The cornerstone on Bittern Street/Cormorant. (Photo supplied)

Corner stores, or community bastions

Walter Thorne tracks the history of these vital community features

Kitimat has changed considerably over the years. This is certainly true with the retail sector where so many businesses have shut down.

In Kitimat’s Alcan company town infancy at Hospital Beach it was up to the Hudson Bay to sell to folks – they had a monopoly on all supplies sold.

By the time Anderson Hill Camp was built, the corner store had emerged. Raeber’s Red and White at Anderson Hill Camp was Kitimat’s first true corner store of convenience.

By the later 1950s and 60s when Kildala, Nechako and Whitesail neighbourhoods were in place, Kitimat had developed a network of thriving corner stores.

They served an important role in our infant community in the days when some families didn’t own a vehicle, before mass media when the Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers were king, and in the days before Kitimat had a bus service.

Kitimat was bursting at the seams and it was teeming with kids. For a while in the 60s and 70s, both Kildala and Nechako schools each enrolled about 600 students. At its peak, Mount Elizabeth Secondary School had 1,600 kids. In our affluent aluminum city with very well-paying industrial jobs even many children had money to spend.

All together there were eight convenience stores that served Kitimat in those first few decades – Kildala Red and White, Bittern Street, Whitesail, Pine Plaza, International Foods, Luso and Lilo’s Tuck Shop.

Kildala Grocery, established by Swiss entrepreneur Louis Raebar, was one of the first, which was assembled using pieces of their dismantled store from Anderson Hill. Within a decade, Kildala was renovated with a laundromat and was then owned by Art Spanevello and Leon Dumstrey-Soos.

Long time employee Tilly Bachman, also from Switzerland, worked there for 35 years. She remembers the original store with its salvaged plywood shelves.

She said Kildala sold the best soft ice cream in the whole northwest, with people coming from as far as Terrace to get a cone of Kildala’s finest. Tilly also says that Kildala was the first in our community to offer the ever-popular lottery tickets.

Bittern Street Corner Store went by a number of names which include, Kitimat Corner Store, Bittern Street Corner Store and for a while, Big John’s. Across from the old Cormorant School, it and the Whitesail Grocery store were two of the original stores which had live-in accommodation for the owners attached to the premises.

The Bittern Street – Cormorant site was owned by Reg Snow, then Alan and Joyce Fulljames, and later Marie and John LeSage. The LeSages were true pioneers who had met in Kemano.

Marie was originally head of payroll for the giant Morrison Knudsen Company with its roster of 5,000 male employees. The company provided her with a chaperone when travelling in the Kemano area.

The Whitesail Grocery, at the current site of Doris Delicatessen, was owned and operated by members of the Kokesch family including Arnie and Dennis.

The Luso-sponsored Ethnic Store, specializing in Portuguese stock, was down by the Northern Sentinel press building and for a time was directed by the Contumelias, De Melo and Nunes families.

International Foods, operated by Louis and Theresia Kyakoff, was located near our museum where Vitality currently serves the public and specialized in European foods. A delicatessen was a big draw where Theresia would prepare sandwiches and other luncheon fare.

Lilo’s Tuck Shop at Nechako Centre, close to the entrance to Shop Easy, specialized in catering to kids. Lilo kept a special stock different to what could be found across the hallway in the supermarket.

Burnett’s grocery store at Pine Plaza was originally just an extension of Whitesail Grocery, just a kilometre east on Lahakas. Like Whitesail grocery it was a Kokesch family business.

All these stores of convenience operated in an earlier era, a time when Kitimat was busier, larger and thronging with kids. The stores were essentially where you could go when the main stores were closed. Unlike today, grocery stores 50 years ago weren’t open on Sundays and holidays and gas stations were just that – a place of mechanics, oil and fuel.

Corner stores you could rely on and their staff were special, getting to know lots of the characters and youth of the community. Store owners like Ron Burnett recall having to be psychologists and counsellors at times; sometimes helping to reform kids who got into bad habits.

The store owners also provided first-time jobs to many of the youth striving to make their way in the world. The Corner Store merchants were always there, even rescuing folk on Christmas Day.

Ron Burnett was always amazed at how many people had forgotten whipped cream or cranberries at Christmas. He recalled how he would say to his wife and daughter on Christmas Day that he’d just go into the store for an hour or two – inevitably it would be longer.

Out of her tiny Nechako location, Lilo had a loyal clientele that were always looking out for her. She had the time for her kids and they in turn looked after her – the store never suffered from vandalism.

Into the 70s, 80s, and 90s the situation had changed. Schools had closed, the population shrunk, a bus service was established and with Sunday shopping being introduced, the grocery stores like Overwaitea and Supervalu stayed open. The rescue role of the corner stores had vanished.

Over the decades International Foods and the Luso Store closed, followed by Burnett’s Grocery at Pine Plaza, Big John’s at Cormorant and Lilo’s at Nechako Centre. These stores closed like so many throughout our town and Canada – nevertheless, they were important parts of our past and our community.

Those Kitimat stores of convenience that remain open today are Kildala and Tony’s, which each have their own special appeal. Perhaps the special early morning opening and stocking of speciality foods and a greater population in the nearby apartments have helped. At Kildala Grocery the attached laundry and available lotto ticket sales are part of their appeal.

Looking back it seems a shame that we have lost so much. Decades ago our community was blessed with a fine network of convenience stores with great people who provided for all including the youth.

We miss those days.

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