Thursday, September 29, 2016

The story of the Fisher Park neighbourhood store

The little store on Harmer Avenue across the Fisher Park field has been a part of life for this part of Wellington Village for a long time. A surprisingly long time, as my research revealed. The store is now a take-out restaurant in the form of Carlo’s Pizzeria, which has a cult-following amongst many westenders (and many of my high school friends). I love Carlo’s myself, but a part of me sure misses the corner store that was here until the late 1990s, which was a significant landmark for me as a kid. It was in just the right spot to assure you could pick up candy or a freezie after playing sports at Fisher, or if you ran extra-fast to school in the morning, you could sneak in a quick detour for candy on the way to class. As a 8 or 9-year old, there was a definite art to that, and a pride in its successful execution! The store probably holds similar memories for generations of Fisher and Elmdale kids I’m sure.

And I think that’s what makes it all the more special, is that this store really was dedicated to the neighbourhood immediately adjacent to Fisher Park. For those living north of Byron, they would have had options on Wellington Street, and Fisher Park creates a natural barrier for those east of Holland. That’s not to say people didn’t come from beyond the immediate borders to shop at the store, but really it was a shop for the small Elmdale community. In fact, their only store; the only shop to ever exist between Harmer, Island Park, Byron and the Queensway.

I wasn’t sure how old the store was, or what it’s history was. I actually assumed it may have only dated back to the 60s or 70s, and had been converted from a dwelling house. So I was surprised to learn that indeed it was built specifically as a store, and had been in operation as one dating all the way back to 1922!

As I’ve written about before here, the neighbourhood first began with the incredible auction of lots in June of 1919 (more on that here: Telegrapher Joseph Ferdinand Turcotte purchased lots 2168 and 2169 fronting Harmer at the corner of Kenora, with auction bids of $325 and $350 respectively. Two years later, in March of 1921, he flipped the lots for $75 total profit to Nepean bricklayer Frederick Hammond. A lot of real estate investing happened here during the heady days of the 1920s, as the hundreds of lots in the Wellington Village area were traded and sold like stocks. Occasionally, a buyer would actually build on the lot they’d purchased, and so this finally happened on January 4th, 1922, when Edward and Lillian Sullivan purchased lot 2169 on the corner from Hammond for $500.

Edward Sullivan was 34 years old at the time (born in 1888) and had a varied career prior to opening the store. He and his wife Lillian had married in 1917, and he’d been listed as a “wood dealer” on the marriage certificate. The 1921 census listed him as a railway fireman, and directories showed he worked with the Canadian National & the Grand Trunk Railway. The Sullivan family had quite a presence on tiny Oxford Street in Hintonburg. Edward and Lillian had lived at 26 Oxford after marrying, next door to Edward's family home at 28 Oxford. Edward appears to have been one of the first of 11 siblings to marry; by 1921 there were still 7 Sullivan sons and 1 daughter all aged 18 to 32 years old, and living at home. All the boys were either weavers at the Capital Wire Cloth building on Hinton Avenue, or carpenters.

Back to Harmer Avenue, the permit for the construction of 60 Harmer was taken out in March of 1922, and construction would have occurred throughout 1922. Sullivan himself, likely with the aid of his contractor brothers, constructed the building. Building costs were partially financed by a $1,500 mortgage that was registered in August.

March 31, 1922 - a cropped portion
of a longer article listing all of the
largest building permits issued in Ottawa
in March, including Sullivan's store

The store was complete and open for business by November 14th, 1922. That specific date is known because that was the date that the post office opened for the new neighbourhood, known as “Ottawa Sub #18”. Sullivan was the Postmaster, and here the new residents, who were just beginning to acquire key infrastructure such as sewers, water and sidewalks, could now also pick up their mail close-by.

The shop functioned as a grocery store and general store, and like most of the shops of the era, did not have a name, it would have simply been known as “Edward Sullivan’s”.

October 23, 1923 ad - the first published listing of the
Sullivan corner store, from a Weston's Bakery ad.

The Sullivans resided upstairs from the store, where they raised their two children (daughter Margaret born in 1921 and son Stuart born in 1926).

I tried hard to find a vintage photograph of the store, and even managed to speak with a couple of Edward Sullivan's descendants, but without any luck. The best I can come up with from all my sources are simply a few aerial shots from the early days:

May 10, 1928

Above is a photo of the store (in about the center of the photo). Harmer Avenue can be seen running top to bottom, with Kenora running to the right at the top, and the streetcar tracks and a very primitive version of Byron Avenue at bottom. There is a collection of little white objects near the corner of Byron, I can't tell what they are. But this photo shows the completed store, and the emptiness of the rest of the block.

