I have a love/hate relationship with Toronto.
I love its diversity and openness. The city attracts people from all over the world, and without meaning to sound trite, there’s always something to do, not just during the summer. Toronto is a city of incredible potential, but for those of us calling the city home, it often fails to realize that.
We have crumbling infrastructure and a city council too mired in personal troubles and political agendas to even begin addressing the real problems undermining the good: lack of affordable housing, gridlock, pollution, and inadequate public transit. Those problems are apparent. What’s been especially troubling me lately, though, is a problem bubbling just below the surface: the loss of community.
Toronto is very much a city of small neighbourhoods, and while pride in our respective corners is strong, what about our sense of belonging? We feel connected to a geography, yes, but to our fellow inhabitants? Do we really interact with our neighbours? I think our answers to these questions depend on the character of our communal spaces.
With names as varied as the items therein, the convenience store is an unsung community hub and the subject of Convenience Stories, the Toronto Jane’s Walk I took in early May. The brainchild of design students at OCAD University, Convenience Stories grew out of a class project that sought to celebrate, and memorialize, the convenience store as a site of commerce and of socialization. Discussions of store design and product taxonomy had quickly become more personal, with colleagues swapping stories of shoplifting, break-ups, independence, and security, and the role their own convenience stores played in each.
We meet our walk guides, OCADU students, at the Gladstone Hotel to get organized before setting out eastward along Queen Street West in the rain. A short walk and we arrive at a convenience store that offers not only pantyhose, cigarettes, and milk, but an in-store coffee shop complete with seating and Wi-Fi. Our guides speculate that this feature was added in response to the changing cultural and economic character of the neighbourhood, and I quietly wonder what it would be like to have a store like this in my own corner of Toronto. What it would be like to stroll to the end of the street after dinner to buy bread or a magazine and, seeing a familiar face, have a neighbourly greeting ebb into chatter over coffee.
Convenience stores are great equalizers. Who hasn’t run to one in a panic, having forgotten to buy a much-needed staple for the next morning’s breakfast? Who hasn’t stumbled into one at an ungodly hour, looking to satisfy a post-club craving for salt or sugar? Who doesn’t have some memory of measuring maturity, our own grown-upness, by being allowed to walk to, or beyond, the neighbourhood convenience store?
Our group makes its way toward Ossington Avenue. Like ducklings we shuffle, huddled under our umbrellas, until the rain finally stops. We’ve arrived at the recently shuttered Super Eight Variety Store. I stare at its sadly papered windows as our guides point out that the Super Eight is not alone in its demise. All over the city, convenience stores have been disappearing, small mom-and-pop shops no longer able to pay obscene Toronto rents and hold off large chains like Shoppers Drug Mart, which are increasingly carrying convenience store-type items.
But the demise of the convenience store in Toronto isn’t just a sad small-business story. We are losing vital community hubs. Places that draw everyone in our neighbourhoods. Cafés are social spaces, yes, but what if you don’t drink coffee or tea? What if you don’t have the kind of income or job that allows you to while away the hours in a coffee house? For many, cafés can be economically prohibitive, but a convenience store? A convenience store has something, is something, for everyone.
And I worry. As Toronto neighbourhoods lose their convenience stores, we lose more than having pantyhose, cigarettes, and milk always at our fingertips. We lose a place to connect with our neighbours, regardless of what is or has gone on in their lives. And I worry what that means for me and for my city.