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Toronto No hard feelings for owners who lost store to Queen West gentrification

Paul Maranger walks past Queen’s Grocery and Variety, which sits on the corner of Queen and Lisgar streets, and will soon be replaced by a vegetarian restaurant.

Melissa Renwick/The Globe and Mail

Until Thursday, Sandy Chen and Henry Zhou ran a convenience store on Toronto's Queen Street West. As the neighbourhood around them went from seedy to artsy to trendy, their Queen's Grocery & Variety at the corner of Queen and Lisgar streets remained stubbornly the same.

Year after year, day after day, they stood sentry behind the store counter, cheerfully hawking (as the sign outside proclaimed) "pops, snacks, ice creams, ATM, TTC, Lotto" and other necessities of urban living.

But cities are always evolving and even Queen's Grocery couldn't resist forever. Real estate values have soared on Queen, one of the hottest streets on the continent. Someone bought the building from their old landlord last spring. Faced with a doubling of their rent, the couple, now in their 50s, decided to wind up the business that sustained them for 17 years.

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As they prepared to close on Wednesday, a handwritten sign announced "Everything must go!!!" Inside the store, already half empty, Ms. Chen was slashing prices and giving lots of stuff away free. The sound of hammering and drilling came through the wall as renovators encroached. A contractor who looked in said the space would become (what else?) a vegetarian restaurant.

It is a process that is underway on city streets from London to Chicago to Shanghai. Rundown downtown neighbourhoods are reviving. New money and new blood is rushing in. The local hardware becomes a yoga studio, the greasy spoon a coffee bar. This stretch of Queen used to boast two car-wash joints, now priced out and long gone.

It would be easy to paint the demise of Queen's Grocery as a tragedy and Ms. Chen and Mr. Zhou as the latest victims of out-of-control gentrification. It's not that straightforward. Ms. Chen says her feelings are "complicated."

She and her husband will miss their customers, yes, and they wonder just what they will do now that their all-consuming life in the corner store is at an end. But she says her strongest emotion is gratitude. She is grateful to her loyal customers, grateful to the country that took her in, and despite the long hours and hard work, grateful to have had the chance to witness the amazing changes overtaking the city. "I keep on saying, 'We are so lucky.' "

Ms. Chen was a teacher and Mr. Zhou an engineer in their native China. They immigrated here for a better life, arriving with just $5,000 to their name. They tried to make a living selling Chinese handicrafts. They tried working in a clothing factory, booking different shifts so they could take turns caring for their young daughter. Finally, borrowing $45,000 from relatives, they bought the business on Queen, a leap in the dark for two people with no experience running a store.

Like so many immigrant storekeepers, they worked crazy hours. They opened at 10 in the morning and didn't close till 11 at night. They stayed open weekends and shut their doors only on public holidays.

Their daughter often sat on an overturned milk crate as they worked or did her homework at a little desk. She could work the cash register by 7. Mr. Zhou went up to the local discount supermarket to buy bulk merchandise to stock their shelves. In the first five years, Ms. Chen says, "it was really tough."

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The neighbourhood began to change when the Drake Hotel opened a block down the street, an early outpost of hipsterdom. Art galleries came in, then high-end restaurants and bars. Condos rose across the street. Mr. Zhou says he went on Google Maps recently and found no fewer than 30 new buildings in the area. People may grouse about rising property values, "but for the neighbourhood," he says, "this is good news."

A few old businesses hang on despite the rush of change. In a cluttered used-appliances store down the street, the proprietor says he's not going anywhere. He has worked at the store since 1970. Two little convenience stores are surviving just around the corner from ultra-cool Ossington Avenue. All those condo dwellers need somewhere to buy their duct tape and potato chips. To serve them, a new, modern convenience store with a latte bar in the front has opened opposite the Drake.

Ms. Chen and Ms. Zhou marvel at the transformation of the neighbourhood. They marvel at all the human variety, too. In China, Ms. Chen says, they had never heard of multiculturalism. When they saw Toronto's mix of cuisines, languages and styles of dress, they thought, "Wow, this is amazing, this is an amazing country."

Before they took over, their store was run by Portuguese, then Koreans, then Vietnamese, then Vietnamese again. "That's why I love Canada," says Ms. Chen, who has bright eyes and a ready smile.

As she speaks, a muscular Cuban who has been carting buckets of renovation debris out of the place next door stops by for a bottle of water. A Portuguese neighbour drops in to say goodbye, remarking that real estate agents keep knocking on her door to offer her a fortune for her beat-up old house.

Ms. Chen tells her to take whatever she wants. She goes away with tomato paste and a can of cat food. "I'm going to miss you guys," she says, folding Ms. Chen in a hug. "I wish you all the best."

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Ms. Chen says it will feel odd to stop working in the familiar store. "Every day you come here and then one day you walk out the door." But she and Mr. Zhou had a good run. They bought a house. They raised a daughter and sent her to university – though, Mr. Zhou says with a laugh, she chose the humanities, and "you can't find a job" with that.

Now life is changing, but, then, it has a way of doing that. Things change. Cities change. Life goes on. Ms. Chen is looking forward to cleaning her "garbage site" of a house, neglected through all these years of work. Then she may go back to school and look for a teaching job. Whatever happens, she feels thankful for all her years in that little store on Queen West.

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