More Corner Stores in Vancouver Would Mean More Community

It’s no secret that Vancouverites want more corner stores... but will we ever get them?

Sometimes, the answer to a question seems so obvious that it doesn’t even seem to merit a response. “How do you feel about corner stores?” is one—and yet, it’s a question the City of Vancouver keeps asking.

A public engagement survey went out this fall about Vancouver’s corner stores, meant to explore how to support and possibly expand “small stores in residential neighbourhoods,” but with the queries came a sense of civic déjà vu: the city council put forward a proposal in 2020 to investigate the importance of these sort of spaces.

One visit to Wilder Snail, or Wayne Grocery, or Luigi and Sons to grab groceries, greet neighbours or while away the hours with a coffee, and it seems glaringly clear that these small businesses benefit their neighbourhoods in all sorts of ways. So it is no surprise that both of the City’s corner-store research projects revealed an overwhelming support for both existing and future shops of this nature.

Each new council thinks they’re going to be the ones to crack the code of zoning, but really, is a questionnaire necessary? The magic of the neighbourhood corner store has been in front of us all along. The last question that remains is one that only the planning department can answer: what are you going to do about it?

Today, just 88 corner stores dot the Vancouver map, often in decades-old spaces. Typically located in residential areas, corner stores are designed to offer a mix of food, groceries, specialty items or services. But in their purest form, these shops aren’t just an easy place to grab a jug of milk or a coffee; they’re also community hubs. And in a country that experts say is suffering from a loneliness epidemic (a 2021 Stats Canada survey revealed that 40 percent of Canadians feel lonely some or all of the time), we need more of these communal spaces… not more surveys or proposals.

Rise Up Marketplace opened two years ago in the shell of East Vancouver’s iconic Vernon Grocer, reverently respecting the space’s convenience-store roots (there’s still five-cent candy here) while also filling in the gaps for its industrial-residential neighbours. Owner Roger Collins also co-owns Calabash Bistro, and took on the corner-store project as a change of pace after a near-death car accident had him re-evaluating his work-life balance.

Rise Up store interior
Corner stores like Rise Up aren’t just for grabbing pantry essentials or a quick bite: they’re vibrant neighbourhood hubs that foster community and connection. Owner Roger Collins is pictured here. Photo: Tanya Goehring.

Now, he spends his days serving up hot sandwiches, Jamaican patties, fresh bread and espresso to regulars, and stocking the shelves with all the last-minute pantry essentials. Schoolkids pop by after class to grab chocolate bars; artists come by for lattes on their way to Parker Street Studios; work-from-home folks stroll down the block for a break and homemade soup for lunch. “People come through the door, and I know how they take their coffee, that they’re going to want jerk chicken for lunch,” says Collins. “Sometimes we’ll get to talking and realize two hours has gone by and they go, ‘Wait a second, I came for food.’”

Rise Up stocks locally made products, edible and otherwise: Kula Foods barbecue sauce sits on the shelves alongside pottery from a local ceramicist. Even the littlest neighbours have become regulars here. “I have a ton of new friends under the age of 12,” laughs Collins. “I feel blessed that the families who live here feel so comfortable sending their kids to the store alone. They’ll come in their pajamas and play Pac-Man and hang out. It’s not your typical corporate chain.”

Over in Mount Pleasant, there’s Federal Store, which opened seven years ago, after a year and a half of struggling through permit application after permit application. The building (on the corner of 10th and Quebec) has been a bakery or corner store since the 1920s, so owners Colette Griffiths and Chris Allen had the rare opportunity to bring theiir unique business model onto an otherwise residential block. “We were met with resistance at first, talking about what we wanted to do,” says Griffiths, explaining that the now community café was originally intended to be purely retail. She became a regular at the permit office, experiencing frustration on the daily: one  City employee told her they couldn’t approve her grocery store until her design included an aisle, “because grocery stores have aisles.”

That, of course, was seven years ago. The (much smoother) opening of places like Rise Up now offers corner-store fans hope. This may be due to the fact the City streamlined corner-store zoning requirements in January 2021; hopefully, the results of this latest inquiry will strike down any more permitting slog holding other small entrepreneurs back. But we’ve got a ways to go to catch up to the corner-store heyday of the 1920s, when more than 200 of these shops were in operation.

For the aspiring corner-store operator, fate may ultimately lie in the hands of  developers to create more of these types of spaces as they build mixed-use projects in residential areas. After all, the City can do all the surveys it wants, and remove all the zoning restrictions it can… but if no one is actually building retail/café spaces off main commercial strips, then what good does any of that do?

Griffiths lived in Melbourne, Australia for a time—a place where this type of off-the-main-drag community café or shop is “a dime a dozen.”

“It offers a sense of discovery, and welcomes people to really engage with these neighbourhoods,” says Griffiths. “People there take it for granted, but you can really see what an effect it has on a neighbourhood.” Though she herself lives just blocks away, it took opening Federal for her to really start meeting her  neighbours. “It’s amazing how many people have just lived down the street from me for years, but we never got a chance to connect.”   

Rise Up corner storefront
Photo: Tanya Goehring