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…
B.K. Grocery – 2308 E 34th Avenue
The 1918 B.K. Grocery building is a rare example of a two-story red brick structure in a city once predominated by wooden construction. The original owner/builder was Harry Bridge, a bricklayer and storekeeper from Lancashire, England. His wife, Annie, was also born in England, and it is her name that appears as the property owner on the building’s historic Water Permit, dated February 9, 1918. The first grocery store to occupy the space opened in 1920.
Art and Doris Washbern owned and operated Washbern Grocery at E 34th and Nanaimo from 1951 to 1965. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1894, Washbern came to Canada in 1920 and Vancouver around 1923. A storekeeper his entire working career, the last store he had was Washbern Grocery.
B.K Grocery was not only significant for its function as a neighbourhood ‘mom and pop’ grocery store, but also as a community meeting place. Fortunately for us, Washbern and his grocery store were featured in a ‘day-in-the-life’ style article in in The Vancouver Sun, on Friday, Feb. 22, 1963. The article revealed that Washbern would always have a “pot of coffee perking on the old enameled oil stove in the kitchen” at the back of the store. There would often be a “couple of people sitting there, drinking coffee” and swapping “news of the neighbourhood”. The store also served as a gathering place for generations of local school-aged kids who would walk or bike to the corner store to spend their allowance on penny candy, frozen treats, and bottles of pop.
The store received its final name, B.K. Grocery, in 1968. Bing Kuen (aka B.K.) and Mei Yiu Mah owned and operated B.K. Grocery from 1968 to 1986. Bing Kuen Mah was born in China in 1925 and immigrated to Canada via Hong Kong in the 1960s, along with his wife, Mei Yiu, and their children (Roy, Jack, James, Lana, and Kathy). Oldest son, Roy Mah, wrote a beautiful and vivid memoir of his family’s store and their experiences running it in Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories. In his essay, Mah tells of the struggles his parents had running their new business in a new country, while navigating life in a new language. He also included a detailed description of the store’s interior and what it was like to run a small corner grocery store in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Though the Mah family stopped working in the grocery business in 1986, they still owned the property and later leased the store to different operators. B.K. Grocery was in operation until 2015, at which time, the Mah family sold the property to developer Domus Group for a mixed-use heritage restoration project called Century House.