By David Menzies
It was organized chaos, every square inch of that store — jam-packed with the things you needed right away as well as the sort of stuff you wouldn’t use in an entire lifetime.
As a child, my visits to Dave’s Variety would begin pretty much the same way. I’d walk the length of the store, past the candy bar display and magazine rack and the ice cream freezer, finally arriving within a dark, scruffy storeroom realm. In my arms were several empty deposit/return refillable glass pop bottles. A 10-ouncer was worth a nickel and a long-neck 16-ounce bottle would fetch a dime. My stash usually meant I could score a small bag of Hostess Salt & Vinegar chips, a Big Turk bar, and maybe an Orange Crush. A nutritionist’s worst nightmare to be sure, but ambrosia for an eight-year-old scavenger nevertheless.
Standing at the cash register, diligently putting in those long, long hours, was Dave — the Dave in Dave’s Variety. Extraordinarily thin with a full head of white hair and intense blue eyes, he was always bustling with energy — long before the energy drinks category existed. Dave constantly cracked one-liners, suggesting his true ambition was perhaps to be on stage. Dave also had a smokin’ wife… which is to say, she wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but rather, was constantly puffing away on a Du Maurier cigarette when stationed behind the counter. (If Dave was still around today, I wonder what he’d say if told that not only is smoking verboten in stores but a shopkeeper isn’t even allowed to display his tobacco wares.)
The seldom-visited “gift” section of the store – truly a biosphere of the bizarre and the beguiling – nevertheless did bail me out of a jam once. On a class trip to Niagara Falls, I dawdled so much on what cheesy souvenir to snag I ended up buying nothing at all. Not wanting to return home empty-handed, I dropped by Dave’s and found an arrangement of faded multi-coloured plastic flowers in a small brown plastic basket. This … thing … was coated in a thick layer of dust, as if it were some ancient relic that had just been unearthed in an archaeology expedition. Truth be told, while this grotesque knickknack had absolutely nothing to do with Niagara Falls, my grandmother nevertheless pretended it was an item of staggering beauty when presented to her. Thanks for the save, Dave.
I also remember frequently going to Dave’s whenever my folks needed a pack of Craven “A” King Size. I’d tote along a handwritten note and a two-dollar bill, which was sufficient cash and adequate proof of I.D. for a child to buy smokes back when gasoline was sold by the gallon and the Toronto Maple Leafs were Stanley Cup contenders.
The truly great thing about Dave’s Variety– located just three bungalows away from our humble abode on Lawrence Avenue West – was the fact that it really was so darn convenient, back before the term “convenience stores” had entered the popular vernacular.
What’s more, when I reflect upon my chosen career path as a journalist (chosen, that is, because I’m inherently incompetent in every other facet of life), I think Dave had an early albeit profound influence on me. After all, there were many days I didn’t have the necessary funds to buy that latest issue of The Avengers or Mad magazine, so I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and read comic books and magazines. Without fail, Dave would remind me, “Hey! This ain’t the library, kid!” But his bark was always far worse than his bite and Dave would let me read until my eyelids grew heavy. Turned out Dave’s Variety was the library after all… well, for me at least.
Let it be known that Dave himself – given the time period – was a bit of an oddball in that he routinely jogged to his store even though he owned a car. Clad in a navy blue Adidas tracksuit, I’d often observe him trotting past our house. Keep in mind this was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, just before the fitness craze for adults took off with the prodding, no doubt, of advertisements for ParticipACTION which shamefully admonished us all that the average 60-year-old Swede was in better shape than his 30-year-old Canadian counterpart.
One day my grandfather looked out our living room window and spotted Dave huffing and puffing en route to his store on a frightfully frigid February day and Pop mumbled how Dave must be nuttier than a Snickers bar. Only people who couldn’t afford cars travelled via foot, after all. Not long after making this observation, my grandfather would die of a massive heart attack, just three months into his retirement. What was left of my family packed up and moved to Newfoundland in August, 1975, which was the last time I set foot in Dave’s Variety.
Recently – for the first time in almost four decades – I returned to my old neighbourhood; specifically, to that little 10-store strip mall that once housed Dave’s Variety. The nearby BP gas station is now a Husky and the Fina station is a Petro-Canada. The above-store apartment unit where my good friend Clinton lived is now a massage parlour. A major arterial route, the Allen Road, slices through the grassy hills that I used to slide down on pieces of discarded cardboard. The bungalow I grew up in is still there, but the two enormous evergreens have been chopped down. Dave’s Variety is long gone, too; in its place is a payday loan joint.
I was actually somewhat disheartened to discover Dave’s no longer existed. For it was only upon returning to this patch of nondescript real estate did it dawn on me that Dave’s Variety was really far more than just a convenience store. Rather, it really was a cherished childhood destination. Even if I didn’t quite realize it at the time, Dave’s Variety existed as a friendly harbour away from home. And even though there’s no shortage of such stores today, for some odd reason I found myself as an adult in 2012 impossibly longing to visit Dave’s Variety one last time.
As the sun began to set, I remained rooted in the small plaza’s parking lot, even though I had no business with any of the shops there. I closed my eyes, and in my imagination, Dave’s Variety was still a viable business. I was eating a Cadbury Bar Six and washing it down with Tahiti Treat and reading the latest issue of Daredevil. Dave was yet again employing the hard sell, which he did whenever a new candy bar debuted. As usual, he was praising the treat as being “the best bar known to mankind!” – until the next new candy bar came along, of course.
It all felt so astonishingly real that I briefly thought that when I opened my eyes, everything would indeed still be there again: the hills, the evergreens, and of course, Dave’s Variety – all those bits and pieces of that certain summer, that endless summer.
Of course, when I finally did reopen my eyes, everything that was part and parcel of my childhood was still long gone — Dave’s Variety included. But the memories… well, the memories remain.
Thanks, Dave – wherever you are.