British Columbia

Why Vancouver's corner stores — the city's gathering places — are disappearing

Each morning, Harry Mah and his regular customers gather at his Vancouver corner store to drink strong coffee and chat. Scenes like this were once common in Vancouver, but rising property taxes have forced many independent grocers to close.

More than 75 convenience stores have vanished from the city over the past decade

Floyd Wong, the store owner, stands in front of Vernon Drive Grocery in Vancouver on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The sun won't be up for another 30 minutes and Harry Mah is holding court between cans of tuna and jars of mayonnaise.

His regulars gather every morning at McGill Grocery in East Vancouver to drink strong coffee and solve the world's great debates, such as which is healthier — coffee or tea?

Scenes like this were once common in Vancouver, but rising property taxes have forced many independent grocers to close.

The number of business licences issued to convenience stores fell from 302 in 2008 to 226 in 2018, according to data from the city of Vancouver.

Victor Gentile, who stops by McGill Grocery every morning on his way to work, says Vancouver loses a little piece of itself every time a mom-and-pop shop goes out of business.

"It's a nice place to stop for five or 10 minutes and catch up with whatever is going on with sports or world news," he said.

"Harry is the staple here."

Harry Mah holds court at McGill Grocery in Vancouver before the sun comes up on Sept. 4, 2019 (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Family business

Mah's mother bought the corner store in 1977 because it had lots of parking and the adjoining three-bedroom home was big enough for her family.

"Her generation was mostly immigrants, so they had to find their own work," Mah said.

"With limited skills and limited language, they had a tough go."

Mah, 55, and his two brothers took over the business from their mother in 1989 and plan to continue for the foreseeable future.

"We really haven't talked succession planning yet," Mah said.

"We'll see what happens when we're closer to 65."

Family stories like Mah's used to be common in Vancouver but data shows dozens of corner stores close each year in the city. 

The city acknowledges corner stores need to be protected and says planners are working on new zoning rules to help business owners.

Floyd Wong, the owner of Vernon Drive Grocery, takes a phone call inside his store in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Everyday struggle

Floyd Wong loves the job that he never wanted.

His wife bought Vernon Drive Grocery, just west of Clark Drive, 17 years ago while he was working for the Vancouver School Board.

"One day she told me, 'Floyd, I'm going to buy a grocery store," Wong said, laughing.

"I said, 'No, no, no!' She bought it against my wishes."

Wong began working behind the counter after retirement and came to a shocking realization — he was having a blast.

The work is still enjoyable but the store isn't making any money and he dips into his retirement savings to stay afloat.

Earlier this year, the store that he believes was built in 1904 was put up for sale.

"Unfortunately, we had no other choice," he said.

Vernon Drive Grocery, which the owner believes originally opened in 1904, has been put up for sale. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Are corner stores feasible?

Corner stores are community meeting places, which is why civic historian John Atkin is such a big supporter of them.

He's encouraged that the Federal Store on Quebec Street and the Wilder Snail on Keefer Street have changed with the times by becoming cafes.

"Stick a couple of tables out front and suddenly you've got a social meeting place," Atkin said.

"I think they've become actually more interesting but also more important to the neighborhood because it is that social gathering point."

Andy Yan, an urban planner who heads up SFU's City Program, says it's important for small businesses to adapt because high property taxes make it difficult for them to operate in Vancouver.

"How many quarts of milk and five-cent candies are you going to have to sell to cover taxes?" he said.

At McGill Grocery, Harry Mah is grateful his business model still works and he can continue to wake up before sunrise to gab with his friends.

At Vernon Drive Grocery, Floyd Wong appreciates every shift, knowing the sun will soon set on the perfect job that he never wanted.