15 Minutes With Jennifer MacKay Of Gastown Retail Icon, “The Block”


by Grady Mitchell | Every morning Jennifer MacKay walks or bikes from her home in the Fraserhood down to her shop, The Block, which has held down the corner of Homer and West Cordova for almost thirty years. It was among the first stores to pioneer Gastown back when the neighbourhood was more barren than boutique, long before the marble and gold majesty of Versace Home trundled in just down the street.

The shop was opened by is original owner, Eriane Baxter, who passed it on sixteen years ago to her right hand employee, Jennifer, who’s run it ever since. Having studied small business at Langara, she had always planned to own a store of her own, and although the opportunity arose sooner than she anticipated, the decision was easy; she already knew and loved the place. “I was a little nervous,” she says, “but I’m prepared to work really hard.”

Born in Winnipeg, she came to Vancouver in the early 90s. “I’ll move to Vancouver and see what it’s like,” she remembers thinking. Once here, she bounced between working retail and modelling, which took her across Europe and to Japan. Between trips she helped out Eriane at The Block. When her boss had a baby and chose to bow out, they made the handoff. “It’s been an organic process,” Jennifer says.

Over time she’s made the shop her own. The most obvious change came when she opened up the back office and storeroom and converted it into a beautiful lounge with curving floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with shoes, bags, and a collection of antique globes. She laughs, because according to the retail handbook, they did everything backwards. “We added shoes and took away storage space.”

The north-west windows running the length of the street flood in natural light. Intricate, fragile-looking model ships rest atop cabinets holding brands like APC, Filippa K and Surface To Air. Every season Jennifer slips in new designers that she’s excited about. This year those are No. 6, a women’s dress line from New York, and Le Mont Saint Michael out of Paris. She also feels it’s important to show local brands like Dace, Sunja, Lifetime Collective and Erin Templeton. Her selection process is based less on trends than intuition. “I really choose that stuff with my heart,” she says. “I try to imagine opening the box: am I happy to see it, am I happy to pay for it?”

Judging by The Block’s longtime hold on the corner, she’s doing it right. She remembers a time when, gastronomically speaking, Gastown was more of a ghost town devoid of bars, cafes or restaurants. Although she’s open to the neighbourhood evolving, she hopes its character remains intact – the brick, the grit, the cobblestone, that goddamn clock – and while she’s glad that more upscale shops have joined the area, she hopes the odd little businesses won’t get The Full Versace.

When asked if she wants to open another location, she shrugs and looks around. “I like Gastown, I don’t know where else I would open.” Rather than expand, she’d like to design her own line, all made here. Hopefully we’ll see her own brand join those other locals on the shelves of The Block soon. As for her other plans, she hopes to keep outside as much as possible. “If I’m not here,” she says with a laugh, “I’m gardening.”

To learn more about The Block, visit their site.

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