By Robyn Gillam
Once upon a time there were small neighbourhood shops all over the North End. Old North Enders describe them as being all along Mary Street and other nearby thoroughfares, mostly on corners.
There was one at Mary and McCauley and another further along at Simcoe, still around in the 1960s, when children would pass it on the way to school. Those who could afford it would stop there for sweets. An important landmark was Vic and Norm’s (later known as Jonesey’s) prominently located on the south east corner of Burlington and James. It was gone by the end of the 60s, leaving a vacant lot for many years. These stores were hubs and their proprietors widely known, like George Passmore, who ran a convenience store at Ferguson and Picton.
A few stores still exist, such as Eastwood Variety, overlooking the park on Burlington at Mary and James Milk at James and McCauley. Ed’s variety at James and Wood closed only a few years ago. It advertised “delicious Kaisers and hot dogs,” but was known for Portuguese style sandwiches, still missed by its former patrons. What happened to these neighbourhood stores? They are part of a bigger story.
In mid 1800s, people across Europe and North America flocked to live and work in large cities. They needed access to food sources within walking distance of their homes and workplaces. Without home refrigeration, meat and dairy products had to be within easy reach. Local shops appeared in these new urban areas to provide fresh food and other commodities. They were often operated by women or entire families. Located in residential buildings, these businesses could be run without leaving the house.
In the 20th century, local shops began to be undercut by large retail outlets. With home refrigeration, stores moved to more profitable, non-perishable wares, like liquor and tobacco. For example, Scheter’s grocery at Ferguson and Picton became the Picton House, a popular North End watering hole, now mini-condos. Owner occupied buildings were replaced by rentals and proprietors living offsite. The rise of large, franchised retail operations spelt the end of the family-run businesses which could not compete with their low prices and economies of scale. However, even chains or franchises can’t stay ahead of big box stores and online marketing.
While corner stores have mostly vanished from the North End, these buildings can be identified by their unmistakable architecture. From the 1850s, corner properties with a distinctive, canted or smoothed corner entrance were built all over the western world. This entrance was often flanked by large windows to display merchandise and its interior connected to dwellings behind or beside it. A number of these buildings still exist in the North End, although modified for residential use. In all but a few cases, the corner door has been blocked off and the display windows are gone, except for Ed’s Variety, which was only recently vacated. However, although these vanished stores may never return, they are still remembered by older residents and their distinctive appearance makes the past come alive.
The author would like to thank George Pavlov and his Facebook friends for their vibrant discussions of this important aspect of local life.