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Vancouver’s History of Independent Grocery Stores, Vol. 2

My grandfather, Pete (age 13 or 14) looking tough on West 6th Avenue, ca. 1930. The intersection of 6th and Ontario is seen in background. Sixth Avenue Grocery would be directly behind him.

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…

John’s Confectionary – 33 West 6th Avenue

1974 Heritage Inventory photo of 33 West 6th Avenue. CoV Archives, CVA 1095-03484.

This 1974 Heritage Inventory photo of John’s Confectionery, at 33 West 6th Avenue, is a real find. It is evidence of a time in the city’s history when one could easily build a store in one’s own front yard. Though it’s hard to imagine it these days, this area of Mount Pleasant was once predominately residential. This “corner store” sat mid-block on a relatively quiet residential block. It wasn’t an anomaly; the neighbourhood was dotted with grocery and confectionery stores just like it.

An April 1912 building permit shows that William A. Campbell built the one-storey frame store for owner Sidney F. Boutall, a tobacconist. The store stood in Boutall’s front yard. He lived in the house at 35 West 6th (seen on the left) that shared the same city lot with the store. A little later, a small dwelling was attached to the rear of the store building, allowing a shopkeeper to live at their store.

Fire Insurance Plan for 1912. Circle indicates the property and buildings shown in the photo. Photo: CoV Archives, Map342a, plate 26.

By 1928, Hugh Miller was living at 35 West 6th, and operating the tiny store. He gave it its first official name: Sixth Avenue Grocery. This coincided with the time when my own great-grandparents moved into the neighbourhood less than a block away. I can almost picture my grandfather and his brothers walking to Sixth Avenue Grocery, buying penny candy or picking up something for my great-grandmother.

In the mid-1930s and 1940s, John Nargang was the store’s owner/operator. However, he was not John from which John’s Grocery got its name. Under different owners, the little grocery continued as the Sixth Avenue Grocery, until the mid-1960s when it was renamed Jack’s Market.

John (Johann) Winkler had been operating his eponymous store for a few years by the time the photo above was taken, in 1974. If you look closely at the sign on the store, it looks like a separate panel was added ostensibly to cover “Jack’s” with “John’s”. Originally from Austria, Johann and his wife Hildegard did not live at the store, but lived in a West End apartment instead. By 1978, after 66 years of operation, the little neighbourhood store closed and the building was torn down. By the 1960s, Lower Mount Pleasant had become a light industrial area and slowly, as residents moved on, houses were demolished and low-rise commercial/industrial buildings were erected in their places.

The first dwelling on the property at 35 West 6th was built pre-1901 by William Coulter, and is known in historical circles as the Coulter House. You may know it better as the quirky part of the HOUSS mixed-use commercial development, and new home to the entrance of Mount Pleasant Vintage & Provisions.

John’s Confectionary
Neighbourhood: Mt. Pleasant
33 West 6th Ave.

There are 2 comments

  1. Recently, I spent several weeks traveling around Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, predominantly residential neighborhoods are still dotted with small stores, mainly grocery stores. (There are also lots of small restaurants, of the kind Ticos call “sodas”.) It’s interesting that these small stores persist, despite the existence of many large supermarkets. That suggests the disappearance of such small stores from Vancouver (and elsewhere in North America) wasn’t mainly due to competition from large supermarkets.

  2. Thanks for sharing your Costa Rica observations, Ralph. You are right, there are many reasons why we’ve lost these small commercial spaces – zoning bylaws, real estate prices, property taxation, chain store pricing & competition, the fact that it is hard (and sometimes dangerous) work, low-profit margins, changing social values, and so on. It would be great if we could take the best of what we find in the rest of the world and have it here. Personally, I’d love to see more bodega (store) cats but our local public health laws prevent it.

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