Against all odds, single product shops manage to succeed

“The challenge of the retail business is the human condition,” Starbucks founder Howard Schultz once said. “We’re only as good as the moment, that fragile moment when we please or hopefully don’t disappoint the customer.” For the following four singular stores—niche retailers in an age of generalists—aiming to please has been the key to success

We live in an age of convenience, where one-stop shopping reigns supreme, from big-box department stores to Internet retail giants. And yet, stroll around Vancouver and you’ll come across a handful of businesses that seem like relics from the past: small specialty shops that remain staunchly independent and singularly focused. Think Gastown’s Button Button, the only all-button store in the country; North Vancouver’s Tea Time, which sells loose teas and nothing but—not even a hot cup of Earl Grey; the Vancouver Pen Shop downtown, a fixture for pen lovers for 28 years; and Main Street’s All-Vacuum Store, still sucking up business after four decades.

How do they do it? Why are they still at it? And, most importantly, what can they teach us? Read on as a quartet of unique shop owners explains, in their own words, how they’re beating the odds to survive—and thrive—in the face of the superstore Goliaths.

Carlos Bresciani
Owner of All-Vacuum Store
4673 Main St., Vancouver

We’ve been in business for 40 years, and in this location for 23. When I moved here from Peru, I started doing direct sales door-to-door. I was working for someone else in the beginning, for a short time, and then I opened my own store.

It’s a good business to be in. Everybody owns a vacuum, every hotel has vacuums, and if they have a vacuum they need supplies and repairs. That’s what’s different about us—we do the service and repairs. A lot of stores come and go because they don’t know how to fix vacuums. They come here, we open it up and, Oh my god, it’s a disaster inside.

It’s different now than it was 40 years ago. Now every department store has vacuums, and there are a lot of what I call one-way products: you buy it, break it and throw it out. It’s cheaper to replace it than to fix it. It’s frustrating for me to see, because there’s a lot of waste. In the past, most vacuums were fixable.

We make sure that if we sell it, we also service it. If we get a company who won’t give us the service for the warranty, then we don’t sell it. We sell high-end and lower-end brands, but we do try to specialize in the better ones, like Sebo and Miele. We have all kinds of customers, from businesses to households, and we also supply a lot of hotels. We supply all the Fairmont Hotels and quite a few Holiday Inns in Vancouver, Richmond and Whistler.

People come to us because we do good service and we have good staff. We have three employees who have been here for years—one for 40 years—and we just hired one more. Everyone who works here stays for a long, long time. We treat them well, and they are happy here. It’s simple.

I have no plans to retire. I love my work. I like dealing with a lot of people, and everyone’s happy here. Like I say, it’s a good business, because everybody has a vacuum. If you buy it, we keep you happy.


Jitendra Tanna
Founder and owner of Tea Time
1418 Lonsdale Ave., North Vancouver

I like to say that we don’t sell tea; our customers buy tea. They come to us for the quality, the prices and the service—we don’t have to go to them. Our family has had an interest in tea for four generations, in over five continents. Tea is something that started with our grandparents, on my wife’s side, and my side back in Gujarat, India. My wife’s parents were tea agents in Western India, and then in Kenya and Uganda. But it’s not something we personally got into until we moved to Vancouver, after spending 35 years in London, England, where I did property management. In 2001, when we got here, we noticed good tea was something that was missing, and there were a lot of people coming here from different parts of the world where tea, as a beverage, was the number-one drink.

The biggest difference between us and other tea shops, like Murchie’s, is that they have to supplement the store with other items, like coffee, biscuits, gift items, accessories. It begs the question, If you believe in a product and you’re passionate about it, why aren’t you supporting that product? Why are you watering it down with additional items? People don’t remember that you’re a specialty. You’re a general store—basically a miniature supermarket, is the way I look at it.

We don’t do anything but loose tea. When we opened in 2001, it was a sit-down tea room, but it was taking away from what we wanted to do, which was to bring in a greater selection of teas. So we stopped doing that in 2004.

