by Andrew Morrison | When I was a kid in the 1970s/80s, neighbourhood grocery stores used to be commonplace. The closest one to my house was called The Birdcages, and it was the best store of its kind. It was where I spent my allowance on candy and hockey cards, and where the owner was hesitant to sell me smokes even after I had become old enough (she asked me for ID every time). It was also where my Mom would send me for milk, bread, sugar, eggs, flowers, daily newspapers, and various other essentials. It wasn’t fancy, the selection was limited, and the hours weren’t as convenient as the 24 hour Mac’s two blocks away, but it was definitely a functioning facet of our community; plus they never ever ran out of ice cream sandwiches or Mr. Freezies.
And yet it was even more than just a victualling station; The Birdcages doubled for my family and our neighbours as a marker, declaring to outsiders (and insisting to residents) that ours was indeed a neighbourhood of special note and character. It simply made the area a better place to live. Stores similar to it weren’t rare back then. There were, in fact, reasonable facsimiles several blocks away in almost every direction, each one independently owned, with its own particular smell and identity. The Birdcages was just ours.
What makes The Birdcages mentionable today, however, is that it’s still there and still very much an anchor of the community. The others? Not so much. In Vancouver, the survival rate of neighbourhood grocery stores has been dismal. I know of well over a dozen that are more or less completely shuttered, functioning now only as Instagram fodder for those who fetishize bygone patinas. Those that are still in business tend to be shadows of their former selves, offering little in the way of magnetism beyond their being a last resort if/when you suddenly find yourself in unholy need of smokes, lottery tickets, non-digital porn, or junk foods of questionable age and provenance. Without a doubt, their function in our communities has been on the wane for a very long time.
But what if they were all given a new lease on life?
That’s essentially what happened late last week when City Council unanimously amended an out-of-date bylaw (No. 3575) that had restricted the possibilities for neighbourhood grocery stores by definition. It struck out the antiquated text (that recently gave East Van’s Le Marche St. George such a hard time) and subbed in the following:
“Neighbourhood Grocery Store, which means the use of premises in a residential district for the primary purpose of selling groceries and convenience goods, and may include selling and serving prepared food and beverages for consumption on or off the premises […]”
It goes on to give restrictions regarding square footage and frontage in Section 11.16 and reiterates the prohibition of live entertainment and the service of alcohol (because baby steps). But soon we get to 11.16.4, which states: “the maximum permitted number of indoor and outdoor seats is 16.” Read that again, folks, and consider what that means…
Not only can our neighbourhood groceries – dormant and otherwise – get in the prepared food and coffee game (just like Le Marche St. George, the exemplar that helped push for the bylaw change), they can also have up to 16 seats! The good folks from Le Marche posted thus on their Facebook page after the council vote:
Tonight, Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver City Councillors unanimously voted in favour of amending the zoning by-law redefining “neighbourhood grocery stores”. This is huge for us and all other little shops like ours. It gives these kinds of stores a fair chance at succeeding and contributing to their communities creatively without being burdened by outdated ideas. Thank you everyone for speaking up and changing the future of neighbourhood corner stores in Vancouver! A million million THANK YOU’S, we couldn’t have done it without you! This has been a truly humbling experience to say the least.
The amendments are indeed a game-changer. They clarify things for existing establishments like Le Marche St. George and imminent spots like The Federal Store, and make it possible for so many long-withered or otherwise under-utilized shops to be resurrected as community hubs. They don’t all have to serve up specialty coffee drinks and fancy pastries, but I suspect many of the old relics will be reborn in some fashion or another in the coming years – with up to 16 seats inside and out! – and I can’t imagine that being anything but a net positive for the vibrancy of our communities.