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COVER STORY: The new North Shore corner store
We all grew up with a neighbourhood corner store. It was a place to spend our allowance on penny candy, chocolate bars and pop. Or, if they ran out of a household essential, our parents would quickly stop by.
Often, the same family ran the store for decades, living right upstairs or in a nearby house. The decor hadn’t changed in years, but that didn’t matter because new goodies were always in stock.
In many North Shore neighbourhoods, however, a different kind of corner store is popping up. Attempting to boost business, new owners are changing traditional convenience stores into cafés and delis, while keeping the most popular go-to items on the shelves including, of course, candy.
Their corner stores, they say, couldn’t survive without offering coffee, baked goods and sandwiches, which can account for up to 80 per cent of business.
It’s a situation Pooran Aga has faced first hand. While working at Cypress Park Market in West Vancouver, she figured the owners could attract more customers if they ventured beyond a typical general store. So, after buying the business from them four years ago, she built an addition out the back to house a deli and coffee shop.
“We have people who come here all the way from Coquitlam just for our chili. You have to offer something very unique so people will come in,” Aga says after a regular customer stops to ask if she made his favourite salad that morning.
Cypress Park Market & Cafe, which is located along the 4300-block of Marine Drive near Caulfeild, seems like an ordinary corner store at the front, lined with grocery shelves and candy jars. But a full-service coffee shop sits at the back, along with tables and chairs inside and on the large deck.
“Everything is homemade — the lasagna, quinoa salad with lemon and jalapeno, sausage rolls, paninis,” says Aga, as she holds out a piping-hot pan of lasagna she cooked that morning in the store’s small kitchen.
Offering just muffins and scones won’t cut it these days, she adds, since customers are often looking for a nutritious breakfast or lunch to go with their coffee.
Like other corner store owners have realized, Aga says her business couldn’t survive without the loyal neighbourhood residents who stop in for a bite to eat at the deli.
“You need to reinvent yourself”
Back in the first half of the 20th century, North Shore residents walked to their neighbourhood general store a couple times a week to buy all their vegetables, canned food and household supplies. Some corner stores even had a butcher shop and post office in the back.
This was before the lure of one-stop shopping at big box stores. At first, general stores were open later and on Sundays, but the big chains quickly caught on and extended their hours, some staying open 24-7.
Now, with many people coupon-cutting and buying food in bulk, corner stores are no longer needed in the way they once were.
In fact, many on the North Shore have boarded up their windows to make room for other businesses, unable to compete with the big chains.
But corner stores are still a vital part of any community, their owners tell The Outlook, offering residents a place to shop, socialize and grab a quick bite to eat.
Connie Fay, owner of The End of the Line in Lynn Valley, says most corner stores need to change in order to survive.
Located at the very top of Lynn Valley Road, her store offers everything from paintings by local artists to organic jam and honey to daily soup-and-sandwich deals.
“If you want to stay within your community, you need to reinvent yourself,” she says, standing beside a display of locally made soap and candles.
Like Cypress Park Market in West Van, The End of the Line has a unique location secluded from any other businesses. The café serves tourists who hike up the nearby trails, as well as neighbourhood residents, some of whom pop by daily for coffee and a Trail Puck, a healthy cookie made specifically for hikers.
The small store, newly painted brick red and draped in hanging baskets, has been at the same location for 104 years. From 1910 to 1947 trollies pulled up to the store before returning to the ferries at the foot of Lonsdale, dubbing the corner “the end of the line.”
When Fay bought the store six years ago, she knew the business had to change but she also wanted to keep the old-fashioned charm by stocking cooking essentials, retro toys and jars of penny candies.
“I try to showcase local talent. Many artists live within blocks of the store,” says Fay, as she picks up a bear paw casting that’s popular with tourists.
“General stores used to be the hub of information, and they still are. It’s a place for people to meet and discuss what’s going on in their lives and the community.”
The new trick to staying in business, say the store owners, is to be willing to change with the demands of the community.
Wine with your butter chicken?
The Grouse Grinder, the Pemby Pleaser and the Sowden Swinger are popular breakfasts at The Corner Store in Pemberton Heights. Each comes with two poached eggs on an English muffin with ham and creamy house Hollandaise sauce. While this is definitely not your average corner store fare, it suits the atmosphere of the bistro-inspired shop.
When Tracey Cochrane bought The Corner Store in 2006, she quickly painted the outside, planted a garden, put in windows and a deck and ripped out the low-hanging ceiling, revealing beautiful hardwood.
Echoing the owners of other stores, she added a coffee shop and took away the groceries that tend to sit on the shelf too long, replacing them with boutique items, fresh coffee beans and small gifts.
But she wasn’t done yet. Earlier this year Cochrane approached the District of North Vancouver for permission to obtain a food-primary licence from the province, which would allow her to serve a glass of wine, beer or cider along with meals.
With the unanimous backing of council, she is now seeking approval from the province, a process that will likely take a few months.
“When we opened, I didn’t want to sell cigarettes (like the previous owners). It wasn’t something I wanted in our community store, but it was also the biggest revenue stream,” says Cochrane, adding that the food-primary licence would expand her menu options and help her stay in business.
A group of moms took a petition for the food-primary licence door-to-door in Pemberton Heights and within a week had 600 signatures, she says. If she gets the go-ahead, a glass of wine could be served with her expanded menu, which might include burgers, mac and cheese and butter chicken.
Corner store owners never had an easy ride, Cochrane says, even back in the early 20th century when neighbours relied on them for their daily shopping.
“We all had corner stores as kids. We knew the owner’s name. This shouldn’t have to change, as long as we keep up with the times and are willing to change the way we serve customers.”