Nothing Old School About this Corner Store
Zahra Dhanani never imagined she would become the owner of a convenience store.
She’s been a lawyer, social justice advocate, community activist — and even a DJ, organizing monthly Funk Asia nights.
But since last year, she and Mariko Nguyen-Dhanani, partners in love, life and business, have become the proprietors of a little corner store in East York.
Working 16-hour days for more than 400 days (they’ve just recently hired some part-time staff), the two women have a vision of turning their business at the corner of Lumsden and Westlake Aves., into a community gathering place.
Regulars are already coming in for daily lattes, along with cigarettes, bread and milk, but also unique gifts, local produce in warm weather and handmade goods featuring iconic images of Toronto.
But they have plans to turn an empty attached warehouse, which currently has no plumbing or electricity, into a space to show movies, borrow books or hold private gatherings – complete with a green roof and living space for the couple.
This business adventure wasn’t planned. Dhanani was working as a legal adjudicator and Nguyen-Dhanani was working for a company that installs water meters for the city.
They dreamed of moving into a loft-like space when Nguyen-Dhanani stumbled across an Internet listing for the store and warehouse. They didn’t act right away, mulling it for sometime, but when they decided to go for it, an offer was quickly made and the deal closed quickly.
When asked why they decided to open a corner store, Dhanani makes it clear that she doesn’t like the connotation that the words “convenience store” or “corner store” brings up.
There’s the image of a dingy old store, often owned by immigrants, like the Korean family featured in the CBC television show Kim’s Convenience.
The irony isn’t lost on either of them – how these small businesses provide a lifeline to new immigrants, giving their children a lifeline in a new country.
Dhanani emigrated as a young child from Tanzania with her parents, while Nguyen-Dhanani’s parents emigrated from Vietnam and Japan. And now they have knowingly sought out a job that for many immigrants was their only option.
“They worked and toiled only for us to work and toil,” Dhanani said. “We know how humble and unassuming a lot of immigrant families are.”
“I never wanted to own my own business,” said Nguyen-Dhanani, who has seen the challenges up close, working as a pastry chef. “It’s hard to take a vacation. It’s your baby. I had my worries.”
But for them, this store is more than just a business. They are trying to create the atmosphere of a general store – or trading post – that was once the gathering spot where people would travel from kilometres around to pick up basic rations.
It is reflected partly in the name: the Old’s Cool General Store. The couple was trying to come up with a name that was different. Dhanani, a huge fan of rap music, wanted something you know, old school — honouring the New York rap scene.
They also wanted a vintage feel. They toyed with the name Old School, and even “Old is Cool,” but Old’s Cool stuck, though an outside mural still shows the initials D and K, when it was known as D+K Convenience, owned by two brothers Dimitri and Kostas, who ran a butcher shop there.
They have also learned the economics of corner stores – how difficult it is to compete with grocery chains and big box stores like Costco, when it comes to price.
“Does Costco know your name and your child’s name?” Dhanani asked.
“It’s not that we have huge markups, but we can’t get the same discounts (as the big chains),” she said, pointing out that on lottery tickets, they collect a 2 per cent commission. On a recent Saturday, the tally was $600; their take was only $12.
But they want their store to be more than cigarettes and lotto tickets. It has featured local vendors on weekends, from Spice of Life hot sauce to organic treats from the Naked Dog Bakery. It organized a Christmas bazaar in the warehouse space to showcase local artisans.
“It comes back to community,” said Nguyen-Dhanani. “We have to live less isolated lives.”
That means chatting with neighbours, getting the items customers ask for, even if there isn’t a huge profit margin. They are also emphasizing local – from handmade gifts, cards from the neighbourhood, to soups and baked goods.
“It’s a meeting spot,” said Monelli Walker, who was carrying her infant son Mylo in baby carrier on a recent Saturday visit. “I come in here all the time, grab a snack. I tell people they have to come to the store.”
Walker was especially pleased with the architectural plans for renovations to the adjacent warehouse that will allow the community to gather.
“It’s for the long term. This means he’ll be coming in here,” she said, pointing to her son.
Architect Reza Aliabadi, principal of atelier rzlbd, describes the project as a boutique community centre, though he concedes the basement space could not handle the numbers of a traditional city venue.
“You don’t have clients like these every day,” said Aliabadi, who was among more than two dozen architects the couple had interviewed before finally settling on him.
“Financial speculation is the main driver behind every development project in Toronto,” he said, noting the space could easily have been turned into stacked townhouses or a five-storey mid-rise development.
“That would have changed the look and feel of the neighbourhood,” said Aliabadi, who has designed some in-fill houses in the area.
The proposal may require zoning changes. Aliabadi said the project keeps the existing footprint and does not exceed height restrictions for the area.
Councillor Janet Davis, who represents the area, declined to comment on the architectural drawing, saying until the proposal is formally submitted it is unclear what zoning amendments may be needed.
She did praised Dhanani and Nguyen-Dhanani for creating a welcoming space.
“This is very different from your little corner store. It’s not just pop and chips,” Davis said. “It’s brought new life to that corner and that pocket of East York.”
For the couple, that’s their goal. They want to be part of their community – and hopefully, live just above their little store, with friends and neighbours dropping by all the time.
“We want to live a life that is socially and culturally rich. We want to be an artist hub as well as a community hub,” Nguyen-Dhanani said.