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Will the coronavirus bring back the corner store?

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With more people working from home, the little variety store may thrive again.

My late father used to point to a little corner store on Dewson Street in Toronto, near where he grew up, and say “there’s the store that made me the man I am!” (he was a big guy.) In many parts of the city, corner stores were a key part of our lives. Vancouver planner Sandy James notes that they still could be:

Coming out of the pandemic is the need to access goods right in your neighbourhood. The local corner store used to fill this role, with shopkeepers knowing everyone in the neighbourhood, and providing a place where locals can buy milk, cheese, some staples and hear the local goings-on and gossip.

They were once necessary in streetcar suburbs when people didn’t drive to get their groceries in one big load. A hundred years ago many people didn’t have fridges, so you wanted to buy your milk fresh every day close to home. But they also helped define a neigborhood. Kaid Benfield once described the “popsicle test:”

If an 8-year-old kid can safely go somewhere to buy a popsicle, and get back home before it melts, chances are it’s a neighborhood that works. Note that there’s no planning jargon in there: nothing explicitly about mixed uses, or connected streets, or sidewalks, or traffic calming, or enough density to put eyes on the street. But, if you think about it, it’s all there.

My children loved them; the man who ran the one near my son’s school when he was in grade four knew he was good in math, and always had him calculate the change and sometimes even pretended there was sales tax so he would have to do percentages.

That store is gone now, as are so many others. People want the cheaper prices from the big chains and have big cars to carry home the bargains. I think the decline in smoking had something to do with it; I haven’t really been in one since I stopped smoking many years ago. Real estate values are such that they get converted back into houses, and commercial property taxes are brutal.

But as I noted in The Coronavirus and the future of Main Street, it’s comeback time. More and more people are going to be working from home, and they have to get out now and again. Just like they used to run down to the little shop in the lobby for a bag of chips or even a pack of smokes, they will probably now run out to the corner store. our local neighborhood may once again become our support network for those things that we need.

Bring back the neighborhood bar

It’s not just corner stores, it’s also corner bars. Here again, I defer to Kaid Benfield, who wondered “Does a sustainable community need a good drinking establishment?”, referring to neighborhood bars as “third spaces.”

We shouldn’t romanticize third spaces as only being about brightly lit cafes, pedestrianized streets, and the local public library. Bars work in their scruffy way by offering a place to get away from an overcrowded apartment or a squalid loft or a grimy job. They are a place where someone with little to spare can go for a change of pace.

I noted at the time that “complete neighborhood has to serve all kinds of people and offer all kinds of services. It also has to have all kinds of buildings, big and small, new and old, grotty and gorgeous.” Kaid continued”

What does this have to do with sustainability? Well, quite a bit, in my opinion. The more complete our neighborhoods, the less we have to travel to seek out goods, services and amenities. The less we have to travel, the more we can reduce emissions. People enjoy hanging out in bars and, especially if they are within walking distance of homes, we can also reduce the very serious risks that can accompany drinking and driving.

Now that more people are working at home, they may well need the amenities in their neighborhood that they used to have around their office, the variety store where they get their snacks. They may well be the customers that support a new local infrastructure of coffee shops, restaurants, services and shopping that had long disappeared from our main streets. Oh, and maybe even a few good local bars.

With more people working from home, the little variety store may thrive again.

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