Winter scenes on Cootes Paradise

Contrary to the industrial stereotype of Hamilton, a great natural resource can be found west of downtown: the Cootes Paradise wetland area including Princess Point and the Westdale Ravine, all part of the Royal Botanical Gardens organization.

Living in an urban environment, the feeling is one must travel some distance to find peaceful isolation. Not so. It’s too easy to forget about this natural setting only minutes away.

While the sound of traffic humming along Highway 403 never abates, given the right conditions, it can be obscured. Such was the case this week. There had been snow over the weekend and temperatures remained well below zero. The ice on Cootes Paradise was once again thick and solid, invitingly calling for winter wanderings.

With the weather app on my phone indicating -11C and the winds gusting strongly, it was cold. Really cold! Mistakenly, I browsed my phone gloveless for 30 seconds, resulting in a hand that needed 10 minutes to recover full functionality. It was a slightly painful reminder of just how vulnerable one can be in such an environment, even only minutes away from home. But layers of technical clothing was an effective insulator and kept me cozy while wondering how people survived in similar conditions hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Overcoming the usual uneasy feeling of venturing out on ice for the first time, I made my way west from Princess Point towards Cootes Drive. About halfway the sound of the highway was buffeted away by the gusting wind. Facing west, there were few signs of urban life. Only some distant electrical towers and a few houses on the edge of the Dundas escarpment. Ignoring this and letting my imagination wander, I could picture the natural wonder of this nook at the west end of Lake Ontario and how it received its ‘paradise’ designation, named after British officer Captain Thomas Coote, stationed in the area in the 1780s.

The cold kept the snow as icy granules and the wind created a sea of desert-like dunes. Sitting down and just watching, I could observe their edges slowly growing and eroding, gently creeping east.

Off in the western distance, I watched each wave of wind approach, kicking up billowing clouds of snow along the ice’s surface, occasionally culminating in small vortices. There was something peaceful about sitting in the path of these chaotic waves of drifting snow. The howling sound of the wind. The tinkling, whooshing of icy snow crystals bouncing over the undulating surface. So detached from assurances of safe, modern urban life.

Ripples were etched across the dunes, packed hard by the wind, offering secure footing compared to the cold, hard, slippery ice over which my boots squeaked like wet shoes on linoleum. The snow was capped by a crust like shaped styrofoam. But my weight on the deeper drifts was too much and I would break through to softer snow underneath. it made for more of a trudge, like over a soft sandy beach.

I often avoided these areas. Not due to the harder slog, rather, to preserve their pristine, beautifully wind sculpted surfaces.

Always keeping an eye out for potential photos, it would frustrate me to find I had inadvertently wandered through a particularly interesting area of shapes or patterns, causing me to generally skirt the snow and stay on the ice, lest I should ruin more photo opportunities. But the slippery ice made for difficult progress against the powerful wind. Not that I was in a rush. Had there been someone watching, they might have been puzzled by my frequent tendency to walk briefly then stop, standing in one spot for a few seconds, or minutes. I was simply observing, but to someone else, it might seem strangely paranoid.

At times I felt boxed in by the abundance of potential scenes. It was a problem of information overload and took time to process for photographic merit. I didn’t want to mar potential scenes with footprints. But Cootes Paradise is expansive, and the western half appeared to receive few winter explorers. Occasionally I would run across other footprints, both old and relatively new. But they were exceptions; I was certain to always find fresh, untrampled scenes.

Sometimes it was interesting to follow these footsteps. Usually they hugged the shoreline, which I could understand. There is a certain vulnerability when out on the middle of the ice. Nothing is nearby in case of disaster. I had to remind myself that Cootes averages only 60cm deep. The ‘deeper’ question in my mind was the gooey, silty mud under the water…

In any case, there was no risk of falling through. It had been very cold long enough. Yet, along the shore tucked in small nooks were the occasional open patches of water. Maybe where a spring was bubbling through? Deer often seemed to stop here, based on their tracks in the snow.

The shoreline provided for some interesting motifs. Often this consisted of oak leaves, long turned richly brown, embedded in the ice.

Out in the middle were interesting patches of opal ice. Not the dark steel gray, reassuring kind. Walking here created painfully discomforting crackling and crunching sounds underfoot.

