VanMag Investigates: Where Did Firefly Wines Go?

Was it stupid to watch I’ll Be Gone in the Dark before bed last night? Yes. But there is a bright side to lying awake all night in terror: it’s inspired me to do my own true-crime reporting!

Of course, I am less interested in tangling with creepy criminals than the late Michelle McNamara. The mysteries I prefer to solve—as you’ll know if you’ve read my City Informer column—are very specific and typically oriented around fast-food restaurants or, like, birds. Honestly, if I had a detective show it would be… cancelled.

But whatever. Great sleuthing requires passion! And what I’m passionate about is my community! And the fact that the Firefly Wine Store closed down with no warning last month!

Cue HBO-style intro credits, ideally featuring a song by some sort of neo-Gothic indie band.

Picture this: a young woman in a devastatingly glamorous melon-orange bike helmet rides up, with plans on finding just the right craft beer to pair with the book she’s about to read in the park. Should she get a fruit beer or a sour fruit beer to go with her fun summer read, an anti-racism book that she didn’t realize until it was too late was written by a white woman? Life is full of tough decisions.

Anyways! She tosses on her mask, immediately fogging up her glasses, and grabs the handle of the door handle of her favourite local liquor store, the Firefly Fine Wines and Ales, on the corner of 12th and Cambie. It just moved a few months ago from its location two doors down into this corner suite and the new location was downright luxurious—roomy aisles, abundant selection, good mix of specialty brands and cheap-and-cheerful picks, staff at the cash register who will correct your pronunciation of “Cointreau” with no judgement.  

But our intrepid hero can’t enjoy this fine establishment on this particular mid-July day. Because the door is locked. And once her glasses defog and she can see through the glass door, it’s clear that the store isn’t just closed on a random Saturday afternoon: it’s totally empty.

Spoiler alert: that brave young woman grew up to be me. And me was rattled by this sudden disappearance of a store me had been to just days before. It was like the Rapture had happened, but God was like “What this party needs is some dranks” and summoned the contents of South Cambie’s best liquor store to the heavens. (Another spoiler alert: I am not religious.)

A small sign on the door provided some evidence that I wasn’t just imagining things. The store was now closed, it said—though with no explanation of why, or even, like, an apology. “Follow us on social media for updates,” Sign suggested.

It would’ve been an excellent first clue for my burgeoning investigation of the Disappearing Liquor Store, were there any actual official information on Firefly’s social media.

On Twitter on July 6, Firefly announced a 48-hour blowout sale, and though there was no context, Twitter used Clayton Sayer responded, “So sad that you’re forced to close.” Two days later, Firefly posted that the sale would continue until 11 p.m. “Things are moving fast,” was the ominous message. “Come and get it.” There hasn’t been a message since.

A few comments on that last tweet acknowledged the unspoken reality of the situation. “Whaaaaa??? Closing [shocked face]?” said Tythewineguy. Dublin Doggo Just Havin’ Fun commiserated: “Yes history pal done like dinner.”

Because I’m a detective (basically), I noticed on the official Firefly Fine Wines website—which does not have any mention of the store’s closure, and still lists operating hours—that there was a Maple Ridge location of Firefly as well. Perhaps our friends in the Fraser Valley might have something to say! Upon visiting @FireflyMRidge’s Twitter page, though, it became clear that this location had closed in 2017. Dead end.

Over on Facebook, there wasn’t much more to go on. The last post was from July 8, promoting the mystery liquidation sale. Fans commented with despair, presumably making the pilgrimage to the page after desperately pulling on the locked door as I had. “What is going on?” asked Facebook user Andrea Greene. Here, a few Firefly-heads who had the inside scoop from staff were able to shed some light: allegedly, the building was sold, and new owners evicted the tenants on short notice. The plan, these users reported, was to re-open in a new location at some point. But a month and a half later, there’s still been no word.

Next up in my investigation was Instagram. The last post was from November 2018. I did not bother checking to see if they had a TikTok account.

Okay, so “Follow us on social media for updates,” was clearly, as they say in the true-crime world, big baloney. Their phone number was out of commission—no surprises there—without even a voicemail message. At this point, I was starting to worry about the people who ran Firefly: were they in danger?! I was also worried about me: did Firefly even ever exist?! 

I wondered if Firefly might be available for comment in a more private setting, so I sent Facebook messages and emails to try and fish for some intel. This is because I am curious about the shape of my neighbourhood, but also because I don’t want to have to go to the next nearest wine store, located inside of the always empty, always spooky City Square Mall, a close tie for Kingsgate as the weirdest, saddest mall in Vancouver city limits. Firefly did not respond.

So, left with no further choices, off to Reddit I went. And here, I found gold: court documents from the B.C. Court of Appeals that outlines exactly why Firefly vanished into the night. (Unrelated: is the Vancouver subReddit always just pictures of sunsets? Surprisingly wholesome!) 

I did not have time to get a law degree (wow, am I even taking this investigation seriously?) but here’s how I have interpreted what went down. Basically, the entire building was foreclosed because the owner, a company called Plaza owned by husband and wife Azim and Yasmin Popat, had’t technically “paid” the “mortgage” since December 2018. It also had a pesky outstanding GST bill of $2.1 million. There apparently is also a legally confusing second mortgage out on the building, taken out by Azim’s brother, with whom he is entangled in a variety of legal battles: as the court documents put it, “the chambers judge noted that the relationship between Azim Popat and [the second mortgage holder] is uncertain and complicated” with “litigation ongoing between [him and his brother] in various jurisdictions arising from claims with respect to their father’s estate.” You can read more about the family drama here, and if you happen to make it into a Succession-style dark comedy, I would love a shout-out in the credits, thank you.

The point is: things are a mess for the Popats. So you can see why the courts forced Plaza to sell the building to set things right with the mortgage holder. As is, the potential revenue options were not looking good for a comeback. Residential units were at a ridiculous-for-Vancouver 16 percent vacancy, and commercial units were even worse. Plaza lined up a buyer, 1243813 B.C. Ltd. for $82.5 million on July 8, but just weeks before they were supposed to take over, Plaza tenant Firefly Wines put up its hand to say (and I’m paraphrasing here) “We gonna stay.”

It turns out that Firefly, which had been in the Plaza building since 2007, had signed a lease modification back in December. It promised Firefly would be given 12 months’ notice, and the option to lease in the event of development, and that any new owner would pay Firefly’s costs to move. So generous! So nice! …Except Plaza didn’t technically get the mortgage-holder’s approval on this, so all the paperwork is moot and Firefly doesn’t actually have any legal ground to stay in the building.

Also, Azim Popat, as it turns out, is a director and officer of Firefly. (Oohhh the twists and turns! I can see this as a season two cliff hanger.) So, yes, he tried to give his own company a safety net in case the building sold, but in this metaphor, said net wasn’t set up properly and the acrobats were going to just have to deal with the unpleasant effects of gravity very swiftly. 

While it would’ve been nice for the judge to allow Firefly to stay put after the sale, ultimately, says the court document, “the harm to Firefly must be balanced against the potential economic consequences of a stay.” The mortgage needed to be paid, and no cute wine shop was going to slow down that sale.

In conclusion, I have a feeling we will never see or hear from Firefly again. Also in conclusion: reading court documents is exhausting (no emojis at all, ugh!!!) and I have a newfound appreciation for all court reporters. This wasn’t even a crime and I’m tuckered out. I wish there was somewhere cool to go get a bottle of wine to toast my hard work, but the tragedy of detective work is that justice doesn’t always mean a happy ending. Guess I’ll see you soon, City Square Mall.