In August of 1925, with business going well, Sullivan acquired the vacant neighbouring lot to the north from Hammond, for $500, reuniting the pair of lots Turcotte had bought at the 1919 auction.

It was in the same year as the photo above (1928), that Sullivan took out a mortgage for $5,000 against the north lot, and built the brick three-level multi-unit home at 58 Harmer Avenue. The mortgage was taken out in November, and an aerial photo of the block from November 4th captures 58 Harmer under construction:

November 4, 1928

Construction was completed by early 1929, and the Sullivans moved into the main floor of the new house, and rented out the 2nd floor of the store, as well as the top two floors of 58 Harmer, to tenants (including Lillian's sister Esther as their long-term tenant of the 3rd floor of #58). They continued to operate the store and post office at 60 Harmer.

Ottawa Citizen - September 1, 1931 - A bit of an odd
ad; I assume it was for some kind of delivery boy?

By 1932, the store had become part of the "Victoria Independent Stores" chain of 600 stores in eastern Canada from Ottawa to Nova Scotia, which conducted some manufacturing, but was mainly organized to centralize purchasing, distribution, merchandising and advertising.

February 4, 1932 Ottawa Journal

Here is a photo from May of 1933, showing the block now significantly more built up, including the store and house at the corner of Kenora:

Harmer at Kenora - May 5, 1933

In 1932, the Sullivans had an agreement to sell 60 Harmer to Emile Otto Tobalt. Indeed Tobalt did take over operating the store on June 23rd, 1932, and did so until May 2nd, 1938. In the mid-1930s, he began using the name "Elmdale Grocery" for the shop, and this name stuck for many years. Tobalt would have a sad end to his life a few years later. While bicycling north over the Bank Street bridge on October 7th, 1949, the 65-year old Tobalt was hit by a truck which was trying to pass in a narrow space between Tobalt and a streetcar. He died from his injuries that evening. The truck driver, who claimed he was unaware he had hit a cyclist, was informed of the incident later that night. He was later charged with dangerous driving, but in the Spring of 1950 a jury found him not guilty after just 15 minutes of deliberation.

In May of 1938, after Tobalt had resigned as postmaster and shopkeeper, Lillian Sullivan took over both roles. This may have been because her husband Edward had opened up two other shops in Ottawa: the O'Connor Service Store downtown at 120 O'Connor Street near Laurier, and a grocery-butcher shop at 1136 Carling Avenue near Fisher Avenue. Neither lasted too long, and by 1943, the Sullivans were out of the grocery store business altogether. They had moved up Harmer to #23 Harmer by 1937, and at this point were renting out the store and 58 Harmer next-door. In fact, these two buildings would remain in the Sullivan family until 1978.

April 13, 1940 - An ad for B-H
Paint at the Elmdale Grocery.

On July 6th, 1942, the Sullivans left the Elmdale Grocery, and it was soon taken over by Walter Thomas Scott. He would take over as neighbourhood Postmaster as well, until the post office was shut down on March 3rd, 1944, and merged into the post office at what was then #1307 Wellington Street (J.N. Harmer's Drug Store at the corner of Smirle - now Petit Bill's Bistro).

Scott's lasting legacy from this era is a story of selling overpriced eggs! During wartimes, the Prices Board of Ottawa set caps on how much could be charged for certain foods. In November of 1942, Walter Scott was dragged into municipal court and charged with selling eggs at 65 cents and 63 cents a dozen (eggs could be charged no more than 60 cents per dozen). Scott claimed he was innocent "I really did not know I was breaking the law" he said, "I think the Prices Board bulletins are not as clear and concise as they should be for busy storekeepers." In January, the court set down fines of $10 plus $2 costs for each of the eight shopkeepers found guilty of this offense, including Scott. The Judge argued that though "there was no attempt on the part of the grocers involved to make any large profit...what they did do was not pay sufficient attention to the notices they received from the Prices Board." He did not feel a large fine was necessary, and chose to fine just the $10 as a warning.

May 13, 1948 - top half of ad

By mid-1945, the store was operated by Michael Vice, who resided at 52 Helena.

