When else these days do you run into your neighbours except when you’re picking up a six-pack, or a carton of milk? As contemporary life changes our ways of relating to each other, could it be that our last remaining connection to our neighbourhood is through our local convenience store?
Independent ‘mom and pop’ stores have had a rough go of it over the past 10-to-20 years. In order to survive they’ve had to keep up a fight against supermarkets, chain convenience stores, and gas stations which are all able to undercut costs. For many of these shops, the only way to keep going has been to develop a niche. What do they have that no one else has?
Shawn Hayward talks shop with a handful of stores in the St. John’s area.
Photos by Kevin Coffey
On the corner of Freshwater and Oxen Pond Road you’ll find Stockwood’s, a 24-hour convenience store and bakery that’s been open for half a century.
General Manager Cathy Ivimey says the neighbourhood has changed a lot over the years, and Stockwood’s has had to change with it.
“We became a university area,” she says. “We used to be known as a family neighbourhood. We’re no longer a family neighbourhood. A lot of our customers are students, and they’re looking for different things.”
Snack food, sandwiches, and subs are more popular now, while meats and baked goods don’t sell as much as they once did.
Ivimey says Stockwood’s still has its regular patrons who come in daily and have a chat.
“They’re mostly your daytime customers,” says Ivimey. “Those that come for the morning paper. There are still a few retirees in the neighbourhood. We get to know them.”
Being open 24 hours a day has helped Stockwood’s get business other convenience stores miss when they lock their doors at night. Taxi drivers, police, firefighters, and other people who work overnight shifts come in to buy items you can’t find at a fast food restaurant or gas station.
“If they go out 4 or 5 a.m. in the morning, they’re coming in to get something,” says Ivimey. “After 2 a.m. you’re very limited in what you can get. Whereas you can come in here and get a sandwich, or a can soup and we’ll heat it in the microwave for you. For people working the over night shift, it’s a good thing.”
Working at Stockwood’s for 30 years is bound to create some memories, and during one memorable shift Ivimey helped search for a lost child in the store.
“No one could find him,” she says. “We knew the door was too heavy and he couldn’t reach the handle to get out, so he had to be somewhere in the building.”
The young boy’s mother began to panic and was about to call the police when they finally discovered him.
“We found him asleep on top of the bread,” says Ivimey. “He had it all squat flat and was very comfy.”
Like most convenience stores in the city, Stockwood’s has also had to cope with criminals, some less ingenious than others. One robber held up the cashier with a knife after buying a pack of cigarettes. The cashier had asked for the robber for ID, which he left behind when he fled.
On another occasion, someone took a less subtle approach to get what he wanted.
“A dog ran behind the counter from off the street and started wolfing down biscuits,” says Ivimey.
Independent convenience stores face challenges across Canada as larger corporations move into the industry. Stockwood’s isn’t immune to chains like Marie’s and Needs, but their advantage lies in their flexibility to adapt to new trends in the business and the community.
“Once we realize our customers have changed, we change with them,” says Ivimey.
Opened in 1914, Halliday’s is one of the oldest existing businesses in St. John’s. Since opening the butcher shop and convenience store has moved from its first location at the foot of Signal Hill to the corner of King’s Road and Gower Street.
Cliff Halliday grew up helping his parents with the store, and now he runs it with his staff of nine people.
“A lot of our customers are like our friends, especially the ones from the neighbourhood,” he says. “We all know them by their first names. We get customers from all over the island coming here for our sausages and puddings too.”
Meats are the store’s biggest sellers, according to Halliday, and they’re busiest during times of the year when people are most carnivorous—like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
Their downtown location is good for business because a lot of people don’t have cars and can’t easily get to the bigger grocery stores, according to Halliday.
“Downtown’s been good to us,” he says. “The east end has been good to us.”
Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s
There’s no shortage of convenience stores in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, yet the Whale’s Back has stayed afloat since 1986. You need to specialize in this business, according to Jennifer Churchill, who runs the store with her parents, Joyce and Eldred.
The store started as a convenience store and pharmacy until having a pharmacist became an expense of more than $75,000 a year. Now the Whale’s Back leases part of its building to Eastern Health, which runs a public health clinic there.
Elaine’s, a convenience store just next door, has a liquor store, and the nearby Needs has a gas station.
“Everyone has a niche,” says Churchill.
As the last store before coming to the Bell Island ferry, the Whale’s Back gets a lot of customers from the island who drop by to stock up on food and drink before making the crossing.
Friendliness is key to the survival of a convenience store, and Churchill says her staff tries to make both strangers and regulars feel special.
“We speak to everybody when they come in, whether we know them or not,” she says.
The customers return that friendliness, according to Churchill. When her grandmother recently passed away, she got sympathy cards from people in the community whose names she could hardly remember.
Churchill says gestures like this make working at the Whale’s Back a great experience, even though the job can be stressful and she’s never really off work.
“I’m my own boss,” she says. “It means long hours and a lot of work. You don’t have a nine-to-five job. When you close your doors you have to worry about people breaking in.”
A break-in in June cost the Churchill family tens of thousands of dollars in lost cigarettes, which aren’t covered by insurance.
The Whale’s Back got its name from its location in Portugal Cove, according to Churchill’s grandfather.
“He said the store is going to be right on the whale’s back,” she says.
The Flemings, who own Philly’s Convenience, don’t have to put their coats and hats on to go to work, because they live above their store on Airport Heights Road.
Daughter Meghan Fleming says it’s a place where people come to socialize with neighbours.
“A lot of people come in and meet each other,” she says. “People who haven’t seen each other in a while. It’s a neighbourhood hang out for the kids too.”
Like most convenience stores, the big sellers at Philly’s are beer and cigarettes, and they sell a lot of basic items like bread and milk.
Criminals have held up Philly’s twice and broken in four or five other times, according to Fleming, which makes living above the store difficult.
“I’m not so bad,” she says. “Mom’s a little nervous. She listens for stuff at night. It’s kind of hard to sleep sometimes.”
Fleming says there wasn’t as much competition until a pharmacy moved in across the street a couple years ago, and now a Marie’s Minimart is setting up nearby. She says she’s unsure about how their store, which employs around 10 people, will compete with a chain that can buy goods wholesale in larger volume.
“It should be interesting,” she says.