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Vancouver’s History of Independent Grocery Stores, Vol. 11

Ernie’s Grocery in 1974. Photo: COV Archives, CVA 1095-05679

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…

Ernie’s Grocery in 1974. Photo: COV Archives, CVA 1095-05679

Ernie’s Grocery – 3599 Commercial Street

The 1974 photos of Ernie’s Grocery above are a perfect illustration of the iconic 20th C-corner grocery store — with its 7-Up and Coca-Cola privilege signs, worn striped awning, stacked milk crates, and bicycle leaning against the post box outside the door. Now home to the Commercial Street Cafe, this corner retail space in the Gow Block has been part of the community for over 114 years.

Sitting on the northwest corner of Commercial Street and East 20th, the Gow Block is a two-storey wood frame structure completed in 1911 by realtor, Walter Gow. It once belonged to the Commercial Street village that sprung up around the Cedar Cottage Station interurban railway station (East 18th Avenue and Commercial Street). This was the rail transit line that used to link Vancouver to New Westminster; today’s Expo Line Skytrain uses the same path.

Commercial Street ca. 1913, The Bank of Hamilton is seen on the left. Photo: COV Archives, LGN 504

Interestingly, the first tenant in the corner commercial space was not a retail shop at all, but a bank. From 1911 until 1924, the Bank of Hamilton operated their South Vancouver Branch from the Gow Block. After the Bank of Hamilton merged with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the CIBC occupied the space for the following nine years. After the bank closed, the corner location at 3599 Commercial Street was converted into a grocery store. It would stay as such for the next 70 years. According to the 1933 city directory, H. Lee was the first grocer to set up shop.

Vancouver Sun, November 26, 1952

The store went through several different proprietors and identities, right up until 1951, when Ernie Louie took over the store’s helm. It was Louie who gave the grocery store its forever name, Ernie’s Grocery (aka Ernie’s Market). Though we are fortunate to have a photo of Ernie (putting a face to the name), unfortunately, it is for an all too familiar reason: during a hold-up at his store in 1952, Ernie Louie was bound and gagged as thieves stole $107 from his till.

Sam and Alice Lee had been the proprietors of Ernie’s Grocery for about 20 years when, in 1988, Sam became the victim of a serious event that shocked the neighbourhood: during a hold-up at his store one evening, Sam was stabbed. Luckily, Sam survived the vicious attack. One regular customer described Lee as “a really nice guy” who would run up a tab for “financially strapped customers…If we were short up for money, we’d pay him back later… I can’t see anybody doing that to him.”

The sign for Ernie’s Market was still hanging above the door in 2005, when Jerry Prussin and Norah Johnson purchased the entire building, intending to restore it as part of a long-term retirement project. For the next five years, they took on the challenging task of managing the historical restoration of the building. Completed in 2010, you can read the story of the restoration here. If you are interested in owning a piece of local history, this Heritage B-listed building is currently up for sale, and can be yours for a mere $4.6 million.

Ernie’s Grocery
Neighbourhood: Commercial Drive
3599 Commercial St.

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