News / Vancouver

‘A scary time to be in small business’: Retailers also slammed by affordability crisis

As more independent businesses close their doors, it’s not always clear what will replace them

Sarah Savoy, owner of Much and Little on Main street, says it’s a scary time to be a small business

Jennifer Gauthier / Vancouver Freelance

Sarah Savoy, owner of Much and Little on Main street, says it’s a scary time to be a small business

Last year, Nick’s Spaghetti House on the Drive served its last meatball.

In Little Mountain, Bean Around the World served its last cup of coffee and Hong Kong café Mui Garden its last bowl of bright yellow curry.

Gone also are Calhoun’s Bakery, the Dover Arms Pub, outdoor gear go-to 3 Vets and the West End’s Cardero Grocery and West Valley Market.

Many Vancouver businesses that were cherished cornerstones closed in 2017, no longer offering morning cups of joe, fistfuls of after school candy or a Friday night refuge from the workweek.

It’s not just small businesses that are having a hard time: galleries, five Chevrons gas stations and several mid-to-high end restaurants, like the revolving Cloud 9, also closed last year.

The Georgia Straight published an extensive obituary of businesses lost in 2017, with their causes of death and whether they have surviving kin — a few, like Punjabi Market’s All India, have found new homes.

In some cases, the owners retired, had health issues or chose to pursue something else. But many have closed shop due to rising commercial rents or the redevelopment or sale of their property.

“It’s a scary time to be in small business,” said Sarah Savoy, who opened Much & Little – which sells women’s clothing, household items and knick-knacks – in 2011 in Mount Pleasant.

With rising rents, she doesn’t think she could’ve done the same today.

“Honestly, I don’t know how people can do it without a magical fund or if they don’t have to pay themselves.”

Savoy chose to open in Mount Pleasant to be a part of its strong community of local businesses. But a number of longtime haunts in Mount Pleasant, like vegetarian eatery The Foundation, have recently closed.

“We clearly have a property and land crisis, not just a housing crisis,” said Jeremy Stone, a PhD candidate at UBC’s planning school who studies gentrification. “Everybody is feeling the crunch, whether for homes or industries or businesses.”

One problem is triple-net leases, which has tenants paying a portion of their landlord’s property taxes, insurance and maintenance costs. Because they are renters, “they don’t get a piece of the increase in value when the building is sold,” said Stone.

Chocolate Mousse Kitchenware in the West End had this kind of lease. With the jump in their building’s latest property assessment, their tax bill nearly doubled to $130,000. Their Robson store will tentatively close next year after 33 years in business.

As rents skyrocket, businesses are often replaced with something more upscale, which can isolate people on limited incomes. They can end up trapped in their own neighbourhood, surrounded by inaccessible shops or restaurants.

“Those that live in SROs [single room occupancy hotels] in the Downtown Eastside don’t have a living room,” said Stone. “So businesses, and community centres and whatnot, become their living room.”

Losing a business means losing a welcoming place where “they have personal relationships [with staff], where they accepted as who they are, can get a table and not be stared at, not feel like they’re different and see friends they know.”

Some critics have argued that cities don’t have any business intervening in the local market.

But losing places like the Ridge Theatre or Duthies Books is more than a cultural cost; fewer businesses means less money in the local economy and less opportunities for local entrepreneurs to be creative, says Stone.

With rising challenges for local businesses, NPA Coun. George Affleck called for a review of what the city’s doing to support them. City council approved his motion this week, which included the creation of a Small Business Policy Council.

Local businesses make up 95 per cent of the Vancouver’s businesses; 58 per cent of them have four or less employees.

Savoy of Much & Little says they help give Vancouver its patchwork of neighbourhood identities.

“When I go travelling, I don’t go to the Gap. I want to see the small independent shops, the little cafes or restaurants that are unique to that city.

“In Vancouver, all the small shops give neighbourhoods their flavour and uniqueness. Without them, you miss out that sense of community and that personal touch.”

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