Today, I estimate we sell 1,500 pounds of tea a month in retail, mail orders and wholesale. We have real support from the local community, and that community has also expanded. People move, and yet they come back for tea, they come back to see their dentist and they come back to see their doctor—in that order. Yesterday we had someone from Maple Ridge who made a special trip to stock up. There’s no secrets or magic or anything special about it. We just provide what we have to offer, and people appreciate what we do.

Colleen Miller
Owner of Button Button
318 Homer St., Vancouver

Everyone laughed when I said I wanted to open a button store. But I’d lived in lots of different countries, and I’d seen button stores in Europe. As a vintage clothing gal who was into sewing, I was finding it difficult to find good buttons here in Vancouver.

When I opened in 1995, I signed up for a free 45-minute business consultation, because I didn’t know anyone who’d been in the business and I’d never worked in retail. I’d done all my research, standing on street corners counting traffic at certain times of day, and I had all my buttons. So I was ready to roll when I met with the consultant, but he just said, “Look. Why don’t you just take your buttons and drive into the Interior, rent a hotel room, put an ad in the paper that you’re there with your buttons and see how it goes.” And I said, “I don’t have a car.” So he stood up and said, “I just can’t waste my time with you anymore.”

It threw me for a loop, and for a week I just stopped everything. I thought I would just forget the plan, because he’s right. And then I thought, No, he isn’t. I really have confidence, despite nobody else around me having confidence.

My dad thought it was not a smart idea, and he wouldn’t even talk about it. But when he finally saw that I was keen, he lent me $20,000, with no interest, to be paid off after the first two years. I paid it back frantically. And apart from that, I was never in the red.

My store has been slow but steady. Sooner or later, you’re going to lose a button and have to come in. The very poor come in, and the very rich come in. There’s one customer, she comes in regularly, with her chauffeur waiting outside, and she can spend $1,000 in 10 minutes. You just need her twice a year and it changes your bottom line. There’s also drag queens, brides, people making jewelry, people making doll clothes, guys working in leather—and the film industry, thank God for them! I sell about 12,000 buttons per month, which includes the mother-of-pearl buttons I sell in bulk to First Nations for regalia. Each button blanket takes 500 to 1,000 buttons.

About 20 per cent of my customers are men, and I didn’t expect that at all. If men have lost a button, they don’t know to go to a fabric store. They figure, if you lose a button, you go to a button store, right?

Margot McRae
Owner of The Vancouver Pen Shop
512 West Hastings St., Vancouver

We don’t expect people to buy a pen every time they come in—people can drop by, see what they like and it’s our social life as much as it is our business. We have a couple of customers who are here every Saturday morning for coffee. They started coming when their son was a year old, and he’s now 21.

The store was originally owned by Paul and Margaret Leveque. Paul used to do repairs, and he was a wholesaler for Parker, Sheaffer and Cross. Margaret opened the business in 1986 with another friend, and I joined them a year later. Eventually Paul, who worked upstairs, closed his office and came down and joined us. Paul passed away in 2004, and before Margaret passed away four years ago, we made an arrangement for me to take it over. The shop girls—Shannon and Fernie—were already here. They’ve both been here for 20 years.

Paul and Margaret were old school, and they didn’t buy anything that they couldn’t pay for. We’ve kept it the same way; everything in the store is paid for, and we haven’t had to run on credit. We have never really strived to be much larger than what we are.

The price range in the store is anywhere from $2.79 for a basic pen to $3,000 for a high-end fountain pen. Those are usually special editions: they’re numbered, and they’ll always have a solid gold nib. The nicest part of a gold nib is that it wears to your hand, and it will be personally yours. We’re finding a lot of young high-school students are becoming intrigued by fountain pens. They’ve never tried them and they want one. And there are some very reasonable ones for $20 or $30.

We get all types of people coming in: little tiny kids right up to politicians. When Gordon Campbell was premier, he was a major customer. He liked fountain pens, and after some major transactions, he’d buy another one, so they signified something to him. We also get a lot of doctors, lawyers and judges—people who sign things. I always say that people may not need them as much as they used to, but you will always, at some point, need a pen.