June 8th, 2010

Deps and 7-Eleven

Street food outside 7-Eleven, Phetchaburi, Bangkok

Dépanneurs — the Montreal convenience stores that are a favourite topic of mine — are big in the news lately with the publication of a new book by Judith Lussier, Sacré dépanneur! The latest contribution to the spate of media coverage is a profile by Montreal Gazette reporter Jeff Heinrich of Joe Zhou, who owns a dep on the Plateau’s Duluth Street.

Clocking in at 2,600 words, Heinrich’s piece is the longest newspaper feature on deps I’ve ever read, and he puts the length to great effect with detailed descriptions of Zhou and his clientele. Zhou is a former electrical engineer from China who obtained a second engineering degree in Montreal, only to find himself shut out of the job market because he had no Canadian work experience. (It’s surely a common story among dep owners, many of whom left comfortable middle-class lives in China, only to work 60 hours a week running a shop in Montreal.) To get by, he ended up going into the convenience store business with a Chinese acquaintance.

Zhou’s dep is a crossroads for the entire neighbourhood. It’s the kind of romantic general store that has died out in many parts of the world. “In Quebec, a dépanneur is a kind of community,” he tells Heinrich. “People are friends here. They know you, they talk to you like you’re a member of the family. They tell you about their daughter, their son, their neighbours, their neighbourhood — you always learn something. We communicate. Around here, I know everybody. When my customers come here, I know what they want.”

In Quebec, small-time dépanneurs are kept alive by government regulation — indeed, they owe their very existence to a law that restricts the opening hours of all but the smallest shops, giving deps an advantage over big supermarkets. Elsewhere, the independent corner store has largely been replaced by multinational chains like 7-Eleven or Circle K (which, ironically, is owned by the Montreal-based company Couche Tard). That’s especially true in the economically developed parts of Asia, where corporate convenience stores are as ubiquitous as neon signs and leaky air conditioners.

When I visited Bangkok last January — just a month before it was crippled by weeks of protests and eventually riots — I noticed that the city’s many 7-Eleven branches served as hubs for all sorts of neighbourhood activity. Street vendors would set up outside, serving cheap food to passersby who would buy cold drinks from the store and sit outside to eat. Motorcycle taxi drivers would usually wait for fares outside 7-Eleven.

I saw something similar in Guangzhou, where late-night hawkers would set their BBQs and portable stoves up outside a 7-Eleven in the modern Tianhe district. Here in Hong Kong, “Club 7-Eleven” is a cheap alternative to bars — the stores in the Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district have big coolers of beer right next to the door, and neighbourhood 7-Elevens have little counters in the back where people drink beer and munch on snacks. It’s not as personable as a Montreal dep (the clerks are uniformed and anonymous, the franchise owners absent) but in some ways even more lively.

Motorcycle taxis outside 7-Eleven, Thong Lo, Bangkok


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