By mid-1948, John Bergeron was operating the store, which began to appear in ads and listings as the "Elmdale Groceteria". Bergeron sold meats and groceries.

On December 28, 1951, Lillian Sullivan passed away. The property and buildings which had always been listed in her name, were transferred to her sister Esther and son Stuart. This seemed odd since Edward Sullivan was still alive, however grandson Geoff Warren explained that his grandfather Edward mysteriously disappeared around this time, and was missing and presumed dead for years. Geoff himself had been raised to believe that he had died. It was only after Edward actually died in 1982 (at age 94) that it was revealed to Geoff that three years earlier, Edward had been found by his children, living a new, secret life, with a wife and child in Quebec. An odd ending to the story of the man who built the impressive buildings at the corner of Harmer and Kenora.

I was hopeful that the family would have old photos of the store, but nothing could be found. Geoff does still own a silver tea service that his grandfather had won through the store during the 1930s or 1940s, in a contest for selling the most bread. Perhaps one of the most interesting tidbits Geoff was able to share was the fact that around 1950, new neighbours had moved in next to the Sullivans on Harmer Avenue (this was when they were living at #23), and this young kid would be seen around their home often. This kid was Peter Jennings, future well-known ABC TV news reporter and host.

Stuart Sullivan ended up owning the store and large house next door until 1978, but he always found shopkeepers to actually operate the store. In 1952, the store was being managed by Vincent O'Leary.

Ad from the 1951-52 Fisher Park High School Yearbook

In July of 1954, chain grocery stores began to open up in major cities, including Ottawa, and to compete with this significant enemy of the neighbourhood corner store, many of the independent shops in Ottawa (40 in all) banded together and formed a local alliance known as Allied Food Markets, to use their combined buying power to purchase foods wholesale for lower prices, and to share in advertising and distribution. The Elmdale Grocerteria was not part of the initial group of 40, but by November had signed on, and a "Grand Opening" was held on November 11th.

November 10, 1954

The store went through several minor changes throughout the following twenty years. In 1956, it became the "Parkway Confectionery", and was operated by Charles Dalglish.

A lease signed in February of 1960 stated that commencing March 1, 1960, George Tannis Nesrallah had a 5-year lease for the store, paying rent of $960 per year.

April 1961 - view from west looking east. That is Harmer
running left to right, and Kenora running towards the bottom.

Nesrallah did not last long in the shop. In 1962, it was taken over my Mike Ayoub-Karam and his wife Mounira. Mike had been running Karam Confectionery at 115 Lees for a couple of years prior to moving on to Harmer Avenue. He quickly renamed the store "Fisher Food Centre", though it soon after became better known as "Mike's Store".

On July 31st, 1978, Stuart Sullivan sold the store and house, having grown tired of the landlord business. Nephew Geoff Warren noted that his uncle was not an overly handy person, and always hired workers to do any work required. He also grew tired of the demands and complaints of tenants, and simply decided to retire early. He had been an appraiser with CMHC as a career, and could retire comfortably at the time.

The new owners of the property were Mike and Mounira, who after being tenants for the past 16 years had obviously decided to buy the property for themselves. Mike and Mounira over their almost 30 total years in the shop would become very well known to the neighbourhood, and those of us who remember the store from the 1980s can't possibly forget them. The store became known as "Mike's Store", and it had a lunch counter, groceries, candy and anything else a kid could want. For me personally it was THE place to buy hockey cards, gum and candy. Mike had a hilarious personality, always joking, yet also a little crusty to scare away any kids who would attempt any horseplay in his store.

What actually prompted this article to be written was that a few weeks back someone mentioned to me that they had stumbled across a video of Mike on Youtube. I didn't believe it until I saw it myself. Thankfully someone filmed a home movie during this great era of the store, showing Mike joking around at the store back in 1986, and not only has the tape survived, but it has been uploaded it to Youtube! I encourage you to check this great footage out at: What's great about it is this is exactly how I remember the store, and of course Mike himself.

Here is a screencap from the video, showing the front of the store!

Mike's Store in 1986 (Source: Youtube video)

Here is another vintage shot of the store, from 1991, during the final days of Mike's ownership.

Fisher Food Centre - June 5, 1991
(Ottawa Archives CA-24763)

On November 6th, 1991, Mike and Munira sold the store to Masood Chavami and Mostafa Vahdaty. I don't remember the early 90s version of the store, and how different it became.

