By Sue Stefko
It may be no coincidence that the Abbas Grocery store is in the heart of the Glebe Annex neighbourhood – for many, Abbas Grocery is the heart of the neighbourhood. While the store fulfills the functions of a traditional convenience store, it does much more. It is a gathering place where friendships are formed as neighbours come by for a chat, where one goes to find out about goings-on in the neighbourhood.
The store’s owners, Mike and Radi Abbas, have a profound commitment to the community. This is shown in countless ways – through their support for the neighbourhood (such as helping to push the city to create the community’s only park in the early 1990s), donations to community events and the genuine concern they have for their customers. They deliver groceries to those who are mobility challenged, provide supplies to those in need (while making them feel that they would be doing the store a favour by “taking it off their hands”) and keep a watchful eye on their most vulnerable customers.
Marni Crossley, a long-time friend and customer, recalls a poignant example. Several years ago, a customer arrived at the store inappropriately dressed for winter weather and had difficulty remembering her PIN. Concerned for her well-being, the Abbas family reached out to Crossley to try to find out who this lady was and to see if she needed help. It turned out she was in the early stages of dementia – under the watchful eye of the community, she was eventually taken into care.
Howard Gervais, a regular at the store for almost 20 years, says many customers with mental health problems would have fallen through the cracks if not for the Abbas brothers. The brothers always ask to make sure customers are taking care of themselves, to make sure they’ve had something to eat.
Ever humble, the Abbas brothers are quick to point out that support goes both ways. After power outages, for instance, neighbourhood residents offer to help, asking if they can help keep food cold to prevent it from spoiling or if there’s anything else they can do to assist. While it may be a symbiotic relationship, most would agree that it’s the neighbourhood that benefits most.
The building itself at 344 Bell Street South has housed a corner store since it was built, probably in the 1920s. When the Abbas family took it over in 1963, it was one of five convenience stores in the neighbourhood. At the time, corner stores had an advantage over traditional grocery stores because they stayed open later and on Sundays, which made the moniker “convenience store” so fitting. While international chains now dominate the grocery business, stores then were usually family-run affairs.
Abbas was no exception. Brothers Mike and Radi have helped run the store since the beginning. Teenagers when their parents took over the store, they worked evenings and weekends. While they each took a turn away to pursue their own careers, they found their way back to the store in the 1980s when their parents were ready to retire. With the next generation, it continued to be a family affair – Radi’s wife Elaine came in to help every day for more than 20 years, starting her long work day after she got their three children to school in the mornings.
Over time, the store adapted to meet the needs of a changing population. Items such as bus tickets, stamps, magazines and video rentals all waxed and waned. In the early days, they had a full deli, making sliced meat sandwiches, chili, pizza, meatball subs and other hot meals. As the number of employees at nearby Natural Resource Canada buildings (their main customers) started to dwindle, the demand lessened. Nowadays, the deli section mostly consists of soup, sandwiches and salads. But they are one of few corner stores that always has produce on hand – onions, garlic, fresh fruit and vegetables. They are well aware that some of their customers, whether by reason of health or income, are not very mobile and depend entirely on Abbas for their daily needs.
Their commitment to the neighbourhood has not wavered during the more than 55 years that Abbas Grocery has been in the community. While Mike has largely retired, he and Radi both remain deeply connected to the neighbourhood, keeping a watchful eye and lending a helping hand.
Sue Stefko is president of the Glebe Annex Community Association.