Remember the corner store in your neighbourhood?
Coming out of the pandemic is the need to access goods right in your neighbourhood. The local corner store used to fill this role, with shopkeepers knowing everyone in the neighbourhood, and providing a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings on and gossip.
In an article written last Fall by Jesse Johnston with the CBC there were 226 business licences for Vancouver convenience stores in 2018, 86 less than ten years ago. Many used to be run by new immigrants as a way to learn the language and to work independently in a new place. But rising property taxes and the fact that residential zoning does not allow the use of corner stores as an outright use makes it difficult for these family owned convenience stores to continue.
Corner grocery stores are existing non conforming uses in residential areas. Stop running a corner store in the premises for six months, and a new lessee cannot receive permission to reopen the store, no matter how compelling the case.
But as civic historian and former City of Vancouver staffer John Atkin observes, corner stores are “community meeting places” where people can gather. Quebec Street’s Federal Store is an example of a convenience store that has remorphed into a cafe, as has Keefer Street’s Wilder Snail which also provides fresh baking and groceries.
Vancouver still has some of the localized neighbourhood market fabric in existence on the west side at Mackenzie Street and 33rd Avenue an on the east side at Nanaimo and Charles. These are grandfathered in businesses from a time fifty years ago when the car was king, and driving to shop at big malls with plentiful parking was a “thing”.
This returning trend of neighbourhood level convenience shopping that can be accessed by walking or by bike is described in this article by Architect Toon Dreessen who talks about the “popsicle test”. Can your kid go out by themself to a store safely to purchase a popsicle and return home before it melts? “And is there even a corner store for them to shop at?”
While we talk about the missing middle and supporting growth, local grocery stores are an amenity in residential “food deserts”. Loneliness and the lack of human connection can take a toll during this pandemic. But local corner stores reinforce a walkable connected community, provide interaction and local community resilience.
We need to bring corner stores back, so that every neighbourhood can safely do the popsicle test with their kids. Below is CBC’s short documentary on Harry Mah’s McGill Grocery and Vernon Drive Grocery while it was owned by Floyd Wong.