What a difference a single block makes. After Book Warehouse shuffled east on Davie Street, its business improved dramatically.

“It made a huge difference – better street traffic,” says owner Sharman King of the relocation from 1181 Davie, near Bute Street, to 1051 Davie, closer to Burrard Street.

King attributes the lack of bookstore traffic at 1181 Davie to the open sale of illegal drugs at the intersection of Davie and Bute – a location dubbed “Crystie Corner” after the drug crystal meth.

Lyn Hellyar, executive director of the West End Business Improvement Association (BIA) – a recent amalgamation of the Davie Village BIA and the Denman and northwest Robson streets retail areas – reports improvements at Bute and Davie. Street pay phones have been removed and the liquor store was persuaded to enforce bottle-return limits and single-beer sales policies.

Yet “safety and security” remain the biggest issue for the 650-business BIA. “When a guy at the service station on Denman is held up with a knife, he’s scared,” Hellyar says. “When an owner goes behind his store to find a mattress full of needles, it worries people... We deal with social issues because they’re really affecting our businesses.”

The BIA has adopted the larger Downtown Vancouver BIA’s successful street-ambassador program and now has a two-person roving patrol in its 23-block area, 365 days a year. It’s also trying to get dumpsters removed from back lanes and replaced with a daily garbage-bag pickup system.

Offshore property owners who neglect their retail outlets are another problem, as are investor-immigrants who set up as retailers solely to satisfy a one-year requirement.

“In three years, we’ve had four dollar stores on Davie Street, then a fifth one opened and I thought ‘Oh my god,’” Hellyar says. “Then [home decor] Homewerks went in where one of the dollar stores was, and it’s doing well.” The chic Homewerks is a few doors down from a now-thriving Book Warehouse.

Puttin' on the RitzThe fact that Reitmans Canada Ltd. – a women’s clothing chain with an outlet in every dusty town and dreary suburban mall in Canada – has opened on Kitsilano’s Fourth Avenue says something. Reitmans, it seems, wants to buck its frumpy, down-market image.

According to Cheryl Easton, manager of the Kitsilano Fourth Avenue Business Association, the 81-year-old, 362-store chain is trying to rebrand itself as hip and relatively upscale by nestling into one of Vancouver’s trendiest retail districts.

“It’s brilliant,” says Easton. “They’re planting themselves right next to Wear Else?” – a higher-end clothier. “And it’s a good example of how far Fourth Avenue has come. It’s now attracting businesses to it.”

Indeed, Fourth Avenue has come a long way since the early 1900s, when you couldn’t give away commercial land there.

Today most of the 300 or so businesses along the eight blocks between Balsam and Fir streets are doing well.

It begins with a youthful, affluent neighbourhood of 60,000 residents, drawn to a street that’s pedestrian-friendly. They shop for basics at Safeway or Capers Community Market, look around and return later for their magazines, wine, clothes and knick-knacks.

It’s a fairly compact streetscape, says Easton, “Store, store, store, store – dense and close.”Then there’s its diversity. Ironhead (edgy T-shirts and boxing apparel) is neighbours with Roots and Motherhood Maternity. “It isn’t cookie-cutter. No one business or type of business dominates. There’s always change, and there’s always some other market share that will develop. And it’s pretty stable. You may have turnover, but there’s a zero vacancy rate.”

The Fourth Avenue Business Association has targeted tourists and younger shoppers from around the region, making Fourth a destination. On weekends “kids come from all kinds of places” to the cluster of boarding retailers just east of Burrard Street, Easton reports. As for the phenomenally successful Lululemon Athletica and other lifestyle-wear businesses around Fourth Avenue and Arbutus Street, “It draws them from miles.”

Throw in myriad coffee houses and restaurants that include recently ensconced Fuel Restaurant, Gastropod and Bistrot Bistro, and you have a neighbourhood that embodies an entire culture. Says Easton, “We’ve got it all.”

Finally, a strong tax-funded Kitsilano Fourth Avenue Business Association has capitalized on the neighbourhood’s enviable (if not entirely deserved) reputation as irredeemably youthful and humane.

“It’s an image; it’s the romance and idea of it,” gushes Easton. “Fourth works because it’s young and hip. We have a cachet, a kind of free-spiritedness and enthusiasm that keeps on going. “We started with Greenpeace and the Georgia Straight. I think a little bit of that will always survive. It’s an intangible. You can’t define it.”

To further nurture this image, the association organizes an annual daylong “Hippie Daze” in August that generates nostalgia for the freewheeling 1960s and ’70s. Thousands showed up for last year’s 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love.

And while romantics still lament the loss of the small, independent storefronts of the hippie era, Fourth Avenue has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to latter-day consumer demands, while keeping a little of the hip, alternative spirit alive.

“A lot of businesses chose to come to this street because they have the autonomy; they don’t want to be in a mall,” Easton continues. “And it’s not our job to run their businesses, but to support them as a whole. It’s a concept that sells. Kits has been successful because it functions as a neighbourhood.”


Back to Storefront Survival by Alison Appelbe