I don't recall ever calling the 'corner store' a Dep,.we always knew them by the names of the people that owned them,in anycase Dep's were a big part of our lives...cigarettes 2 for a nickel at Paul's on VerdunAv,.....Old Lady Crocker's with the homemade coca-cola popsicles and beat up used comics for sale or trade,...Oma's near VCHS ,as well as the other corner stores... anyway the gAzette had a story yesterday about 'Deps' and here it is:
MONTREAL - Everybody has a favourite depanneur. Usually it's the one closest to where we live, maybe just around the corner or at the end of the street or at the gas station on our way to work. The dep has to be close and it has to open early and shut late. It's where we go for that litre of milk for tomorrow's bowl of cereal, that case of beer for the hockey game, that packet of smokes or lucky lotto ticket or morning newspaper. It's where we expect to find a two-pack of toilet paper because we forgot to stock up the last time we went to Maxi. It's where, come summer, the kids can slide back the doors of the Nestlé cooler and grab a Mr. Freeze. It's where we expect to enter and exit in under a minute. It's a convenience store, except that this is Quebec and we call it a dep.
The one on my block is called Épicerie José. I've been a customer since 1997, when my wife and I and our baby daughter moved to this lovely, tree-lined stretch of Berri St. below the Duluth Ave. E. restaurant strip in the heart of the Plateau Mont-Royal. My wife grew up across the street and her sisters still live there. There were a lot of convenience stores in the neighbourhood back then. One was owned by my wife's aunt's husband. Across Duluth from where José's is now, it was called Chez Bourbonnais. It stayed in the family from 1967 to 1974, when a Portuguese immigrant bought the business, flipped the real estate and reopened the store on the corner of Berri and Duluth. And that's the way it stayed for years, through two generations.
Nine months ago, the dep changed hands again. The Portuguese sold the business (but not the building) to two Chinese immigrants. Same store name, same vast selection of Quebec microbrews, same cracked linoleum floors and grungy storage rooms, same landlord, different owners.
The one who spends the most time at the store is Jian "Joe" Zhou, a wiry young fellow with a buzz cut and delicate voice who keeps a Chinese-French dictionary in a box behind the counter for awkward moments when his customer's joual escapes him. Back in China, Zhou, 38, had it made; he was a chemical engineer seven years into a job that could have lasted a lifetime. But he grew restless and sought a change of scenery, preferably far, far away. His adventure brought him to Canada, where he earned another engineering degree, this time at Concordia University, and tried unsuccessfully to find work. No Canadian experience, the companies told him, no job. As a stopgap, Zhou went into business with a Chinese friend: a dep downtown at St. Marc St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd. That didn't work out, so he moved to Quebec City and took over another dep there. That lasted only a year; his mother in China got stomach cancer and Zhou had to sell the business and go back home temporarily to pay her medical bills (yes, Mao's communist paradise is now pay-your-way).
When he returned to Montreal, an agent found him Épicerie José.
Zhou has been there nine months and - with a five-year lease renewable to 15 and an apartment rented right next door where he lives with his wife - he thinks he'll stay a long time. Zhou puts in 60 hours a week at the store; his business partner, Li Ma - who was his landlord in Verdun before coming here - works 30 hours and moonlights at a hair-transplant clinic. They have two regular staff, both inherited from the previous owner. One is an old man who's been with the store for close to three decades, orders the big-brewery beer and, for what he called his own peace of mind, doesn't want his name or photo in the newspaper. The other is a curly-haired CEGEP student and beer aficionado who works two days a week and takes care of the microbrew orders.
On a Tuesday morning in May in the store's cluttered back office opposite the big beer fridge, I ask Zhou why he's in a business that eats up so much of his time and prevents him from looking for work as an engineer. It's not so bad, he replies; deps are less work than they seem.
"Actually, the business is pretty easy to organize," he said in English, his second language. "Today comes milk, tomorrow comes chips, the next day it's Loto-Québec - every day, the same routine. You have to work long hours, but that's it."
There's also the social side. "In Quebec, a dépanneur is a kind of community. People are friends here. They know you, they talk to you like you're a member of the family. They tell you about their daughter, their son, their neighbours, their neighbourhood - you always learn something. We communicate. Around here, I know everybody. When my customers come here, I know what they want."
