Gastown isn’t like other Vancouver neighborhoods. It has an edge to it, and we like that. Although five years ago, when my partner, Walter Manning, and I set our hearts on opening a business here, the area was overrun with kitschy souvenir shops and was so economically depressed you had to squint hard to see its potential. What attracted us was its history.
Unlike our adopted neighborhood, we cannot claim long ties to Vancouver. As Canadians, however, our roots go deep. My Albertan ancestry is First Nations Cree, and Walter was born in Newfoundland, where his family owned a hotel and a general store. When we decided to open a shop together in Vancouver, the last thing we were after was another pretentious boutique.
Walter had seen his grandfather’s store serve as the heart of its community, a meeting place where you knew everyone’s name. We wanted our business to have that same kind of vibe. We envisioned an inviting place that sold useful objects that were classic in design and had an heirloom quality—things you’d pass down to your children. In other words, a modern general store.
We knew it had to be in Gastown, because this is the area where Vancouver began. The Canadian Pacific Railway had its western terminus here, so all of the coal, lumber, grain, and copper would pass through. Historically, this is where this kind of business would have existed. It just felt right to us. At the time we signed our lease, however, we had no idea that within two years the area was going to develop into the hot zone it is today. In those days it was a struggle to find a decent place to go for lunch. Now we have so many options. The sheer number of new shops, art galleries, restaurants, and cafés is astounding. At the same time, gentrification has not sanitized the place. The seedy elements just coexist with the new, and that creates an interesting dynamic in this neighborhood.
A lot of artists hang out in Gastown. Some even use the alleys for galleries, but it’s a myth that they gravitate here because of cheaper rents. Rents have gone up since the area became fashionable five years ago. Artists and the young retail crowd just appreciate all the unique vintage character here. No one is trying to make their shop or restaurant look like it could be someplace else.
And why would you want to? The buildings, with their high ceilings, 100-year-old fir beams, and handmade brick walls, are gorgeous even if you have to scrape through a lot of layers to reveal them. We labored through a lot of gritty work to get back to the original bones of our 1903 building. Inside, we just bring together things that we love and think are cool, and that seem like they belong together.
The photographs hanging on the walls, for example, were taken during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the canoe hanging from the ceiling and all the reclaimed wood were salvaged locally. My favorite thing in the store is a 1910 wood cabinet. One of its drawers bears the signatures of about a dozen past owners. I love having that connection to its past.
Do the people who cruise Gastown for organic espresso, authentic Neapolitan pizza, or handcrafted cocktails get this connection, too? We like to think so. I think Vancouverites are starting to embrace their city’s history. Which is maybe why, after years of ignoring Gastown, they’re seeing it with new eyes. A
As told to Rhonda May. Photo by Grant Harder. This appeared in the September, 2012 issue. See all of Savannah Olsen’s favorite places in Gastown.
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