Gastown tourist shops enjoying uptick in visitors

Store owners say vibrancy of area has improved over the years

Tim Strang remembers a time when Gastown seemed empty.

“I remember when you would stand out the front door and it was like a ghost town,” said Strang, the marketing manager for Hill’s Native Art flagship store for 11 years.

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“You would look both directions and you wouldn’t see a soul, particularly in February. Now that never happens. There isn’t a time of day when you walk out and you don’t see people walking down the street. And the mood has really changed. It felt like there were desperate times back then, and it just doesn’t feel like that anymore.”

The increased crowds are one change seen by Gastown’s most stalwart businesses: its tourist shops.

Just steps away from the iconic Gastown steam clock is the newly renovated Jade Vancouver, which claims to have one of the largest selections of jade in the world.

Store manager Mitzi Payie said the neighbourhood and clientele have changed in the eight years she has been with the specialty store.

Cruise ship traffic has died down, but the legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics and the new convention centre has brought new visitors to replace well-heeled cruisers.

Payie cringes at the misconception that Gastown is a tourist trap. It is a heritage area and, unlike in other Vancouver shopping districts such as Robson Street where chain stores dominate, Gastown has many locally owned and operated unique shops like hers, she said.

A two-minute walk east of Vancouver Jade is the more stereotypical souvenir shop, Imperial Furs and Gift Co., which Ken Chau has owned and operated with his wife Anita since 1982.

The bric-a-brac store is packed to the rafters with stuffed moose, postcards, pens, T-shirts, small jade carvings, maple syrup and just about anything else that can be embossed with Canadiana. Chau has no idea how many pieces he has for sale in his store, because he doesn’t count it, but he said most of his suppliers are local.  

He marvels at the many changes he has seen in Gastown since he first bought his store over 30 years ago. Many buildings have been renovated, such as The Landing and the Gastown Hotel.

“Big changes,” he said.

What hasn’t changed is his clientele: the tourist looking for an inexpensive gift to take home, he said. He sells something for every visitor’s budget, his cheapest items are postcards, which sell for under $1.

Hill’s, which opened in  Gastown in 1975, is at the other end of the price spectrum. The high-end store offers First Nations and Inuit arts and crafts ranging from a $20 T-shirt to totems in the thousands of dollars.

Strang said the type of buyer has changed in the last decade. It used to be “rubber tire traffic,” he said, referring to Americans who’d drive up for the day just to shop for inexpensive souvenirs. “Now customers are in town for conferences or business, not on holiday. Many have already gone online and sussed out what is available and many are collectors.”

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