We agree to meet early the next day, Wednesday. We'll be joined by freelance photographer Dario Ayala, who grew up in Honduras and can recall hanging out at the small general store his grandmother kept back then. We'll stay from morning to night to see life at the Épicerie as Zhou and his staff see it - minute by minute, hour by hour. Out of modesty, Zhou is reluctant to have his photo taken, but eventually he agrees. I tell him he's the face of the business now and people might as well get used to it. He tells me that not everyone wants to. One day, his wife, who doesn't speak French, was behind the cash when an old man came in, a regular customer from the old days. "He said, 'Why do you come here? You're supposed to stay in Chinatown,' Zhou recalls. " 'If you can't speak French, go to Toronto, get out of here.' It made her sad. Me, too."
This Wednesday starts at 7 a.m. when Zhou unlocks the front door and lets the Loto-Québec lady in. She comes every Wednesday, always around the same time, and she brings fresh packets of scratch tickets - 50-cent Mini, $2 Bingo, $5 La poule aux oeufs d'or - as well as a refill roll of paper for the 6/49 machine. After she leaves, and with his wife, Helen, minding the counter, Zhou hops in his car to go pick up fresh croissants and baguettes from Monsieur Pinchot, an artisanal bakery near Lafontaine Park. Still warm, they merit a spot up front in a Plexiglass display case. Zhou's wife leaves for work (she's a buyer for a clothing company), then Zhou waits for the microbrewery trucks to arrive - big names like Boréal and Unibroue and smaller ones like L'Alchimiste. Other days, there are deliveries of potato chips (Tuesday and Thursday), fresh milk (Monday and Thursday) and more beer (Monday and Tuesday).
Shortly past 8 a.m. a middle-aged woman bustles in and picks up a Journal de Montréal and a two-pack of light bulbs. She's Marie-Christine Tremblay, a Web-based lifestyles journalist. "I'm here every week, several times a day - the dépanneur is my friend," she says as she pays. "It's important to get along well with your dépanneur. I don't live far away and when I need a little something - milk, light bulbs, toilet paper, garbage bags and beer, of course - I come here. Whenever we're out of something, we come to the dépanneur."
Tony Prud'homme drives in once a week from Joliette to deliver L'Alchimiste beer to a dozen Montreal dépanneurs. This morning, Zhou takes 12 cases of 24 - not a big order, since the peak summer season hasn't yet hit. "The dépanneurs are better for us, because in supermarkets the big breweries like Molson and Labatt buy up a lot of floor space and squeeze us out," Prud'homme says after settling the account and wheeling some empties back to the truck. "Dépanneurs give us a better chance to be seen. That's why we're more present in depanneurs, even if the quantities are small."
A retiree with a shih tzu mutt on a leash pops in to pick up the previous night's loto results. Zhou has printed off a pile and left them by the cash, next to the sacks of barbecue charcoal and blank copies of Quebec rental leases, popular with landlords when they're signing up a new tenant in the area. The lady with the dog is Monique Saint-Jacques, she's 68 and she used to be a waitress. She comes to the dep every morning, same time, to see whether she's won anything. "I buy about $40-50 a month, just the Banco. Been coming here for about 15 years. I like this dépanneur; there are three or four around where I live, not far from here, but I come here because the people are always in a good mood, and that's important. When I was a waitress, I always had to smile, so I expect that, when I go into a store."
Another old shih tzu walker comes in, this time for a pack of smokes. He's Normand Barbier, semi-retired from running a mobile disco for weddings. He buys a pack of the cheapest cigarettes in the store: Viceroy, at $6.35. "I'm here every day," he says on the sidewalk outside. "It's really important, because sometimes you're in a bind and need something. Unfortunately I'm a smoker, so I need my cigarettes. Sometimes a soft drink, too; no alcohol, because I don't drink."
For lunch, Zhou unwraps a sandwich he brought from home and drinks some milk. In the backroom he reviews some surveillance video on a 16-angle, split-screen TV, freeze-framing the shoplifters who use his store as their hunting ground. He's seen young teenagers steal chocolate bars and candy, a homeless guy walk off with a vodka ice cooler, a well-dressed man conceal three bottles of wine under his sweater. If he catches the petty thieves in the act, Zhou kicks them out and tells them never to come back. Sometimes he calls police. He says he's never felt personally threatened.
