Magee Grocery has been a Kerrisdale landmark near the corner of 49th and West Boulevard, since 1944.
By 1948, the familiar apple neon sign went up and it still hangs over the door today, but without the steady traffic that used to pass through. In fact, the store is empty and almost forgotten, but the lone butcher who runs Quality Meats of Kerrisdale is hanging on – doing business from his counter at the back of the room.
These days, Magee Grocery embodies the struggle of old Vancouver to survive alongside, or in spite of, the rapid transformation of development.
As confused customers wander into the dark, old store in search of a cold drink or pack of cigarettes, they find empty store shelves that look like they’ve been ransacked by looters. The shelves have been pushed together to one side of the room, so customers have a clear line to Bernie McDougall’s butcher counter. In the window hangs a hand-written sign that is the only indication that McDougall is inside, still doing business.
A customer who hadn’t been in for a while dropped by for six New York steaks. While waiting, she examined the shelves more closely, looking confused.
“It must be kind of creepy working here,” she finally said.
McDougall took over at the back of Magee Grocery when original butcher Eddie Lex left in 2003. But last year, McDougall showed up for work one day and the owner-operator of the grocery had mysteriously abandoned the business, leaving all the products on the shelves and in the freezers.
The owner of the building didn’t find new tenants, or remove the store contents. Last Christmas, McDougall spruced the place up by wrapping Christmas paper over the shelves. In a couple of months they’ll make sense again.
“Everybody walks in and they ask, ‘What happened?’” says the amiable Londoner, from behind his display case, wearing his red apron.
Quality Meats of Kerrisdale is in limbo because the old owners wanted to cash out and the new owners want to redevelop. McDougall gets to stay until the building comes down.
Last June, Cressey Development Group purchased the old retail building, with plans to build condos. It already owns two of the three-storey walk-ups in the block. McDougall knows his time at the shop is limited, but he’s hoping he’ll be able to stay in Kerrisdale, even though rents, and taxes, are mostly out of range for a one-man shop.
He is realistic. He knows that Kerrisdale is simply unaffordable now, and that he’s had a good run. He doesn’t blame anybody, although he worries about the families that can’t afford the high cost of the area any more, even if they do scrape together the down payment.
McDougall and his wife raised four children in a house they purchased long ago in the area. In a doorway inside the shop, there is a height chart for his four grandchildren.
“People in Kerrisdale don’t like change that much. But it’s like the rest of Vancouver – it seems to be accelerating at a rate that’s dizzying. It seems to be too much for everybody.
“It’s not a conspiracy of any kind,” he adds. “They’re not evil developers. It’s just a stage the city is in, rapidly moving toward a big city. I think we had the best years of Vancouver. Now, how can families afford to live around here? How can you maintain your home and pay your taxes?”
McDougall has been a west side butcher since he came from London, England, in 1971. His Quality Meats business used to be a thriving operation, doing business in another building on East Boulevard. When the building burned down in 1989, he moved to other west side locations until he settled at Magee Grocery.
As development and high prices encroach on the old mom and pop shops, only the big chains will be left standing, says McDougall. There used to be a total of five independent butchers in Kerrisdale, and he knew them all. Long-time Shaughnessy Fine Meats, nearby on W. 41st Avenue, recently shut its doors.
“I’ve outlasted them all,” he says, laughing.
Cressey has offered to clear out the empty store shelves, so that the store doesn’t feel like it was just recently abandoned, he says. However, working at the back of a cavernous space might be weirder, he told them. As well, the old patchwork linoleum floor is better left covered.
Despite the fact that Magee Grocery looks like a ghost store, his loyal customers keep coming, he says. McDougall is the type of old-school butcher who still keeps accounts for his regular customers. He tears off a piece of brown butcher paper and jots down the customer’s order and the prices – his version of a receipt.
Many of his customers have been coming to his shop since the seventies, and are now seniors who can’t afford the high-end organic supermarkets on the west side. They drop by for a few slices of bacon, and lately, to place orders for free range turkeys for Thanksgiving, and chickens for Rosh Hashanah. Some of them come from across the other side of the city, as far as Richmond. They greet Bernie by name, like an old friend.
“If I didn’t have the clientele I’ve got, I wouldn’t be in business,” McDougall says.
Cressey Development’s Hani Lammam says that McDougall will probably have another year at the store.
“We’ll probably make a submission to the city in the next month or two. And then there is the development process, which will be another year away probably,” he said in a phone interview. “[McDougall] gets one month notice, but he’ll know well in advance and we will definitely try to accommodate him. He has a loyal following. He just needs to find another location. Obviously, the site is ripe for development and he’s had a good 10 years there, and it’s been good to him. But the writing is on the wall, now that the grocer’s gone.”
McDougall could sell his house and retire, he considers. He and his wife have discussed the possibility.
“But then, where do you go?” he asks. “It’s your home.”