was a special place to work and place where we met many, many beautiful and incredibly interesting people over those years,” said Maya.
“The connections we had were personal. It was dear to our hearts.”