A year and a half ago, the tiny Niagara Grocery in James Bay was in dire need of help. The store, café and community meeting place, which prided itself on stocking locally sourced and organic products, was in danger of being closed as the building it called home was being sold out from under it.
Today the store, which has new owners and a new name — the Niagara Market — looks better than it has in years. It has been refitted, painted and redesigned. The building and its two second-floor apartments have been gutted and rebuilt and a new courtyard has started to take shape to give the community a new spot to meet.
It’s no stretch to say it’s been given new life.
“This is a community meeting place, and that’s one of the things that drew us to the store in the first place,” said Jennifer Gunter, who bought the building with partner Seamus McKeating. “Coming from a small town [Kaslo in the Kootenays home to about 1,000 people], we really fell in love with James Bay and the part of the community this store really was and we wanted to be a part of keeping that going.”
Gunter said since they started work on the building nearly 18 months ago, the community has rallied around them. “We’re excited about creating this community gathering place and connecting people with local farmers and local producers.”
McKeating agrees, noting stores like this used to be what cemented communities together.
“They are where everyone used to gather, and when we built big-box stores we lost that,” he said. “Without them there is a missing link, a disconnect when people are all shopping and doing work and things away from their neighbours.”
In the fall of 2015, then store owner Jen McKimmie, who had been unable to come up with a plan to buy the building, was looking at moving the store and shutting it down. The building that houses the store and an adjacent property with a derelict house had been put up for sale by owner Hang Yu Lee.
Lee stipulated the two properties were to be sold together and wanted $1.3 million for the properties — 581 Niagara St., which houses the grocery on the ground floor and two suites on the second floor, and the derelict property at 68 Government St., a 105-year-old house.
That price was too rich for McKimmie, and initially was too rich for McKeating and Gunter.
But McKeating realized while he couldn’t afford to buy both properties, he could afford the building that housed the grocery and just needed to find someone to buy the adjoining property at the same time.
His real estate agent did just that. Then the work began. The derelict house was demolished and McKeating, a carpenter, started renovating the adjoining property. It took more than a year to finish the apartments — both of which have since been rented — before they could start work on the store.
They had hoped it would just require some esthetic work, but it soon became clear it had to be redone — all electrical and plumbing replaced, floors and all shelving and fixtures removed. New shelves were built and put on casters to allow for easy movement for cleaning and so the store could be used for other things such as meetings, classes and workshops. A small kitchen was added so prepared food could be offered and then the esthetic touches were added.
When the store closed, the staff were out of work. McKeating hired them to help work on the property. The store now has 10 staff.