Stopping to examine these areas revealed an interesting ‘honeycomb’ layer of ice lattice sandwiched between a thin surface layer and solid ice underneath. Kicking through it brought a childish feeling of smashing things simply because I could. I suppose a kind of empowerment over the micro-environment underfoot; the shattering of glass-like ice shards provided a momentary diversion. Breaking through to the solid ice below was reassuring, though the unease of hearing the ice crunch underfoot as I continued wandering never fully subsided.

The afternoon sun skimmed along the treetops and soon was setting in the southwest. Rich, golden light feathered across sculpted snow, accentuating patterns of frozen ripples and backlit windblown snow sparkled like fine diamond dust in the air.

And then it was over. The sun set, its warm glow enveloped by cold blue shadows. The wind picked up and instantly it felt colder.

It was time to head home before it became too dark! At least the walk back was fast, pushed along by the unrelenting wind.

Bakery Break

Weil's Bakery employees take a break from work

Yesterday, Friday February 18th, was a very nice, springlike day, around +10 degrees and sunny. In order to enjoy the weather, I decided to run a few errands by foot instead of driving.

While on my way through the Westdale shopping area, I took a shortcut along the alley behind Shopper’s Drug Mart and noticed these employees of Weil’s Bakery (officially: Weil’s of Westdale Bakery Shoppe) in conversation during a break.

M9 & ZM35C

Hopkins Variety in Westdale closes after 50 years

The following is a story about Hopkins Variety I wrote for OpenFile Hamilton recently. The story as it appears on OpenFile is the concise version. Posted below is my somewhat longer original story.

But before we get to the story, some background about my motivation to write it:

Back over 30 years ago when my family moved to Hamilton, we spent a few months living in the shadow of the Beverly Hills apartment building on the easternmost fringe of Westdale. I was in grade school and made the daily trek along King Street to George R Allen school. Each day I would pass Hopkins Variety.

Other than the tiny convenience store in Beverly Hills, which rarely visited, Hopkins was about the only place for a kid to buy candies, chips, trading cards, ice cream, freezies; toys such as plastic paratroopers that would inevitably get caught on power lines or in trees, rolls of caps for cap guns or small plastic ‘rockets’ one would stuff with caps, throw high in the air and wait for the inevitable sharp ‘snap’ as it hit the ground…

Well, there was also the Dominion grocery store (now owned by Metro), but not nearly as much fun for a kid. So, during my time at G. R. Allen, even after moving to another area in Westdale, Hopkins was the place to visit.

During fifth grade I was one of a bunch of kids given the opportunity to participate in an introduction to photography class. I don’t remember if I asked to join or if I was told to attend. Despite a technically challenged teacher (transporting B&W enlarging paper in a Manila envelope) instructing out of a handbook, it got me interested in photography.

It was the first time I developed a roll of film; the first time I made prints. I can still recall the ages it took everyone to load film onto the developing tank reel (there was only one tank). The reel was a spiral of plastic that looked like a long lasagna noodle. The smell of chemicals (probably the fixer) and the mugginess of the darkroom (we visited Ainslie Wood school for a printing lesson). The Board of Education supplied some cheap-o plastic cameras that used 120 film… And even at that time I had to be an exception, instead using my mom’s cheap-o fixed lens 35mm rangefinder camera.

I got hooked on photography and throughout middle and high school visited Hopkins every month to pick up a copy of Popular Photography, Photo LIfe, and other photo magazines, dreaming of the next big purchase. I remember poring over the PP 1983 buying guide, trying to decide if I wanted a Canon, Nikon, Pentax or Minolta camera… or a few years later reading about how Sports Illustrated photographers covered baseball games with 5 or more cameras, half of them on remote triggers with big, cool lenses (300 2.8, 400 3.5, 600 f/4, etc.)…

That magazine habit eventually ended in the late 90s, in part thanks to the internet, and I rarely visited the store other than to buy the occasional long distance calling card.

In 2000 or 2001 I photographed a feature for the Hamilton Spectator to coincide with Labour Day called The Way We Work. It was a photo essay about people in Hamilton and their jobs. I included the Kims at work in Hopkins.

Ever since then I was known to them as the Spectator photographer….