I was sad to look-up and find that Mike died back on August 17th, 2003 at the young age of 63 from cancer. His obituary noted that he had 34 nieces and nephews, and 39 great-nieces and nephews, but no children of his own. Perhaps that's why he appeared to get joy out of running the store, that the kids of the neighbourhood were kind of the kids he never had.

On December 10th, 1996, a large fire at the south-east corner of Wellington and Holland saw the total destruction of four businesses, including Joynt's Pharmacy and the original Carlo's Pizza.

Carlo's Pizza fire - December 10, 1996
Source: Ian A. McCord (Flickr)

In 1997, Carlo's Pizzeria re-opened at 60 Harmer Street, and they have remained in this location ever since - now closing in on 20 years here. Still a hidden gem in the west end, well-loved by its many regular customers. What an interesting 95 years this building has experienced, and as recently as 2005, the owners built an extensive residential addition onto the back of 60 Harmer (3 Kenora Street), indicating that the restaurant and store likely still has quite a number of years of life still to go. I can't imagine the neighbourhood without it!

*** Edit: Not long after I posted this article, James Hale posted to the comments section noting that he had written about the store for Ottawa Magazine back in 1984. I managed to track down a copy of his column "Citylife" from the August 1984 issue, and have posted it at this link:  Thanks James, great article!


  1. Back when I had the back page column in Ottawa Magazine I wrote about the store and the place it held in the neighbourhood. A couple of years after it came out I stopped by the store and had an interesting conversation with Mike about the store's history and my experiences with his predecessor who ran the store in the '60s.

  2. What a great article with all that history! I remember it as Mikes! I just lived over on Helena Street.

  3. Thank you for this story! I remember Mike so well from the 80's. I would walk by his store daily on the way home from Elmdale school. We would get Swedish berries in a paper bag for a penny each!!!

  4. Great article. As a student at FPHI in the 70's I remember the store and Mike.

  5. My dad was the owner of fisher food his name was monies but people called him Mike. My favorite times of my life were in that area and store. Weven used to peel potatoes everyday and my father used to help kids a lot when they wouldn't have money for French fries and also helped out kids in the school with little scholarships. It's literally one of my favorite times ever and I will never forget it. I sill drive by it all the time and remember me and the family owning it in the early 90s then he sold it to the Carlos pizza owner

    1. I'm almost in tears lol. Loved that place so much and the neighborhood

    2. I'm almost in tears lol. Loved that place so much and the neighborhood

    3. I'm almost in tears lol. Loved that place so much and the neighborhood

    4. Unfortunately Mike didn't have any kids, but it's kind of you to think so.

  6. What a remarkable amount bit of sleuthing you undertook go put this together. I lived on Caroline Avenue and despite being over the "cut off" boundary for Fisher Park, I was able to register for Grade 11 and 12. Of course, going to Park by the school during the summer and skating in the winter, I knew this store and their candy selection well. Thank you for posting this throwback to my youth

  7. I remember Mike's well, he used to call everyone blondie in his thick Lebanese accent!

  8. I'm the "Interviewer" in that video of Mike's Store. Dave Shmelzer was filming it with Derek Threinen. We were of course joking around and Mike loved that we wanted him to chase us out of the store. We had a lot of fun with Mike and have great memories, great article.

    1. Hi Dave/Tim & James, can't thank you enough for posting all this, including that video - finally came across it this past while and shared it with my family members, including my father (Mike's older brother). It certainly brought back memories for us all, he was well loved and along with Aunt Monira, treated us well (spoiled to be sure).

      It was always a treat to visit him and hang out at the counter while he teased the kids and chatted with neighbours. BTW They lived in the 3 story home beside the store up until a few years after he passed - you can bet he's sorely missed, which makes this all the more poignant. Monira is still doing well and I will be sure to share this with her and the rest of the umpteen nephews & nieces.

      Thanks, Elie

      P.S. I have a scan of another interview article, I'll have to dig it up and get it linked in as well

  9. Great story about a place that is so much a part of my life! Living over by Clarendon and Helena, I didn't really 'discover' this gem until I was going to Connaught Public School for Grade 7 and 8! I became a real fan and was in Mikes almost every day until I graduated FPHS and moved away. Any time I am in that area I detour just a bit to drive by the store! Thanks for this history!

  10. Wow - great article - grew up eating carlos, hardly remember the fire. When I went to Fisher it was a middle school by then and we would spend all our allowance and babysitting money on freezies, poutine and that darn good pizza. Thank you for the story