Before it closed on Christmas Eve, shoppers who stepped into Harry’s Variety were greeted by a handmade sign that said THANKS beside a big red number 30.
Decorated with white flowers, and all of it hand-carved from Styrofoam, the sign was made by Guang Yuh Chern as a thank-you for the 30 years that he and his wife Yen Man ran the Gerrard Street corner store two blocks west of Woodbine Avenue.
It was a fitting goodbye for a mom and pop where the coffee counter, cigarette cupboards and blue lotto ticket holders were also hand-made by Guang, and a sign of the store’s next life as a studio for his art.
Speaking on one of her last days behind the counter, and two days before Guang turned 65, Yen said they were in their thirties and just getting set to raise a family when they bought Harry’s Variety and the house above.
“Nobody else would want to stay in this business so long,” she said. “We’re crazy!”
Between them, Yen and Guang kept the shop open 365 days a year, she said, including a few hours on Christmas Day.
“People in the neighbourhood need things for parties,” Guang explained, looking serious.
“Oh come on!” said Yen, laughing.
Yen remembers a time when Guang, who studied fine arts in their native Taiwan, was away teaching a Chinese brush painting class and their two young children got sick with flu.
Regular customers came to the rescue, Yen said, minding the counter while she ran to the back on diaper duty.
It was only five years ago that her daughter Annie and son Azure, now a teacher and a web designer, started working Saturdays so the rest of the family could get time off together.
“Luckily, they turned out okay,” Yen said, noting how fortunate they were to have Bowmore Road public school just blocks away.
“But I think I put too much energy into it – this is 15, 16 hours of work.”
Long hours aside, it’s getting more and more difficult to run a store like Harry’s Variety.
Back in 1984, Yen said Gerrard Street had seven convenience stores from Coxwell to Woodbine.
“Right now you see one or two,” she said. “It’s hard to survive.”
Guang listed a few reasons why – larger stores got Sunday shopping, cigarette makers have cut back on their discounts, and Ontario’s switch to a harmonized sales tax raised the cost of wholesale goods.
But the most significant change, they both agreed, is how many people now do all their shopping at supermarkets and big-box stores.
James Shakley is not one of them.
When he walked in, Yen stopped to introduce him as “Mr. Shakley, our biggest customer.
“He’s so kind and generous,” she said. “He’s been coming in every day for 30 years – you never see a customer like him!”
Besides wanting to support a store that is a short walk from his house in Beach Hill, not to mention the fact that the Cherns specially ordered his favourite popcorn, Shakley said he had a simple reason for becoming a regular.
“The people are very nice, that’s why,” he said. “I think most of their business is because people actually like them.”
For their part, Guang and Yen said they decided to stay in their home, noting what a friendly neighbourhood Beach Hill is, and how much the local neighbourhood association has done in the last two years to spruce up Gerrard and start more community events.
Yen said she plans to rest, but also to help her sister take care of her 94-year-old father and her 89-year-old mother, who live in Pickering.
Guang, meanwhile, is looking forward to what he can do after turning the shop’s 1,000 square feet of floor space into a studio.
After winning a national prize for his watercolours while at Taipei’s National Taiwan University, Guang taught fine arts for five years at a teacher’s college in eastern Taiwan.
Later, when he and Yen resettled in Toronto where they felt their children would have more opportunity, Guang continued teaching part-time for seven more years. He was also asked to make sculptures and a logo for the Toronto Taiwanese Community Association.
And Guang started to build furniture – everything from his kids’ bunk beds to the kitchen table – even though his only work space was their crowded basement.
Recently, a regular at Harry’s Variety told Guang he had better keep the shop’s coffee machine – he will need it to host small art shows in Beach Hill like the student exhibitions he used to run every year in Scarborough.
“It’s a good idea,” Guang said, adding that he knows quite a few artists in Beach Hill, and would like to run shows as a community fundraiser.
Yen agreed the studio is a great idea, especially if it means cleaning up the basement.
“But don’t expect too much,” she said, laughing. After 30 years, it’s time they had a break.