It was just a few months ago that the all-consuming topic up and down Commercial Drive was the impending death of local independent businesses.
You may recall that panic set in with news of the imminent closing of the much-loved Little Nest Restaurant on Charles Street. Owner Mary Macintyre said in May that her restaurant – a popular spot for neighbourhood mothers with babies and toddlers – would be closed by July. Her rent, she explained, had more than doubled in the six years she had been open and as a result, the business was no longer sustainable at its original location.
One might question the sustainability of a restaurant that is open for just seven hours a day and caters largely to a clientele that by definition has no disposable income, being the aforementioned babies and toddlers. Whatever. The point is that her rent went up – a lot.
Today, Little Nest is still open, by the way. Ms. Macintyre says an investor came along shortly before the July deadline and threw the business a lifeline. She is renting month to month while she looks for a new location. She says she will be gone from Charles Street by February at the latest.
But the plight of Little Nest quickly became a symbol of a larger problem – some independent businesses on The Drive were having a rough go of it. Some were forced to close. The discussion expanded to the changing character of the neighbourhood, and the yuppification of a commercial district that has always worn its rough edges with pride. A neighbourhood that had wrestled the notorious East Van cross from the hoodlums and embraced it as a brand.
This week, I'm happy to report that the rumours of the death of The Drive have been greatly exaggerated, and that the white knight leading the retail resurgence is every bit as unlikely as the East Van cross being used as a marketing tool. It is this: bongs. They're everywhere.
There appears to be a limitless appetite for insanely ornate glass vessels used to smoke marijuana, or if you prefer, hashish (although hash is hard to come by, I'm told).
Any regular visitor to The Drive may have witnessed firsthand the bong creep. More and more shelf space in convenience stores has been taken over by bongs, pipes, vaporizers, scales and all other manner of pot paraphernalia. You might expect it at the Star News Tobacco Store, which already deals in combustibles, but down the street at Coastal Food Mart, bongs and hookahs stretch to the ceiling at the back.
The Seven Days Convenience store also has an ample collection of things to help you get high. Even the dimly lit and ironically named Commercial Drive Food Store – which has little in the way of food beyond staples such as gum – has a respectable selection.
What's going on is not yet a full-blown bong war, but I get the feeling that shopkeepers are keeping an eye on each other.
One of the brightest additions (literally) to the Commercial Drive retail landscape of late is a new bong store called Smoker's Corner, which opened three weeks ago (and where all products "are intended for lawful use only.")
This is a vast and mirrored store illuminated by white-hot LED light-strips that are so bright the sushi restaurant across the street asked that they be dimmed.
Say you want a giant glass bong that looks like a saxophone? They have it. An animal pipe? You bet! Vertebrate or invertebrate? A bong attached to a gas mask? Check. The showstoppers are the hand-blown glass "creatures" created by artist Wes Richards of Seattle, whose work has been referred to as "bong porn." They go for up to $1,200.
The store is the sort of place where people use phrases like "bong culture." They have a weekly special called "Toker's Tuesday." You get the idea.
Down the street, what until recently was the location of Ten Thousand Villages – a store that sold the fair trade wares of hard-working villagers in developing countries – is now, yes, a bong store. It's called Puff. It also features handmade artisanal bongs of all shapes and sizes, vaporizers, accessories, and its own line of clothing, which I'm sure is also made by hard-working villagers.
So clearly, the key for any struggling business on The Drive is to jump on the bong-wagon.
Perhaps soon, in the way Gore-Tex has defined a portion of West Broadway or snow-boards parts of 4th Avenue, bongs will define Commercial Drive, and eventually save it from going to pot.
Or, you know what I mean.