It’s Heritage Month!
Directories reveal Sandy Hill shops of yesteryear
“Ground floor commercial”—words we often see on those big white panels that announce requests for adjustments to current zoning requirements in front of buildings slated for renovations or demolition. Presumably developers have concluded that they can increase their revenues by combining commercial and residential uses in their properties. A look at old City Directories reveals that this is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, a hundred years ago many residents of Sandy Hill were profiting from the opportunities for “ground floor commercial” enterprises.
Zoning restrictions were doubtless less stringent in those days. A family might decide to increase its revenue by turning its front parlour into a little shop. When a customer opened the front door, a bell would ring and the woman of the house, home with the children, would emerge from her kitchen to make the sale from her small stock of essential sundries and canned goods. Her customer would probably be a neighbour; cars were rare and people shopped frequently and close to home. One such shop persisted into the mid-1980s. Mrs. Farmer sold supplements, health food products and whole wheat bread from a local bakery out of her front room at 280 Nelson St. under the name “Ottawa Health Aids.” The house has since reverted to purely residential use, its mansard roof, once fire-engine red, now painted a sedate black.
Even in the case of larger and better-stocked grocery stores, the owner frequently lived in the same building or nearby. For instance, in 1923, the Guillet Brothers, Hilary and Modeste, had a grocery store at 316 Nelson Street; they and their families lived across the street at 363 Nelson. The grocery store has been replaced by a parking lot for l’École Francojeunesse and a low-rise apartment building has taken the place of their house. In 1915, two families ran the Gordon and Levinson grocery at 236 Somerset East. Max Levinson’s home address was the same as the store’s; Bert Gordon lived in the same building, but his address was around the corner at 402 Chapel. This building now houses apartments and, until recently, a laundromat on the ground floor—still commercial, though not a store. There were many of these small grocery stores dotted all over Sandy Hill in the early years of the 20th century, most of them owned or run by individual proprietors. An exception was a branch of Dominion Stores at 118 Osgoode St. Even this could not have been a very large business; it occupied the space that is now the parking lot beside Father and Sons restaurant.
Apart from grocery stores, pharmacies and drugstores were the most common businesses. McGrory’s Drug Store was located at 120 Osgoode, next to the Dominion store. It is now a convenience store, but two other drug stores have maintained their vocation. Since at least 1909, there has been a drug store at 390 Rideau Street, where the Rideau Pharmacy is now located. What is now the Guardian Medical Pharmacy at the corner of Rideau and Charlotte began in 1912; for many years successive owners lived next door at 578 Rideau. Another Sandy Hill pharmacy has moved several times, but has kept its name. Arthur Frank Astley opened his pharmacy in 1916 at 80 Henderson, on the corner of Osgoode where there has been a hair salon for many years. By 1923, he had moved his business two blocks away to 244 Laurier, tucked into the side of the house at the corner of Laurier and Nelson. He was still practising there in the 1970s, standing behind his dark wooden counter in front of the rows of bottles full of mysterious ingredients essential to his work as a compounding pharmacist. He retired in 1976, and the pharmacist who succeeded him modernized the business. Unable to expand its dimensions in the old location, Astley’s Pharmacy later moved to its current spot at 423 Rideau. The corner location at 244 Laurier eventually went through a number of incarnations as a pub and restaurant, but is now vacant.
Someone looking for a restaurant in Sandy Hill one hundred years ago would have gone hungry. Residents who wanted to eat or drink away from home—a rarer experience at that time than it is today—would go to a hotel dining room or a tavern. Such establishments generally clustered around the railway station, the ByWard Market and Lowertown. Times and habits have changed, and now there are lots of places to get a bite to eat, a cup of coffee or a drink without leaving our neighbourhood. Some of these businesses occupy spaces that had other commercial uses in the past. The Sandy Hill Lounge and Grill, on the ground floor of the house at the corner of Blackburn and Somerset East, was home to the Blackburn Food Store in 1948. Where we see the Happy Goat Coffee Company today was once Thomas Collins’ grocery store. Mr. Collins lived next door, at 315 Wilbrod, where we now find a laundromat. In 1909, people who wanted their washing done might take it to the “Chinese laundry” a few doors down at 321 Wilbrod. No personal name is attached to this business in the City Directory, as is the case for the nine anonymous “Chinese restaurants” listed in Ottawa in the 1916 Directory.
One of the last owner-occupied, family-run businesses in Sandy Hill was Ayoub’s Minimart. The Chahine family retired in 2016 after over 40 years of living in and serving the community. Safi Fine Foods has opened in the same location. Although he does not live upstairs, Operations Manager Mohamed Ali Abdo is carrying on the tradition of an independent neighbourhood grocery store—just kitty-corner from the former Blackburn Food Store. Let’s hope that some of the “ground floor commercial” enterprises proposed on those big white panels turn out to add other interesting services within walking distance for Sandy Hill residents.