For some months now we have been reporting that the Wonderbucks store at 1803 Commercial is about to close due to staggering rent increases. The closing date is just a couple of weeks away now, and there are signs and rumours swirling around about how this is a much bigger development play than it seemed at first.
There are stories being told that a number of alternatives were suggested to the building owner, alternatives that would have increased his current revenue; but that he turned them all down. There are rumours that a deal with a major pharmacy chain fell through (as if the Drive needs more pharmacies!). Now, I’m being told, the tenants in the apartment block next to Wonderbucks have been handed eviction notices.
This begins to smell like a major land assembly operation going on here. It could just be a coincidence, I know, but history teaches that there are very few genuine coincidences.
When asked about an earlier development in a different block, City planner Andrew Pask assured me there were strict guidelines on assembly in Commercial Drive; and I am certain that a frontage stretching a full half-block would not fit within those guidelines. But who knows these days?
Both these buildings in that half-block have significance for the cultural history of the neighbourhood. The wide single-storey structure occupied by Wonderbucks was built in 1924 by Alexander Fraser and his brothers to house their Crystal Dairy. The rear of the building housed stables for horses and sheds for their delivery wagons. By the mid-1930s they were the largest independent dairy in Vancouver. On the Commercial Drive side, they ran a hugely popular milk and ice cream bar which was upgraded several times in the 1940s and early 1950s to compete with other youth spots in town.
Unfortunately, the economics of the dairy industry created a need for consolidation, The Fraser family sold out to Palm Dairy which in turn was swallowed up by Turner Dairies. The Commercial Drive operation was seen as surplus to requirements and was essentially shut down in 1952. By 1955, the building was owned by the Acme Novelty Company also trading as Select Music Company, and they sold coin-operated equipment until 1968. After that, it was an Italian dance hall called the Melodi for a while, and by the mid-1970s it had became home to a succession of cheap produce stores. Now, it has been the delightful Wonderbucks for almost two decades.
Next door, at what is now the Salonika Restaurant on the ground floor and two stories of apartments above, we have a slightly longer history as the original building dates from 1912. However, the success rate for businesses was not high here and there was a rapid turnover, mostly of furniture stores. In 1928, Harry Hipwell bought out the owner of the Grandview Furniture Exchange and for the next twenty years, he and his family operated a furniture and, later, appliance store from this building. When they closed the branch in the 1950s, one “new and used furniture” store followed another into the space in quick succession. The building was badly damaged by a storage fire in 1968 and was vacant for a few years. Eventually some Italian coffee bars moved in from the 1970s through the 1990s, and most recently, a Greek restaurant has taken up the storefront.
These cultural and social histories are important components of what make our community so interesting and special. Some, like the Wonderbucks building, are important enough to fight to keep.