Corners of your mind

Brian Morgan and I researched and wrote this article for the Avenue section of the National Post. It was published on Wednesday, February 10th, 1999. It was a double-page spread surrounded by pictures of corner stores that Brian took. We've both always loved the corner stores of Vancouver and were excited to have this opportunity to write about them. It also was the source of one of my favorite quotes, "Why do the sub-elites have such bad taste?!"

I present it here as an example of my ability to write in a journalistic and semi-academic style and to get published (with the help of my sister!)

When Mrs. Chan bought the Hilltop Grocery on Main and 59th, she was pleasantly surprised to meet a customer who had been coming regularly to that store since he was a student 60 years ago. His first visit is predated slightly by the antique mahogany cash register that still sits on the counter. This story and countless others reflect how, for most of the 20th century, the corner grocery store has been an anchor for Vancouver's neighborhoods.

Their proliferation, preservation and eventual demise reflect the history of the development of the city of Vancouver. The local grocery store was an institution in the day of every Canadian child. The selection of penny candies (gummy feet and hats, sour keys, licorice billies), flavored potato chips and chocolate bars were unique to Canada. Their interiors call us back to another age: their walls covered by narrow clapboard, their counters and shelving unchanged since the 20s. Although ironically preserved in their historical state by city planners' attempts to remove them in the '50's, they are now succumbing finally to Vancouver's growth. Sadly, few will be around for the next generation of children.

In 1929 a consulting engineer by the name of Harland Bartholomew was commissioned by Vancouver City Council to draw up an urban development plan. In keeping with contemporary trends of 'modernity' in urban planning, Bartholomew left no room in his plan for retail activity outside of the commercially zoned strips along major thoroughfares. Accordingly, in 1956 City Hall put into effect a zoning bylaw that denied building permits for structural alterations to grocery stores situated in residentally zoned areas. These stores also could not be rebuilt after a fire. Since most had been in place long before the introduction of this by-law, all were legally non-conforming and became, in effect, frozen in time.

By the late '70's, city planners' appreciation for the cultural and economic value of corner stores had grown. Accordingly, they sought to remove restrictions on their development. Unfortunately, the corner store had re-emerged into a much changed landscape. The stores, which had hitherto relied on local and walk-by traffic from commuters returning home, now faced stiff competition. Automobile ownership, which, in Vancouver, was fairly below the average of that of the US in 1956, was by 1982 reaching saturation levels. Convenience stores, such as the Mac's and 7-11 chains, dotted the corners of major intersections (on land that was formerly devoted to gas stations). Supermarkets--a more serious long-term threat--were starting to keep longer hours.

The success of late night supermarkets has been the death blow to the neighborhood grocery store. The local store could never [beat] the price or selection of supermarkets. Their only weapon was proximity to their customers and long hours. These advantages have been much eroded as the age of the streetcar has given way to the age of the automobile. The Piggly Wiggly of yesterday became the Safeway of today, with it's well-lit parking lots and late hours. Over the years the corner store, which started its life as a purveyor of all things perishable in the age of the icebox (which lasted up until the mid-fifties in Vancouver) was reduced to selling penny candy and pop. The establishments from which many of us fondly remember buying sour tongues and lime Crush, are in a statre of full retreat, their refrigerated display cases filled with paper plates or boxes of candy. Nor has the situation improved: of the 87 sites west of Nanaimo Street surveyed by the City in 1978 in preparation for its alteration of the zoning by-laws, only 22 are still in operation.

Existing stores tend to be owned by families who have owned their property for two or even three generations or have been bought within the last five years by recent immigrants from China and South East Asia. Although not all are doing well, the stores who have been under the same ownership have, not surprisingly, maintained the strongest social link to the community. One owner in the West End who managed to put both his children through college is now semi-retired, though still runs his store daily. He owns the property outright and knows that he wouldn't be able to turn a profit if he had to pay rent. "Most corner stores that survive are run by the family that owns them," he says.

Despite this bleak prognosis, many of the stores are surviving and in some specific neighborhoods even thrive. The Strathcona district, which won a battle against the developers in the 1970's, supports two vital stores, Benny's and the Union Market. Benny's has been owned by the same family since 1916. They run a succesful deli counter at the back and offer Italian specialties as well as the regular corner store fare. The Union Market has had a few different owners over the years, but has always maintained a significant role in the community. Maria Gloria Bernadino is the latest owner and she takes pride in her freshly baked Portuguese breads, carrying a recipe passed to her by the previous owners of 33 years. The success of these stores is a function of Strathcona's residents and business owners' commitment to a diverse and healthy neighborhood.

Canada's attempts to establish and maintain a national identity often focus on high culture, overlooking the quotidian activities and local surroundings that truly create a vital community. Its physical presence on the block and its consistent role in everyone's life, made the neighborhood grocery store a key part of Canadian culture. Today, although they are succumbing to major technological and demographic forces, the few that remain still are a significant link to Vancouver's gentler past. As Chang Yuen, who runs Kim's on 70th and Cartier, a store built before 1906 and in his family for the past 35 years, noted, "the 7-11's have the kids brainwashed, it's only adult kids who come to buy candy here now."



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