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A young couple creates an East Van community hub with a general store, backyard garden and a lot of love
On any given afternoon, a quiet street corner in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant residential neighbourhood comes alive. There, the quaint silhouette of an old-time general store and café makes passersby do a double take. Le Marche St. George, housed in a two-storey building, with century-old half-painted shingles, wood windows and awnings, has inadvertently become the heart of this East Vancouver community.
“Customers never know what they’ll find when they come for coffee – a pop-up art show or olive oil tasting, or fresh products: someone brings us their lettuce on their bicycle to sell, another delivers ice cream in a car2go, while another walks her pizzas and desserts over.”
Although Le Marché St. George has no signage, it does a robust business inside as neighbours linger over conscientiously sourced espresso, shop for a 10-mile-diet dinner and browse local handmade gifts.
Outside has become a safe haven to kids, who chase the backyard chickens or mingle on bicycles while eating gourmet ice cream, dwarfed by the giant sunflowers and haphazardly arranged boxes of vegetables that welcome customers to the door.
The family-owned business, operated by traditional Chinese medicine doctor Pascal Roy and his artist wife, Janaki Larsen, is equal parts coffee shop, specialty-item boutique and rental space. Upstairs is a European-style short-term rental suite that is also available for pop-up events and the couple’s own eclectically designed apartment.
Listening to the husband-and-wife team talk, it’s easy to be seduced by their nostalgic vision: a world, or at least a community, where people congregate to swap their preserves with a neighbour’s endive, collect their kids after school, join a pop-up dinner and even stay the night.
The couple chose to create a healthier lifestyle for their new child when they purchased the building three years ago, but they had no idea that it would impact the neighbourhood.
“The change has been amazing,” says Janaki. “At that time, people immediately headed to Main Street to shop and dine. Since they didn’t spend time on their street, no one knew who lived here. Now, all of the neighbours know each other because they met here. Neighbourhood knitting and running groups have been formed. On Sundays, everyone comes here for coffee: they’re all in our tab book. We even have spare keys to everyone’s houses in case anyone gets locked out.”
It was love at first sight when Pascal and Janaki saw the 1904 building at the corner of St. George Street and 28th Avenue, which had previous lives as a convenience store, apartment and art gallery.
At the time it was deemed a teardown. Armed with innovative plans, Pascal and Janaki used their house-building and decorating skills to restore the building to a gracious residence, doing most of the work themselves. The couple added windows and subtracted walls, raised areas of the building to level floors, supported sagging ceilings and modernized the building’s four kitchens. They replaced all 18 windows with double-paned wooden ones. Original fireplaces, one ornate and another surrounded in exposed brick, now operate with gas. “I prefer mixing strong antiques and older pieces with modern styles; and an earthy, natural colour palette brings everything together. It looks very European,” says Janaki, a former film-set decorator.
Here, a reupholstered Edwardian settee and an antique Chinese armoire easily mingle with a modern metal and wooden kitchen table and contemporary paintings by Janaki’s mother, artist Patricia Larsen. An ornately carved French table sits near a large rustic block of wood with a hole in the middle – originally from a grain mill or ship – reborn as a coffee table. Above, ceilings add the element of surprise: decades of wallpaper layered in brown, green and turquoise were partially removed to create a rustic look. An antique medallion and chandelier add the jewelry.
“Recently, a couple from San Francisco married here – they had the ceremony in the café, the reception in the backyard catered by our Italian neighbour, and stayed in the suite for their honeymoon,” says Janaki. “We were their witnesses at the wedding.”
Downstairs, products lining store shelves promote artisans who seek meaning from their work, even if small-scale production and deliberate inefficiencies make them pricier. Carefully chosen packaging unobtrusively sells everything from wild-foraged fruit jams and free-range, grass-fed beef jerky to hand-loomed table linens and all-natural soap – items that every general store in the country used to stock. “I wanted to create a beautiful, old-fashioned experience to make it a special neighbourhood place to shop,” explains Janaki.
Walls downstairs got an unusual finish: paint and drywall compound were layered overtop of embossed wallpaper, and then Ovaltine, coffee grounds and soy sauce were ground in. The café’s linoleum floor was replaced with heavily distressed fir, a vintage industrial work table (with old can opener still attached), and wood bar and stools were added.
Chalkboards feature the menu items such as pain au raisins, Walnut Misch and calzones, and refrigerated items like a local chef’s tourtière, sausage made by a local third-generation sausage maker and yogurt from a small farm that raises pasture-fed cows.
Housewares include hand-knitted throws, a neighbour’s skilfully crafted leather shoes and Janaki’s own stoneware, beautifully made in a closet in the back of the store. Janaki comments, “Customers never know what they’ll find when they come for coffee – a pop-up art show or olive oil tasting, or fresh products: someone brings us their lettuce on their bicycle to sell, another delivers ice cream in a car2go, while another walks her pizzas and desserts over.”
Outside, the stucco was painstakingly removed to show the original green painted wood shingles, and new window trims were painted black.
“We couldn’t decide what to paint the exterior so just left it. We replaced part of the wall that was rotted out and added a large double window to the front,” says Pascal.
Although the backyard boasted a luxuriant Japanese garden in decades past, the trees grew, now blocking most light, and hard clay soil allows little growth. “This is why we keep chickens. I like them to roam; we collect the eggs,” says Janaki. They have two beehives (and sell the honey at the store), and also grow vegetables such as tomatoes, kale and beans on the garage rooftop.
Says Pascal: “Our community success wasn’t the intention; it just happened. The novelty creates an interesting story; we get over one thousand hits a day on our website. There is a lot going on here, and it is a lot of work.”
Originally published in BC Home & Garden magazine. For regular updates, subscribe to our free Home and Garden e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the magazine.