TO many West Vancouver seniors, the recent closure of the Ambleside Safeway marks the loss not only of a badly needed place to buy groceries, but of a community institution.
The venerable supermarket on Marine Drive and 16th Street, one of several large grocery stores facing redevelopment on the North Shore, shut its doors for good last weekend to make way for a refurbished facility from property owner H.Y. Louie Ltd.
For many older residents who live nearby and no longer drive, it was the only place to get groceries in walking distance.
"The older people in our church are really seriously impacted by the closure of Safeway," said Jean Lawrence, volunteer and seniors advocate with West Vancouver Presbyterian, "There should be some kind of plan to help these people."
Lawrence said she is working with the clergy and congregation to help find a solution that will help seniors reach alternatives elsewhere.
Making matters worse, customers were "left in the lurch," with no warning that they would need to make new arrangements, according to one very loyal shopper.
"I have shopped there since 1954 when Mr. Ingram was the manager," said Jacqueline Bernard, 86. "The way they quit, they never let us know a word. I learned from my neighbours. There was nothing in the paper, there was no 'Thank you for being wonderful customers for all those years' - nothing. I am absolutely shocked."
Safeway's shoppers will have to make do until the location is renovated and reopened under a new brand by the end of 2012, according to Mark McCurdy, director of advertising for H.Y. Louie.
"It's a time process that's fast and furious. We want to get a food store opened up there as quickly as possible," he said, noting that most similar projects take much longer.
The company has taken steps to bridge the gap in the meantime, McCurdy added. Customers who can't walk or drive to other neighbourhoods can call either the North Vancouver or West Vancouver Marketplace IGA to place an order, which will be delivered "anywhere from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove," for free for orders of more than $25, he said. For those who are able to get to others stores and still want the in-person experience, both locations also offer delivery from in-store.
H.Y. Louie hasn't finalized what grocery chain will take the Marine Drive location over, but the company is exploring some "new concepts," McCurdy said.
Asked if the new store would be compatible with the already established clientele, many of whom are on a fixed income, McCurdy gave an emphatic "yes."
"We understand everyone has a budget and a certain lifestyle that they can't afford to be paying top dollar for groceries," he said.
While grocery delivery and the promise of a new, affordable store may satisfy some needs, others are mourning the loss of a treasured social hub.
"Part of their life is going to the Safeway and bumping into each other and having a cheerful word with the cashier," said Gwen Stinson, a local senior. "I always loved to go through Bonnie's cash register because she was just so warm and friendly."
Safeway's closing is just the latest in a string of North Shore supermarkets that have either closed permanently, are shutting down temporarily for redevelopment, or are on land that being considered for future development.
Others include the West Vancouver Capers, which shut down in 2007, Extra Foods on Lonsdale Avenue at 17th Street, which was torn down more recently for redevelopment, and the Safeway at Lonsdale and 13th which is being considered for a new tower.
Some are even casting a wary eye at the Save-on-Foods on Marine Drive in North Vancouver, which sits on a strip of land quickly filling with condos - although no plans have been announced for changes to that property.
But residents shouldn't worry about getting caught in what urban planners call a "food desert" - a neighbourhood with no close access to adequate grocery shopping, according to Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University's city program. While temporary closures may happen, the grocery industry is simply changing.
Big-box-style supermarkets surrounded by parking lots, which came into vogue in the 1950's and 60's, are simply on the way out as cities densify and try to encourage residents to drive less, Price said.