The corner store once stood as a symbol of childhood incarnate, the unassuming family business that sweetened one’s youth with penny candy, Pixy Stix and pop in glass bottles.
It was often one of the first destinations parents would allow children to walk to without supervision and served as a hangout and meeting place into the teenage years. It had ice cream on a hot day and newspapers on Sunday morning. It was a focal point of community life and a first business for many immigrants.
The challenges are many: A growing number of big name chains that are open later mean independent stores are not necessarily the most convenient. And independent shops can’t match the selection big-box stores offer.
Many owners are now finding it difficult to persuade their children to take on the long hours and hard work of running the family business.
Tirtha Dhar, assistant professor of marketing at the University of B.C.’s Sauder School of Business, believes that independent convenience stores must develop their niches to survive.
“Right now, the way the market is evolving, stores like Mac’s and 7-Eleven, they have the upper hand,” he said. “But if these mom-and-pop convenience stores change, they can do a better job.
“My guess is that over time, in 10 or 15 years, the convenience stores we will see will be way slicker and they will be more differentiated in that they will carry products that will be unique for that location. They will provide service at a level that 7-Eleven and Mac’s stores won’t be able to provide.”
Luxmii’s Video and Grocery, 4301 Main St.
Kathiresu Kumarasamy’s shop at the corner of Main Street and 27th Avenue began nearly a quarter-century ago as a small clothing store specializing in custom T-shirts. Within a couple of years, Mr. Kumarasamy, a Sri Lankan native who had been active in the Tamil community and president of the Shree Mahalakshmi Temple, realized few places in town catered to his community. Soon after, the clothing store became a Tamil grocery and video store and was renamed Luxmii’s Video and Grocery, after the goddess of wealth.
By 2000, Mr. Kumarasamy and his wife, Thevarani, saw the shop had developed a multicultural clientele and transformed it into a more traditional convenience store with both Canadian and Tamil offerings: snack foods, soft drinks, Tamil-language movies, herbs and spices, cigarettes and clothing. Mr. Kumarasamy bought the stock, worked the cash register, fixed the plumbing and did electrical work. The couple’s son, Murali, hung around and played video games as a kid and worked part time when he got older.
On June 24, Mr. Kumarasamy died of a brain hemorrhage. No one had expected it.
“He really lived for the customers, and you could see that,” Ms. Kumarasamy said.
“He never thought he was going to die,” she said, tearing up. “That day he went shopping, he cleaned the store, he did everything. From morning to night, he did everything, whatever he can do. Just to finish his life, I guess.”
Ms. Kumarasamy now runs the store with Murali, but is heartbroken and unsure whether she will keep it open. Selection is sparse since the death of her husband, whose obituary is taped to the door. She opens the store sporadically. She doubts her own ability to fill his shoes, she says.
“I’m also not that healthy … and I don’t know if I can run it the same way like he can – not even 25 per cent,” she said. “It’s very hard now. I’m not really sure what to do, if I can keep it for long or what.”
McGill Grocery, 2691 McGill St.
One of Harry Mah’s first memories of his mother’s corner store at the busy intersection of McGill and Slocan Streets in East Vancouver is of the glass bottles of pop. When he was 13, he and his brothers would open them for customers, the lids falling into a metal container.
“We used to go into where all the bottle caps were – I remember how sticky it was – and look under the caps for free bottles of pop,” Mr. Mah, now 49, recalled with a chuckle. “Then we would use a screwdriver and pop the [winning liners] out.”
His mother, Oy Hee, immigrated to Canada from China via Hong Kong in the late 1950s and did jobs such as housekeeping and clerical work for many years. When a co-worker bought a store in North Vancouver and told of more flexibility and a decent income, Ms. Mah followed suit. The year was 1977. Eleven years later, she passed the business, a traditional corner store, to her sons, Harry, Charles and Peter.
“We really didn’t know the community [when we first opened], we kind of plopped in,” Mr. Mah said. “But now, because we’ve been here so long, we know the neighbours, the neighbours’ kids. Some of those kids [left home] and came back as adults. You realize who it is and go, ‘Holy cow. I feel old.’”
On a recent sunny afternoon, Mr. Mah worked to put away a shipment of milk as a steady stream of customers came and went, each greeting him by name.
“Hey, how’s it going, Harry!”
Mr. Mah would smile and wave, and they would stop to chat.
“We try to remember the names of customers so it’s one-on-one,” he said. “We try not to treat them like customers, because they’re more like neighbours.
Danial Foods, 1500 Barclay St.
The store, in the beginning, was not without charm. But as a frequent customer, Iran native Tony Shahrokni knew the drab little convenience store in a heritage building in Vancouver’s West End could be improved. About a decade ago, when the owners told Mr. Shahrokni they were going to retire and sell the store, he told them he was interested in taking it over.
“They were very nice people, but I knew I could do it better,” he said.
After replacing the old tile flooring and livening the store with a fresh coat of paint, Mr. Shahrokni, who immigrated to Canada in his teens, restocked it with multicultural foods – particularly Mediterranean offerings – not commonly found in convenience stores. On a recent afternoon, visitors could find six types of olives, a variety of cheeses and baked goods and an assortment of loose-leaf teas.
“It has a little bit of everything,” said his wife, Rose. “It has foods from all around the world.”
To loyal customers, the store is known for its selection and affordable prices, Mr. Shahrokni for remembering their names and their brand of cigarettes. If a customer is sick, he will recommend brewing quince seeds into a tea – an old Persian remedy for sore throats and coughs. For the Persian new year, he sells live goldfish – one of seven symbols of life in the celebrations.
And, if someone is short a couple of dollars, he tells them to pay it the next time they’re in.
“All these years, I’ve never had someone who takes it and runs,” he said. “They say, ‘Thanks very much, Tony. No one else does that any more.’”