You only get one chance to celebrate your 100th birthday, and Neil McDonald doesn’t plan to miss the opportunity.
His store, Willows Park Grocery, has been an Oak Bay fixture for a century. To mark the occasion, McDonald has planned a barbecue and block party for tomorrow (June 25).
Though much has changed since it first opened, the store remains a community staple. A big reason is the lasting influence of the previous owner, Quon Lowe.
Lowe purchased the store in 1963 from a cousin, and though he sold it to McDonald four years ago, he continues to work in the store where he raised his family.
“I love serving people and I’ve grown up with the community,” Lowe said. “I see kids who used to come here when they were in kindergarten who are now married.”
Nearly every customer who enters the store greets Lowe by name.
“I’ve been coming here since the ’60s,” said Dave Stinson, who stopped in with his daughter, Robin, to pick up some ice cream.
Willows Park Grocery, at the corner of Eastdowne Road and Dalhousie Street, is said to be the oldest grocery store in Oak Bay still standing in its original location.
In fact, the store has existed longer than the streets on which it stands.
According to the Oak Bay archives, a 1918 phonebook lists its location as being at the corner of Willows and Thistle streets.
There have been changes to both the interior and exterior. Where Lowe’s kitchen once stood is an area where McDonald now roasts organic, fair trade coffee beans. Lowe’s living room has been replaced by a walk-in cooler.
For McDonald, who only learned of the building’s historical importance after he became its owner, it can be a struggle to compete against bigger grocery stores in the area. But it’s important to him to show that more traditional business models can still be viable.
“I’m trying to revitalize the old way of doing business,” he said.
“The hardest part is to get people to turn to us as their primary grocery store.”
In addition to installing the coffee roasting setup, McDonald now also brings in local organic produce, mostly from Sun Wing Farms. He maintains competitive pricing in an attempt to entice locals to stop at his store for more than just coffee and lottery tickets.
The Oak Bay Heritage Society recently recognized McDonald’s efforts with an award for improving the building while maintaining its historical and social value.
Lowe welcomes the changes. “We had to try new things to keep open.”
The 100th birthday celebration barbecue happens from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, followed by a block party on Dalhousie Street, between Eastdowne and Cadboro Bay roads from 2 until 9 p.m.