You Should Know About Vancouver’s History of Independent Grocery Stores Vol. 1

O.K. Confectionary privilege sign, 1974. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 1095-07568.

The City of Vancouver archives recently released a new series of digitized Heritage Inventory photos. Predominately from the 1970s, these photos are great because they document the city’s ever-changing streetscape, and feature buildings and businesses that had never before been considered for heritage study. Included in the series are some fantastic photos of small, independent grocery stores with their iconic privilege signs and graphic advertising, so we at Scout have decided to start our own series all about them.

Once ubiquitous landmarks in the 20th Century, small family-run grocery stores could sometimes be found along main thoroughfares, but often were deeply embedded within residential neighbourhoods. Grocery store proprietors (who frequently lived on the property) were well known in the community, and would even watch out for all of the neighbourhood kids. Whether they were armed with a list of staples to pick up, a note to buy cigarettes for mom, or some change to buy candy, these stores often gave kids their first sense of independence. After Canadian immigration rules changed in the decades following WW2, many immigrant families saw the corner grocery as a chance to earn a living in Vancouver.

However, since these photos were taken, in the mid-1970s, corner stores have all but disappeared. Supermarkets, chain convenience stores, suburban big box stores and our car-culture changed how people shopped. Starting in the 1980s, amendments to city by-laws and rising property costs sealed their fates.

Whatever you called them — corner stores, mom-and-pop shops, confectionaries, grocery stores, or simply “the store” — these places once served as local gathering spaces and encouraged a sense of community. That makes them worth celebrating. Let’s get started…

Charlie’s Grocery – 580 East 12th Avenue

580 East 12th, Charlie’s Grocery, 1974. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 1095-03934.

This photo from the Heritage Inventory series shows Charlie’s Grocery (580 East 12th) in 1974, owned at the time by Charlie Low. (If you look closely that may be Charlie seen through the window.)

A building permit for the construction of “frame stores” was issued to Richard Clarke in January 1911. The City directories, however, list Mrs. Eliza Burrows (widow) as the proprietor of the grocery store from 1911-1913. Research shows that many women served as the main proprietors of these essentially home-based businesses. The store went through various owners until 1965, when Charlie Low and Sun Ho Low took over and renamed it Charlie’s Grocery.

Charles Café in 2019. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Later becoming known more formally as Charles Grocery, it remained as such into the 21st Century. The store sat vacant for several years until Brett Summers gave some new life to the corner at East 12th and Carolina by opening Charles Café in August 2019. Timing, as they say, is everything. Charles Café closed in December 2020.

A few months later, in June 2021, Gooseneck Hospitality opened Oh Carolina, known for their great sandwiches, treats, and garden party feasts under the direction of cafe chef Karima Chellouf. Chellouf’s great-grandfather, Ngow Low, was a friend of Charlie’s, so it was important to her “to join the OC team and touch this legacy”. Sadly, Oh Carolina closed January 2023.

What’s next for this unique, historic Mount Pleasant space? According to the decal recently spotted on its glass door, it will be an endeavour called ‘Mercado di Luigi’. Stay tuned…

St. George Grocery, corner of East 28th and St. George

St. George Grocery in 1974. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 1095-04884.

This fabulous image from 1974 shows St. George Grocery sporting a salt & pepper-dash stucco exterior and 7-Up privilege sign. It is very likely the young people outside the store are students from nearby Charles Tupper High School. You may know it better as the home of Le Marché St. George, one of Vancouver’s earliest café-grocery store hybrids.

Built around 1913, the first store to operate out of this two-storey, mixed-use building was Millman & Moody Grocers. A variety of grocers operated a store out of this location over the next decades. The economically dire 1930s saw an especially high turnover rate, with store ownership changing almost yearly. In 1938, then-owners, Sydney and Kathleen Miles, named their endeavour St. George Grocery, and the name stuck for the next 60-plus years.

This group of teens were captured outside the store, likely on their way to or from Charles Tupper High School.

In 1953, Ed Kiyoo and Nancy Natsuko Mizuno became the new owners of St. George Grocery. Ed and Nancy married while they were interned at Westwold, BC. While Nancy ran the store, Ed worked for HY Louie for twenty years until his retirement in 1976. He passed away in 1986 at the age of seventy-five. Nancy died in 2010.

Current occupant, Le Marché St. George, was opened by husband-and-wife team, Pascal Roy and Janaki Larsen, as a grocery-café in 2010. Their endeavor was almost forced to close in 2015 due to outdated zoning by-laws, but fortunately it survived, thus paving the way for more grocery-café hybrids (and de facto community hubs) around the city.

Before Le Marché, there was St. George Marsh, a store and art installation run by artists Jacob Gleeson and Gareth Moore that was open from 2005 until 2006.

Gomes Market – 810 Union Street

Gomes Grocery, 810 Union Street in 1974. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 1095-03523.

Speaking of grocery-cafés, Union Market (810 Union Street) in Strathcona could be considered the “father” of them all. These photos show the building as it was in 1974, when Gomes Market was the occupant.