So, when I asked Mrs. Kim about the store closing and if I could do a story about it, she assumed it would be for the Spectator. I guess she blocked out the part when I explained it was for a new local news website called OpenFile Hamilton because when I returned to interview them, they were disappointed it wasn’t for the Spectator! At least they let me do the interview and hang around for some photos.

Their story was, to a degree, an interesting reflection of the news industry. Many of their customers were older and had shopped there for a long time. They had difficulty retaining younger clientele, in part due to new, flashier competition. One of their major niches was national and international newspapers that appealed primarily to older ‘analog’ customers. Younger ‘digital’ customers were not newspaper buyers. The Kims don’t own a computer; don’t go online. I’m not sure they will ever read the story, but I did drop off a couple sets of analog prints and a CD containing the digital photos and story. Maybe one of their daughters will read it to them from a computer screen.

It was the end of an era on a small scale, mirrored by broader generational gaps and the influence of global commerce at the local level.

Click on any photo, or here, to go to an gallery with more images. The set is also available on my Flickr stream.

A sign across the storefront window announces ‘closing sale – up to 70% off.’ A cacophony of chimes jingle each time the door opens. But after January 23rd the chimes at Hopkins Variety in Westdale will fall silent, marking the end to 50 years of business under the familiar name.

“It’s 25 years already. I appreciate my customers, their support,” says owner Yul Kim. That’s why my kids grew up here. I spent all my young age here. I’m thankful for Hamilton and thank God for everything.”

Together with his wife Hea-Ja, the Kims, both 65, have owned and operated the convenience store at King Street West near Longwood Road since March 1985.

The couple married in South Korea in 1970, but work prospects were difficult and the promise of better opportunities brought Mr. Kim to Canada in 1972 at age 27. He worked for several years as an appliance service man until taking a job at Dominion Glass in Brampton. Mrs. Kim followed with the family in 1976.

Work at Dominion Glass proved to be unrewarding and the decision was made to go into the variety store business by taking over Hopkins from a fellow Korean, Dong Cha. It would allow husband and wife to work together and live above the store. The hours were long, but they made money, raised three daughters and paid off the mortgage.

Wander the aisles and one discovers Hopkins has been more than just a place to buy lottery tickets, cigarettes or some candy. In some nooks time appears to have stood still for 20 years. The quirky mix of new and old inventory reveals a place that was much like a hardware store with nails, tape, telephone wire, even motor oil – but also stocked women’s beauty supplies, toys, stationery, pipes and cigars, greeting cards, pet food, groceries, newspapers and magazines, to name a few.

Land registry records date the property to June 1, 1920, owned by McKittrick Properties Ltd., the Westdale community developer. But it is unclear exactly when the building was constructed or the nature of business of early tenants. The City of Hamilton took possession through a tax deed in 1939 and in 1945 sold the property to William G. Leary. According to the Kims, it was a pharmacy at this time. The property remained in the Leary family until 1961 when Ross Hopkins and wife Shirley took ownership and established Hopkins Variety. Despite several ownership changes since then, the name remained the same.

Spend time in the store and it is soon evident that the friendly Kims know many of their customers.

Cathy, preferring to give only her first name, stops by with her two cavalier king charles spaniels, Honey and Holly. This visit is for a chat with Mrs. Kim about the closing, and a lottery ticket. She doesn’t normally play, but the jackpot is too tempting. “I’m heart broken, but they’re retiring and that’s exciting,” she says.

Long time regular Ted Lazich stops in once, sometimes twice a day – almost every day.

“Hello sister,” he shouts as he enters the store, referring to Mrs. Kim, as he hands her a Tim Hortons coffee. “I’m her coffee truck.”

Lazich has been a customer since 1969 when he and the Hopkins’ son Paul were students at Westdale Secondary. “I always came by and it just became a habit,” he recalls. “I like going to small family businesses rather than major chains and It’s been a family establishment since I started coming here. There aren’t too many that have been around this long.

“You had the feeling of a community here because there were so many people from the area coming in. It’s going to be sad to see this go because it has been here for quite a long time.”

To understand the source of Lazich’s fondness for family run stores, his parents have owned Gilbert’s Big and Tall men’s clothing store, another Hamilton retail landmark, since 1954.

