Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Radio Gaga and the Bygone Corner Store

I've always loved spoken radio shows – variety, documentaries and, especially, dramas. I think I'd prefer it to television if the selection of programming was there. Thankfully, there are still some public broadcasters like the BBC that keep up great radio drama programming.

Community radio is more about music and short interviews but I noticed, belatedly, that CKUW has entered the radio drama genre !

"At the Monarchs Convenience", on the air since April 2008, is a locally produced, weekly drama set in the West End. Rick is the prickly proprietor of an old-style neighbourhood convenience store and the quirky selection of residents and business owners that come through his doors make up the rest of the show’s characters.

The show is quite good. The effects and soundscapes are of excellent quality taking you into the doors of the store or out onto the street. The scripts are pretty strong and, as I am just on episode 4 of 18 I am still getting to know the characters, but they seem to be an interesting group of folks.

I find it an interesting combination of old-time institutions: the weekly radio drama and the neighbourhood corner store.

Signs Grocery Stores Trib

Living in and around downtown for most of my adult life I have been in many a corner convenience store that, for better or worse, keep these neighbourhoods running.

Osborne Village, Winnipeg

For ten years I lived near Balmoral and Young in West Broadway, by Young Food Mart. Looking up and down the street of stately homes and what, in their day, would have been lovely professional apartments you can imagine the importance that these stores had in the life of these neighbourhoods. Not just a place to buy food but the store owners would also be the eyes and ears of the neighbourhood. I can remember as a kid that I was probably as careful not to get in trouble with the local store owner as with any teacher at school as, sure enough, the store owner would be seeing one of my parents in the next day or two.

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The era I lived on Young, though, a combination of store owners that couldn’t speak English, a pretty dysfunctional neighbourhood and the typical lack of respect that kids, and people in general, have for each other meant the corner store could be as much a flash point for trouble than a place for troublemakers to be on their best behavior.

I took a look back at the history of the store to see who had owned it and tried to imagine what it would have been like in it’s day.

West Broadway

This neighbourhood, Balmoral and Young, was a bit of a late bloomer in comparison to some of the areas around it. It was the river lot owned by James Spence, prominent HBC employee. “Riverbend” was his home which would become Riverbend school and, eventually, Balmoral Hall. It was not until the 19-teens that the land was divvied up into streets like Young and Spence that, until that point, had all ended at Broadway.


The first listing of a grocery store at 96 Young was just a few years after the apartments opened, in 1931. Simply referred to as “Grocery Store”, it was opened by grocer J.W. Welpy of 215 Waterloo.

Welpy’s era was short lived as by 1933 Bertha Plotkin was listed as the proprietor. I would imagine that the Plotkins were quite a force in the neighbourhood considering that they not only owned the store but had the distinction of being the only owners that also lived at the corner as well at number 11 Balmoral. I imagine they would have been community oriented during their time there as I found an article and photo decades later, in 1967, as they were being celebrated as Founders and Charter Members of the Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada.


After 15 years the Plotkins moved on, (not sure where to), and in 1948 Jack Corey and his wife “Mrs. L Corey” took over 96 Young as Corey’s Grocery. They had the store until 1956 when a gentleman named Cunningham ran it with his son. In 1963 Cunningham would sign up to be a Lucky Dollar Store and it continued as Cunningham’s Lucky Dollar until until 1980 when it got the curent name Young Food Mart.

When I moved there in the late 90’s the Kim’s, a Korean family, ran the store through some of the neighbourhood’s darkest times. In the early 00’s they moved on to a larger grocery store in Elmwood / EK but, man, they deserve the Order of the Buffalo Hunt for what they had to put up with. After the Kims came the Yuens, also from Korea. They were newly arrived in Canada and did not have additional staff or a large extended family. Mr. and Mrs. Yuen worked 7 days a week, 12 hours a day for the years I lived next to their store. I think they maybe took Christmas Day off. I have heard since, another family has since taken over from the Yuens.

Former Economy Foods

The demise of the neighbourhood store as a true focal point of the neighbourhood, is not the fault of the stores themselves or the people that run them, it’s the people, the neighbourhoods around them that have changed. That’s too bad.

Old Sign

I am grateful for those that still run the neighbourhood corner store. The requirement to be open 7 days a week, 12 or so hours a day. The sketchy neighbourhoods that they now find themselves in. The thin margins that make staff less of an option. It’s great that they’re still around for us at all ....just like good, old radio drama !

- At the Monarchs Convenience airs Mondays at 5:30 on CKUW or see the above link for webcasts.

- For a bit of Winnipeg corner store nostalgia check out the NFB’s Ted Baryluk's Grocery available on-line !


The Rise and Sprawl said...

Thanks for posting the link to Paskievich's wonderful short film, and also for your in-depth look into city neighborhood's most important institution, the corner grocery store. While economies of scale did away with the majority of them over the past seven or eight decades, it is interesting to note Winnipeg remaining corner store's survival today depends largely on people in the surrounding neighborhood who do not have a car, and usually are renters. I think that this would be true not only in the North End or around Spence Street, but also in Wolseley. While it's increasingly becoming middle class, there is still a significant student/renter population that would be the main customers of, say, Sunrise on Canora and Westminster and Laura Secord on Wolseley and Ruby(?). Across the river, meanwhile, to my knowledge, there are no traditional corner stores left. When my Grandmother was growing up there in the '40s, they lined Academy Road.
Anyway, I enjoyed this post.

mrchristian said...

Thanks r and p !

I'd love if more of the stores became more 'depanneur-like' with meat, fruit, veg and decent bread. So many are just repositories for chips coke and really bad bread !