Depanneurs pushed off corner

The name dépanneur is a Quebec creation from the verb dépanner, which means to make emergency repairs. In 1990, however, provincial legislation allowing large stores to open Sundays and weekday evenings robbed the dépanneurs of their chief advantage in providing an emergency fix. "It was a heavy blow. There were a lot of closings and bankruptcies," Mr. Servais said. Large supermarket chains have also become more competitive in beer sales, and the Quebec chain, Couche-Tard, Canada's largest convenience store operator, continues its rapid expansion of brightly lit but charmless shops.

National Post
November 21, 2003

Depanneurs pushed off corner
Film salutes Montreal's beloved corner stores that are falling prey to chains
Graeme Hamilton

MONTREAL - Whether you need a litre of milk or a paint brush, the morning paper or a half-price Star Wars ball cap, Marché Sureau can provide for you. Opened in 1939 by the late Raymond Sureau, now run by his son, Réal, the cramped store in Montreal's east end is typical of the dépanneurs that once seemed to occupy every second corner in the city.

But as consumers' tastes have changed and big grocery chains have extended their hours, stores like Marché Sureau, with its delivery bicycle propped out front, are slowly vanishing from the Montreal streetscape.

In a film that premiered to a long ovation at a Montreal documentary festival last week, Benoit Pilon follows the demise of one such store in his rapidly gentrifying Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood. Roger Toupin, épicier variété follows the final months before Roger Toupin's Berri St. store is sold and converted into an architect's office. The film company, Amazone Film, describes the project as the "chronicle of an endangered species of store."

In an interview, Mr. Pilon said he was inspired to make the film after watching Mr. Toupin minding his humble store, talking to friends, sipping coffee, playing the accordion and harmonica and, on a good day, making a sale. The film shows shelves stocked with some canned vegetables, Corn Flakes, juice and cleaning products. There are jars of penny candy that Mr. Toupin gives as treats to his ailing mother and behind the counter, jars of children's glue so old their contents have half-evaporated.

"It's so anachronistic. It's like another time, another place," Mr. Pilon said. "How could a place like that still be in operation in 2000? And how is it that this man is sitting out in front on his bench, playing harmonica and a neighbour joining in on the fiddle?"

Although he did not know it when he started filming, the truth was that the store's days were numbered. Once a bustling grocery store when Mr. Toupin's father opened it in 1939, supplying the large families on the street, it had become a museum piece in a neighbourhood taken over by young professionals.

"I felt I was losing the heart of the street," Mr. Pilon said. "It was something to have these people, knowing there was always an open door. There was a sense of community. Everybody on the street knew him.

"Things are changing. It's normal. We can't stop that, but we don't very often just stop and look at what we're losing…. Places like this don't exist any more."

Mr. Sureau does not entertain customers with a harmonica, his shelves are fully stocked and his cash register is a lot busier than Mr. Toupin's was, but his store is of the same era. He said business at the Gilford Street store is good and, at 60, he has no intention of selling.

He acknowledged, however, that things are a lot tougher than they were in his father's day. "There is big competition," he said, referring to supermarkets on nearby Mont-Royal Avenue. His father thrived on large orders from people who bought all their groceries there. Now Mr. Sureau has three elderly customers who are holdovers from his father's time. Otherwise, the business has become a lot less personal.

"Now you don't get people who are attached to you. It is young people who are in and out," he said.

Yves Servais, assistant director of the Association des marchands dépanneurs et épiciers du Québec, which represents about 1,000 independent grocers in the province, said the last decade has brought a "purging" of the province's dépanneurs. He said about 500 stores that belonged to his organization have closed.

The name dépanneur is a Quebec creation from the verb dépanner, which means to make emergency repairs. In 1990, however, provincial legislation allowing large stores to open Sundays and weekday evenings robbed the dépanneurs of their chief advantage in providing an emergency fix.

"It was a heavy blow. There were a lot of closings and bankruptcies," Mr. Servais said. Large supermarket chains have also become more competitive in beer sales, and the Quebec chain, Couche-Tard, Canada's largest convenience store operator, continues its rapid expansion of brightly lit but charmless shops.

Julie Gauthier, spokeswoman for another merchants' group, the Association des détaillants en alimentation du Québec, said dépanneurs need to change their image — and perhaps do a little more dusting — if they want to survive.

"There's an image of a dusty little dépanneur selling a can of tomatoes with dust on top. There are still some like that, but it's really a minority," Ms. Gauthier said. "If as a customer I have a shabby, little dépanneur next door and a Couche-Tard that is bright and clean a block farther, I think the choice is easy."

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