Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Variety Store That Maybe Isn't



It was one of those places I’d walked past at least a hundred times en route to my favourite tragic east end mall (which just happens to have one of the best dollar stores going). It was called Rayman’s Variety, and according to the sign it specialized in West Indian and African groceries and cosmetic products. It was stuffed to the rafters with boxes and bottles and, well, how do I put this, from the looks of things inventory didn’t exactly turn over quickly. Then one day I looked in and things had changed. But only kind of. The sign was still there, the rusty bars on the windows were still there, but about 98% of the stock had been removed. The tired old walls and floors had been ripped out, but it wasn’t exactly clear what was going on, though something clearly was. Or more like unclearly.

In the weeks that followed I noticed some handwritten signage. It said ‘940 Variety’. 940 was the address on Gerrard Street East and ‘variety’ suggested it was continuing in its convenience store tradition, but in what appeared to be a more customer friendly incarnation.


Earlier this week I was walking by and noticed that the door was open so I walked in. Inside I truly found variety: chips, cold drinks, used records and books, a rack with new clothes, and coffee being sold for $1 a cup. But this wasn’t just one more example of an old place being hipsterized. It wasn’t that straightforward.


There was only one person in the store, and he wasn’t a customer. He was a guy in the midst of some store-related carpentry. I said hi and complimented him on the renewed interior. He seemed like a friendly guy who was open to some conversation so I went with that. I asked him how things were going at the store. He said things were a work in progress. He pointed at the racks of chips and said that they weren’t really making their money on those. Not a big surprise there. He pointed to the opposite wall and said they’d recently added used records and books to their wares.


This was a guy who clearly goes with a flow, as opposed to a plan. And I mean that in the best possible way. He then told me about his idea to do a version of the Tiny Desk concerts, which are exactly what they sound like; i.e. concerts done behind a tiny desk that feature artists ranging from up and comers to stars such as Chance The Rapper and Adele.



His would be tiny counter concerts instead, and he showed me where the singer would be and then pointed to another area where the rest of the band would be located.I asked him about the back area he was pointing to, as it was still being worked on. He told me about some of his plans for fixing it up. He said they had already done a few shows and social events on the premises -- with the appropriate liquor licenses and approvals of course – and said that maybe that would be the way forward for 940.

I was reminded of one of the coolest places I’d ever seen, which was a secret high end sneaker shop in downtown Boston. But this one didn’t advertise, or even have a sign. You had to know where it was, because it was hidden behind an unmarked storefront that was stocked with faded paper towel packages and cleaning supplies. One of those places you would only pick up in your peripheral vision, if at all. But if you knew someone who was in the know you could find out where this place was. But that wasn’t enough. You then had to know where the magical door was, the one that led you to a secret world of sneakerhead riches.


I told the proprietor of 940 about it and he seemed sincerely intrigued. He even had a bit of a twinkle in his eye as he mulled the possibilities. What struck me was how open he was to possibilities. I mean, how many people sign a lease on a retail space and then essentially run a series of experiments, to see what works. It may sound crazy, but it’s the brick and mortar version of the pivot of the startup world. When something doesn’t work in the tech world it’s not seen as a failure, but as an opportunity to correct one’s course. Provided that the pivot is executed quickly enough. It’s all part of the break things, fail fast mindset of entrepreneurs. Failing fast, as has been pointed out, isn’t about the big issues, it’s about the little ones. It acknowledges that there are many dials in front of you and that you will be tweaking them for a while before things click into gear.


Before leaving 940 Variety I asked the proprietor-carpenter it would be okay if I took a few pictures and he said by all means (those are the ones you see here). Then I told him that the next time I’m there I fully expect to be able to press on the cold beverage case at the back and marvel as it becomes the portal to an as of yet not figured out universe. Or something else entirely.