Dépanneurs are a sinner's paradise. The stores do most of their business in booze, smokes and lotto tickets; groceries are almost a sideline. At Épicerie José, Zhou estimates his business is divided this way: Cigarettes: 28 per cent. Beer: 25 per cent. Groceries: 25 per cent Lotto: 16 per cent. Wine: 6 per cent. Judging by this Wednesday, however, it seems he's wildly overestimated the groceries. Most people come in for beer and cigarettes. Rarely do they stray into the racks of sundries that include scented candles, bandages, Pepto Bismol, cake mix and Tampax. One woman wearing a burgundy jersey comes in asking for a Brasserie Dieu du Ciel beer called Rosée d'hibiscus that's flavoured with the hibiscus flower. Her name is Nathalie Bélanger, she's a wine clerk at the SAQ, and she needs the beer for a PowerPoint presentation she's giving in the morning at the nearby Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec, where she's taking a course to be an accredited wine consultant. Hmm, the SAQ buying beer from the local dep - now, that's a twist. "They specialize in beer here, so I hoped they'd have it and they did," Bélanger explains. "It's no ordinary dépanneur."
"You can see the evolution of the Plateau in the customers that come here," says Simon Laroche, the CEGEP student who orders the micros and takes over from Zhou this mid-afternoon. "It used to be a French-speaking proletarian district, like something out of an old Michel Tremblay play. Now it's bilingual professionals, the typical Montreal bourgeoisie - architects, doctors, a lot of people from France. It's a real melting pot here; the business touches everyone."
A young man in shorts and T-shirt and body full of tattoos and piercings comes in and hovers by the wall of fridges that hold the microbrews. He's Olivier Dumais, a lamp-factory worker on a dinner date. His girlfriend is back at the restaurant ordering lobster; Dumais's job is to find the right specialty beer to go with it. He and Laroche are the same age. Laroche recommends a Framboise Triple fruit beer and a Dominus Vobiscum white beer, both at $4.99 a bottle and made by Les Frères Houblon, a Trois-Rivières microbrewery. Dumais takes both. "It's worth trying something good if you know you're going to eat well," he says before heading back to the restaurant. "This place has far more choice than the SAQ when it comes to Quebec beers. It's probably one of the best in the city."
I have supper at my sister-in-law’s down the street. She tells me more about the dep her uncle-in-law used to have. She remembers it more as a little restaurant with the grocery shelves off to the side, four stools and a counter at the front, and her mother and aunt serving the customers. She has a clear image of her aunt slicing cabbage for the coleslaw that went on the hotdogs. This was almost 40 years ago. No one these days goes into a dep expecting to find fresh coleslaw. Corned beef in a can from Brazil – that, José’s stocks. But fresh anything? Besides the croissants and baguettes, forget it.
At 9:30 p.m. Zhou comes back to the store. "Had a nap, had a shower and changed into some new clothes, had a Coke and now I’m back to close the place," he says. He bids goodbye to Laroche, who heads out to have a beer with friends before taking the metro back home to his parents in Laval. A few waiters come in for some last-minute items – a pack of smokes or a can of beer for themselves, some ice cream for the kitchen – and by 10:55 p.m. the only customers left are a pair of anglo college girls looking for a six-pack of wheat ale. While they take their time choosing, Zhou checks the Haagen-Dazs fridge and notices it’s running warm; he’ll have to get that fixed tomorrow. At 10:56 p.m. the Latino lady who runs the family daycare down the street dashes in for some supplies for her teenage daughter’s lunch. The Loto 6/49 machine shuts down automatically at 11 p.m. Then the college students pay for their beer – $10.75 for Blanche de Chambly – and Zhou locks the door as they leave. He empties the cash, tears off the day’s roll of receipts and tallies the totals.
Number of items sold: 1,038 (a case of beer counts as one). Number of clients: 444. Cigarettes sold best, then beer, then groceries, untaxed (things like milk and bread) and taxed. Then the lotto, the 6/49 outselling the scratch tickets 4 to 1. And lastly, 17 bottles of wine.
So the morning’s estimates weren’t far off. On this particular Wednesday, a rather slow day by Zhou’s account, the percentages broke down thus: smokes: 3 per cent; beer: 24 per cent; groceries: 15 per cent; lotto: 11 per cent; wine: 9 per cent.
Zhou draws the accordion gate across the racks of cigarettes behind the counter, turns out the fluorescent lights, turns off the radio that’s been blaring CKOI-FM pop all day, and turns off the overhead fans, slowing their blades with a broomstick. He hands Dario and me each a transparent bottle of a new brew, Montreal Premium Lager, as a gift. Then, disappearing down an aisle, he yells "Don’t move!" and switches on the alarm system. The next thing we know he’s hustling us out the door and onto the street.
When the key is finally turned and the grill is drawn and locked in front of the entrance, it’s 11:15 p.m. For Zhou and me, home is only a short stroll away. "So it’s the end of another day," I say to him. "And tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow, seven o’clock," he replies. "Another day. Same thing, every day."