Convenience stores are the unsung heroes of a community’s commerce. They’re often open late, every day of the week with a small staff (if any) and usually run on tight profit margins – especially this past year during the pandemic.
But behind the basic essentials, fridges of pop and shelves of chocolate bars are places with lots of history and people who have turned their stores into pillars of the community.
Many are part of residents’ everyday routines. Featured here are four convenience stores with more than a century of operations between them.
Metchosin Country Store – 4384 Metchosin Rd., Metchosin
Taking over a pillar of the community can be a daunting task.
The Metchosin Country Store is nearing its centennial year, first built in 1930 by William Clay and named the William Head Service Station, the store has been a pillar of rural Metchosin since. When Tony Ko and his wife Adrianna, who recently died, took over in 2004 after immigrating from South Korea, they were instantly welcomed by the community, said Ko.
“A lot of friendships have been found here because of how welcoming everyone was it made it easier for us to adjust to not just Canadian culture but Metchosin’s culture as well.”
Ko says 90 per cent of his customers are regulars, people he sees daily in the community. The Ko family’s importance and, by extension, the store’s to Metchosin was evident in the outpouring of support when Adriana Ko died in August after a long battle with cancer.
Over time, Ko has tried to expand his store’s offerings, including branching out into items they didn’t previously offer, like clothing for some of the elderly clientele living in Metchosin.
“We try to offer everything people need, so they don’t have to drive or leave town.”
Corona Low Cost Foods – 2155 Sooke Rd., Colwood
When Jimmy Lam graduated from high school, he didn’t have any trades training and was looking for work. His parents suggested he buy the convenience store his sister ran on Sooke Road. The store had changed hands several times during its early years (Lam said the store was first opened sometime in the 1970s), but since Lam bought it in 1991, he’s been ever-present.
In the early years, it was very much a family operation.
Lam said his dad was the driving force behind everything. His father, Tony, passed away six years ago, and his mother, Jean, 85, spends less time at the store now. But Lam said there are still plenty of familiar faces who come in regularly. Some have been coming in for nearly 25 years.
“It’s like a small community. People come just to say hi and stay for hours. We chat, have coffee, and gamble. It’s very important to me,” Lam said.
Lam has five or six regulars who often come into the store and said that’s his favourite part of being the owner.
“Dealing with customers, talking to regulars. It makes the days go fast.”
While Lam still enjoys owning the convenience store, the business has been getting tougher. Managing people and COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic were difficult. On multiple occasions, he had to step in and defuse an argument that was on the verge of spilling into a physical fight, something he never imagined having to do when he opened up shop more than 30 years ago. Outside those instances, the community was very supportive during the pandemic.
Looking ahead, Lam said the store would likely close whenever he decides to retire. His son is 17 years old and often helps in the store, but he’s warned him against taking over the store.
“There’s not much money in owning the store, but I’ll keep it open a while. I like it.”
Goldstream Food Market – 976 Goldstream Ave., Langford
Jimmy Lam is a busy man.
Having done the interview about Corona Low Cost Foods the previous day over the phone, we hadn’t met in person. When he came rushing out of the back of the store to the front counter where I was waiting, I didn’t know who he was. When I introduced myself and he replied he was Jimmy Lam, my response was: “Wow, you’re busy; how do you do it?”
Lam owns Goldstream and Corona and works there with his brother Nick (who worked at Corona while Lam was at Goldstream.) Lam also runs the U-Haul rental store next door.
“I work seven days a week, running around like a headless chicken. People say, ‘How do you work so much?’ But you get used to it. You got to do what you got to do. The only time we get off is when we are sick.”
Lam prides himself on his work ethic and his customer service. He gets regulars in from Langford but also from further afield.
“Sometimes, when people go to Corona but don’t see me, they come there instead.”
Devonshire Flowers & Food Market – 808 Goldstream Ave., Langford
There’s been a lot of change at Devonshire.
Anoop Dhami says the history of the Devonshire, located on Goldstream Avenue near Peatt Road, attracted him to the store when he took over in 2019.
“This store has served generations, not just to customers, but generations. The grandmas used to come, and the grandkids are now coming to shop. So this store has the history.”
Built in 1958, the area around the store has changed a lot. Dhami says he plans to change the store along with Langford. Inside the Devonshire part of the store is tarped off, where behind Stan (The Reno Man) Hollebone is redesigning the store’s look. Dhami hopes to pivot the business into a tobacconist, focusing on offering new types of cigarettes and cigars.
“He gets excited when he walks into Costco to see how they do things. He can see how they layout things out retail-wise,” said Hollebone.
While the interior is changing, the exterior has also changed. Dhami commissioned a Victoria painter to do a mural on the white wall on the outside of Devonshire, to commemorate some of the Devonshire’s history.
“Langford is changing, and so are we. Still keeping the old traditions and the values but opening up for the new generation.”