Situated below one of Toronto’s St. James Town high-rise apartments is the Philippine Variety Store. Stepping into the cramped space, I am flooded by childhood memories. I finger the packets of pancit canton and after spotting a box of champorado, I can almost taste my lola’s cooking.
Behind a plexiglass barrier in a camo mask, Leonida Sabinorio McNabb stands shy of five feet, her eyes smiling at one of her regular customers who calls her tita, or aunt. She shuffles behind the cashier and moves around some boxes to retrieve a popular Filipino dessert, ube ice cream, for the customer. “Salamat po!” she thanks McNabb before another customer enters from the short line outside.
“Bumalik ka na agad?” You’re back already? McNabb says animatedly.
The corner store, an oasis
During lockdown, when people were seldom leaving their homes, the rare outings to the local corner store became all the more meaningful. In contrast to large supermarkets, where people lined up only to find the shelves raided and barren, the corner store became a closeby resource where we could get a dosage of human interaction and thankfully, toilet paper. Shopkeepers also stocked up on masks, hand sanitizers, and even plants, if only to bring some life into the homes of those confined.
Like many other businesses, McNabb was forced to adapt. As the sole employee of her shop, the 62-year-old found herself navigating supplier closures and safety protocols which limited the shop’s customer capacity. Open seven days a week, the only time the store was closed during the pandemic was in May, when McNabb’s husband died from sustained injuries after slipping on black ice.
“I feel myself as a front liner,” said McNabb. “The products I have are essentials for our hometown people.” By hometown people, she’s referring to St. James Town, her home since she moved to Canada 33 years ago.
St. James Town is home to many Filipinos. According to a TOcore study, the neighbourhood is one of the most densely populated areas in Canada and nearly 60 percent of the residents are immigrants. Statistics Canada’s most recent data shows that more than 36 percent of the people who live in the neighbourhood are within the low-income bracket, living in high-rise apartments, with almost a quarter of the units subsidized by the city.
In a neighbourhood like St. James Town, the corner store is part of tradition, especially for immigrants. Mom and pop shops transform into community hubs for old and newcomers looking for a local connection or a familiar hometown snack.
The tradition of the corner store
Corner stores are amenities in residential “food deserts,” an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The shops represent the livelihood of many immigrant and family-owned businesses; going into a corner store at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m., it will typically be the same person working, if not a different family member.
Recently popular culture has also been highlighting the tradition of the corner store. The success of CBC TV’s Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi, which is on its fifth season, shows how anyone can empathize with the people running a corner store and the community created around it. Korean Canadian author, Ann Y.K. Choi wrote Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, a 2016 Toronto Book Awards finalist based on her own experiences growing up with a family-owned variety shop.
In the book, Ann Y. K. Choi writes how as a child, she felt safe in the shop’s neighbourhood, being able to recognize the shoe repairman down the block or even the local pimp who frequented the store. “It sounds odd, but he kind of looked out for me,” she said, “because he was a customer, and so you have interesting relationships with everyone from the community.”
Ann Y.K. Choi remembers a time when her family’s shop was in a heavily Ukrainian-populated neighbourhood. After hearing countless customers’ stories, she began to see her own immigrant experiences mirrored in the problems they were facing. Her sense of empathy deepened from each of these interactions.
“The best thing about the corner variety store is—you have to be spread out,” she said. “It allowed us to integrate with the community and form friendships and relationships with people outside the Korean Canadian community. And I think we can only thank the store for that for allowing us that opportunity.”
The heart of the corner store
Behind the rows of chicharon, polvoron and bulalo soup packets, McNabb stands underneath a Christmas-themed clock (us Filipinos are notorious for having one of the longest holiday seasons in the world). She lets out a long exhale while gripping a tissue. Around her wrist is a white and green-beaded rosary bracelet, and on her ring finger, a gold band. It’s been seven months since her husband passed away.
“Sometimes I cry,” McNabb said, partially distracted by someone contemplating snacks by the freezers. “Take your time, maganda.”
“The customers, they start to bring out what their problems are, some of them, they really talk to me,” McNabb said. “I treat them like my family.”
She knows most of the people that come into the Phillippine Variety Store and said some are on welfare and earning from hand to mouth. She describes her leniency as an elastic band that continuously needs to be stretched, making a point of calling everyone who enters “maganda” or “guapo,” which is Tagalog for beautiful and handsome.
Throughout the day, McNabb puts some of the change left by a customer in a glass jar beside the cashier. Every so often, she’ll send the money saved in the jar back home to her sister-in-law in Camarines Sur, in the Bicol Region in Philippines. The money is used to buy backpacks, pens, books and other school supplies for children in the area, whose parents can’t afford to buy it themselves.
“I feel happy because I can help my siblings back home,” says McNabb, reflecting on opening her shop in 2008.
She acknowledges that it’s difficult work, especially in a pandemic. “It takes a lot of patience to have a variety store,” said McNabb. “Even if I am stressed and depressed, I fight for it…I have to fight, because if I don’t, I don’t know what will happen.”
Still, McNabb remains humble, despite her experiences. For her, family is everything—and each customer is treated as someone that’s part of it.
Making Asian American media
We believe that our stories matter – and we hope you do too. Support us with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for us and by us are here to stay.