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. Christine Hagemoen tells us all about them in this ongoing series….
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…
Little Cottage Grocery & Confectionery – 901 E 11th
These photos show the cutest corner grocery store, both in name and in structure. The Little Cottage Grocery & Confectionery was built ca. 1910 in the front yard of F. Walter Willoughby’s house at 2648 St. Catherines. Though the December 1909 issued building permit is only for a “frame dwelling house”, the 1912 Fire Insurance plan above clearly shows the house and store structures on the corner lot.
By the time the 1912 city directory was published, F. Walter Willoughby had left his job as a warehouseman with Malkin Bros. and was now listed as a grocer with his own front yard store. This endeavour only lasted a few years. By 1915, Willoughby was still residing at 2648 St. Catherines but had given up the grocery business.
In the years following, the little store and home went through a series of different owners/proprietors. Some lived at the house and ran the store, whereas others just operated the store and lived elsewhere, usually nearby.
Things start to get festive in 1935 when the property owner at the time, William Jorgensen, named the little corner store ‘Jubilee Grocery’. The City of Vancouver was set to celebrate its Golden Jubilee (1886-1936) and many businesses decided get on the Jubilee bandwagon. In 1936 there were 26 Vancouver businesses named Jubilee – including three called Jubilee Grocery!
It was Edward P. & Alma Cinits who gave the store its storybook name, Little Cottage Grocery, in 1954. The name remained as such for the rest of the store’s lifetime.
In 1960, grocer Joe Choy Jow Low and his wife, Chiu Yen Low, moved into the house at 2648 St. Catherines and for the next 15 years operated the Little Cottage Grocery & Confectionary.
It wasn’t easy to own a corner store, whether it was located on a busy street or imbedded in a residential neighbourhood, as in the case of Little Cottage Grocery. The proprietors of these stores were vulnerable to crime. Research in newspaper archives reveals that almost every corner store was robbed or held-up (often multiple times) during its lifetime. The Lows and the Little Cottage were no exception. Sadly, in September 1975 it ended in tragedy.
Despite this terrible legacy, the Little Cottage store continued to operate into the 1990s. Today the former store is sympathetically incorporated into the residence, which I think looks fabulous.
They also had coolers, in the days of home iceboxes and no refrigerators.
So besides the coca-cola they had butter, milk and other items.
Many took bookmaker tickets for weekly bets, on horses, games what ever.
All sold tobacco/cigarettes at a time when many smoked. Some liquor under the counter.
As poor shops, many stores were the work of the wife of the family while the men held construction jobs etc.
City archives has 60 photos
East side groceries along the two trolley lines on Commercial and Victoria Drive are interesting, a few photos.
Pulling up main streets’ listings in the vpl.ca/bccd for earlier years finds many such small groceries/groc etc.
Around the Corner: The Life and Death of Grandview’s Corner Grocery Stores / Kevin R. Shackles
Report prepared at the request of The Grandview Heritage Group
in partial fulfillment of UBC Geography 429: Research in Historical Geography. April 2015
Bill, thanks for your comments and insight. The Vancouver Archives photos were the inspiration for this series. I was also inspired by Kevin Shackles excellent report on Grandview’s Corner Stores.
Indeed running a corner store was mostly a family affair. I have found that men would have a day job while the wife would be responsible for running the store during the day. Many of them, married or widowed, were listed as the sole proprietor of these shops. We’ll meet a few of them in future instalments of this series.