From a coat pocket he pulls out an assortment of pens, including one with a concealed camera and flash memory storage. Pen collecting is a hobby and one pen among the bunch is a favourite. A gold Parker. It was the first of many he purchased over the years from the glass display case at the front of Hopkins.

Lazich usually buys a Hamilton Spectator newspaper and lottery tickets. Scratch and win only. On this day, the first batch produces a $5 winner and is reinvested in more.

While luck doesn’t appear to be with him this time, he has hit the jackpot three times at Hopkins; $25,000 once and $10,000 twice.

Others have had good luck too. A sign behind the counter announces a recent $45,271 win. Millionaires have also been minted; $3 million many years ago and $1 million in 2004. “There are lots of small winners,” says Mrs. Kim. “Everybody says lucky store, a lucky store Hopkins.”

Now retired, George Martin delivered mail to Hopkins starting in the 1960s. Originally from the north end, but residing in Westdale since 1967, he visits the store to buy lottery tickets and a copy of the Spectator. “I was a postman here for years and I don’t want to see them go,” he says. I’m gonna miss them. I’ve been coming here when it was the Hopkins who owned it. I like this store.”

“The operating costs are going up, up, up every year,” says Mr. Kim. “The margin, the profit is going down, down, down. It’s very difficult to operate this small business now.”

But it wasn’t always the case. “It used to be the customer would jump in (the store) and buy something,” says Mr. Kim. “They didn’t care about the price. Buy and away. It used to be they saved time. Nobody (is in a) rush now. They will wait in line and count every penny. 24 hour stores are open all over the place,” he adds. “That’s really hurting us small businesses.”

Competition around Hopkins has increased over the past 10 years. Anytime Convenience & Food Mart, a larger 24 hour store, opened on the west side of Longwood Road. According to Mr. Kim, it lured away younger customers such as students from Westdale Secondary and children from George R. Allan elementary school. Another neighbourhood competitor, the Metro supermarket across King Street, switched to 24 hours several years ago when it was under the Barn banner. “It’s one stop shopping now, everywhere,” he says. “Smaller stores are getting slower and slower. I used to order everything, groceries, hardware, by the case. Now I buy two, three or a half dozen pieces.

Squeezed from both ends, the Kims have held on due to the loyalty of regular customers. “Everybody is so good customer, says Mrs. Kim. Never bother me. Not much kids around here. More adults. They live around here and just come in. Even with the big (closing) sign they never see it. Just open the door. I like customers and talking with customers.”

A man parks in front of the store and rushes in. His name is Anton and has been a Hopkins regular since 1978. “They have the things I want,” he says. “Basically, I love their newspapers. We get the USA Today, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times from time to time, the Buffalo News and pick up some of the Toronto newspapers. And my wife likes certain tabloids and we get them here every Thursday. One stop shopping for all the things we want.”

Newspapers are a niche that helped the Kims retain loyal customers, but as with the store overall, sales have been in decline for years. In 1985 they would sell 120 copies of the Sunday New York Times per week. Now it’s about 20, many of which are reserved by name for their regulars.

They are proud that their’s is the only store in West Hamilton to carry titles as diverse as the Northern Miner, Scottish Banner, Sunday Telegraph, Barron’s and many more. “Some customers are almost crying,” states Mr. Kim. “How can I get my paper from now on?” Chapters in Ancaster is the closest competitor, and where many will have to go after the 23rd.

The Kims are uncertain about what will come after them, but are quite sure it will not be another variety store. All they know with certainty is the new owner intends to renovate and rent out the space.

And plans for retirement?

“Lots of things to do, I guess,” says Mr. Kim. “We’re still healthy so we’ll travel all around Canada and the USA. We like traveling.”

“And home country too,” adds Mrs. Kim. Trips to South Korea used to be every five to ten years but the last visit was in 1997. “Lots of family,” she adds. “We’ll settle everything (after closing the store) and I’m going to Korea, two, three months.”

Retirement will take them to Mississauga. A new city, though not an unfamiliar one. Their children are there, as are relatives, friends and their church.

In keeping with their laid back, low-key personalities, the Kims aren’t planning to mark the last day, a Sunday, in a special way. No party. No gathering for long time customers. Mr. Kim will work the morning shift, then he and Mrs. Kim will go to church. One of their weekend helpers will mind the store and finish the last shift ever at Hopkins Variety.