'We face the same risk': shopkeepers speak out after downtown attack

Some independent variety store owners in London are speaking out about their safety, in response to a near-fatal attack on a downtown shopkeeper last fall. The alleged attacker is to appear in court on Wednesday.

The man charged in a serious attack on a convenience store owner is back in court on Wednesday

Kunjipalu Vilson Thakattil is the owner of Simpson Variety along Oxford Street. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Some London mom-and-pop variety store owners are speaking out about their vulernability in response to a near-fatal attack on a downtown shopkeeper last fall. The alleged attacker is to appear in court on Wednesday.

"This is a sad thing. Someone has to be put in danger in order for us to talk about safety procedures," said Pedro Hernandez who helps manage Hernandez Variety along Thompson Road.

Last October, 56-year-old Rajaie Elshorafa was badly beaten outside of his downtown business Horton Variety. Police arrested Jessie McConnell, 22, who is charged with aggravated assault.

News of the incident spread widely throughout London's small business community, which is often a hotbed for crime because it is left to fight for its own protection with no governing body, said Hernandez.

"Hopefully people can start to think about more [safety procedures] now while everyone is safe before someone else gets injured or killed," he said. "I think the conversation helps."

Safety measures already in place

In the last two decades, the Hernandez family has fallen prey to four break-ins and a number of petty thefts.

Pedro Hernandez, right, helps manage Hernandez Variety along Thompson Road. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

The family stopped selling cigarettes at its store about 10 years ago — a decision Hernandez said has helped decrease thefts. He also installed security cameras and now regularly deposits sales revenues.

"[Another] safety measure in place is that we always make sure two people are working at a time," he said. "I would say variety stores are also more targeted because they won't have as many employees as say a grocery store."

The store, which also sells Latino food, has transitioned into a cultural hub for the surrounding community. And it has added an additional layer of security.

It was a shock as we are in the same nature of business. We face almost the same risk almost every day if not every moment.- Andrew Kim, owner D & R Smokeshop

It's a move that Kunjipalu Vilson Thakattil is all too familiar with.

He's the owner of the longtime Simpson Variety, which was partially transformed into an Indian cultural food hub when he took over ownership about four years ago.

He recounts similar experiences to the Hernandez family. He's taken extra safety measures by adding cameras and metal grills on his doors and windows.

Vilson Thakattil has filed many police complaints "but nothing really happens." At the end of the day, smaller shops are left to fend for themselves, which makes them more of a target, he said.

News of the incident spread widely throughout London's small, family business community that's often a hotbed for crime as its left to fight for its own protection with no governing body, said Hernandez. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

He proposed that officers work with the city and other authorities to develop an emergency alert device that can be placed in local variety stores.

'We face the same risk'

Vilson Thakattil said the conversation about safety sheds light on a bigger problem in the city around a lack of support systems for vulnerable populations.

He said many problems are often with people facing socio-economic or drug-related challenges. And one downtown variety store owner is playing a small part in helping to tackle just that.

Andrew Kim of D & R Smokeshop at Dundas and Richmond Streets regularly hands out free chips, drinks and chocolates to people who need it.

Nicki Kim, co-owner of D & R Variety in London's core. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

"This downtown location is really dangerous. However, we try to provide our clientele — no matter who they are — with the best customer service," he said.

It's a way to engage with his customers to gain their trust. He hasn't faced any physical threats but he said an incident like the one Elshorafa faced isn't farfetched.

"It was a shock as we are in the same nature of business. We face almost the same risk almost every day if not every moment," he said.

And despite safety measures, some shopkeepers, like Vilson Thakattil, are afraid it will only get worse.

"If today [people] are stealing a pack of chips. Tomorrow maybe they will do something bigger like crime," he said.

"One day [what happened to Elshorafa] may happen here also."