Although the building dates back to circa 1910, its first business wasn’t a store: in August 1911 a building permit was issued for a “Chinese laundry” at 810 Barnard (later Union) Street. Gin Lee operated a laundry business out of this building from 1912 to around 1920. In 1927, Ukrainian immigrant, Henry Olenyk, opened the first grocery store on this site.

Starting in 1930, Hejiro Matsubayashi’s Economy Store was operating out of the storefront. The directory listings for 810 Union are a little contrary for the 1930s, but it appears that Matsubayashi (a self-employed confectioner) and his family both lived and operated a business out of this location during the decade. At the same time, it appears that by 1938 Mrs. Sho Hira and her daughter, Kiyako Hira, were operating their own confectionary store at 810 Union. According to information obtained from the Landscapes of Injustice Archive, both families listed their home address as 810 Union when they, along with 22,000 other Japanese Canadians, were ordered to turn over their property and belongings to the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property in 1942. Matsubayashi and his family were forcibly uprooted to Lemon Creek, BC, and Sho Hira and her family to Blind Bay, BC.

Look closely and you’ll see this image captures the storekeeper in the window, a German Shepard waiting patiently outside, and a blur of a boy running past the store.

Several stores operated out of this location in the ensuing years until 1962, when Armindo Gomes founded the Gomes Grocery. He ran the business for almost 32 years, thus starting the long tradition of Portuguese ownership at this neighbourhood landmark.

In 1993 the Bernardino family, also of Portuguese descent, took over the business and changed the name to Union Market. This year they are celebrating their 30th anniversary, so the next time you stop by for one of their delicious orange fritters or Portuguese custard tarts (pastéis de nata) don’t forget to also wish them “Happy Anniversary”!

Fairmont Grocery – 2751 Main Street

Fairmont Grocery, 2749-2751 Main Street in 1974. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 1095-03265.

This 1974 Heritage Inventory photo shows the Hanna Block at East 12th and Main Street, when Fairmont Grocery and Abbies Sports Shop are in the storefronts (currently occupied by Blumen Florals and The Mount Smoke Shop (from sports to smokes).

Originally built in 1908 and named after original owner, J.J. Hanna, this building is notable because it is constructed with hollow “cast stone” concrete blocks – a relatively rare early form of concrete construction and one of the few examples still found in Mount Pleasant. A grocery store operated out of 2751 Main Street for 100 years, starting in 1909 with grocers J Perry Herbert & Co.

From 1925 to 1929, S. Nishiyama ran his eponymous grocery store from this location. He renamed his business Fairmont Grocery in 1930, operating it as such until 1934. The name stuck. Though the ownership changed, some version or another of the Fairmont Grocery operated out of this location until around 2009.

Vancouver’s longest running independent sports store, Abbies Sports Shop, got its start at this location. Albert (Abbie) Bevilacqua opened his store at 2749 Main in 1948 and ran it for 50 years. For thirty years it was situated next door to the Fairmont Grocery, before moving farther south on Main in 1978.

There are 11 comments

  1. We called them variety stores in Ontario and when I moved here no one knew what I was talking about! I like the idea of this series, Christine!

  2. Thanks, Kickpleat! I know the term variety store but have never used it. Regional differences in terminology is really interesting.

  3. It sometimes seems the placement of so many of these corner store locations are a bit random to our sensibilities today. But they were often at streetcar stops, so that when people got off they could pick up something at the store before they walked home home. Truly a convenience store!

  4. Yes, Vernon Drive Grocery – Rise-Up Marketplace is a good example of that. The original confectionary used to be along the short-lived East Georgia Line.

  5. Thanks Apr. We’ll be featuring other stores in future series instalments. Stay tuned.

  6. This is great stuff, will be sharing. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

  7. The Union Market is great, but the real granddaddy and king of East End corner stores is Benny’s at Union and Princess, open since founded in 1917 by Alfonso Benedetto and still owned and operated by his grandson and family. Still has the same incredible cheese and Italian specialties, though the soda fountain is alas no more—and the owners always know their customers and can order the special stuff you need! A real gift to Strathcona and the East End! I hope it lives forever.

  8. Hello this is part of my old Vancouver
    I wish it was still here, these friendly landmarks. I love reading about it thank you, I’m not too old, born here in 1950🤗💕

Vancouver’s History of Independent Grocery Stores, Vol. 8

This time around, Christine focuses on the legendary neighbourhood grocery corner store, located at 2262 Nanaimo Street.

Vancouver’s History of Independent Grocery Stores, Vol. 7

Christine details the story of the iconic Strathcona store at 704 Vernon Drive, through to its current incarnation as the "wonderfully positive community gathering space, store, and cafe", Rise Up Marketplace.

Vancouver’s History of Independent Grocery Stores, Vol.6

In this instalment, Christine highlights King Joy Grocery - a once-fundamental part of the local community and newspaper-headline-making business.

Vancouver’s History of Independent Grocery Stores, Vol.5

In the fifth edition of this ongoing Scout column, Christine recounts the story of a well-recorded Vancouver neighbourhood gathering place located at 2308 E 34th Avenue: B.K. Grocery.