BiWay co-founder's death puts planned resurgence of discount retail chain in doubt

Malcolm Coven, the tenacious co-founder of Canadian bargain store BiWay, has died. He was 91.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Coven grew up in Massachusetts and attended Boston Latin School, an elite public high school with entrance exams.

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"He came from a modest background but was raised in a hard-working family with a strong work ethic and good values," Coven's daughter, Robin Gofine, said in an interview Wednesday.

"He was really adventurous and really stubborn, which was sometimes challenging but also probably what helped him be so successful."

After high school, Coven obtained a business degree from Boston College before beginning his retail career at the storied Filene's Department Store.

In 1961, shortly after marrying Miriam (nee Fish) of Montreal, Coven moved from Boston to Toronto, where he joined his brother-in-law Abe Fish in launching BiWay.

The two partners were later joined by Russell Jacobson, and together the trio turned the discount department store into a mainstay of Canada's retail market, selling clothing, food, toys, household goods and beauty products at affordable prices.

"It was like a precursor of Walmart," Gofine said. "It was a small discount department store that offered great value for shoppers on everyday staples."

David Coven said his father's goal was to offer consumers genuine value for money.

"He had a really profound understanding way ahead of his time of the value equation," he said. "The formula was very no frills. It was low margins, high volume."

Coven added: "He always used to say, 'I wouldn't sell it if I wouldn't bring it home to my family.' That philosophy was really the underpinning of the business."

The BiWay founders eventually sold the retail chain to Dylex Ltd.

After a period of expansion that saw hundreds of BiWay stores in malls and on main streets across the country, competing with bigger players like Zellers and Kmart as well as neighbourhood stores like Giant Tiger and Bargain Harold's, the chain went defunct in the early 2000s.

But a few years ago, Coven commissioned a market research company to look at the brand recognition of BiWay. It found the store still had a favourable, well-known reputation in Canada.

"He always believed that there was a lot of equity left in the BiWay name," Coven said. "And he saw how successful dollar stores were."

Rebooting the BiWay store was his way of "taking the success of the dollar store and marrying it to the nostalgic appeal of BiWay," Coven said.

However, the octogenarian then fell ill, and Gofine said he almost didn't make it.

"It was a miracle that he lived and after that he called it his second wind," Gofine said. "He pushed forward on building his new venture."

Along with a new business partner, Barry Weinberg, she said he began working to resurrect the retail chain as the BiWay $10 Store.

"He was very tenacious when he had an idea," Gofine said. "He used his network. He’d call anybody and they'd answer the phone."

It's unclear how his death will impact a planned resurgence of the popular retail chain.

The BiWay $10 Store, set to open later this year, aimed to capitalize on the nostalgia of 1980s bargain hunters to compete with dollar stores and larger discount department stores.

According to the rebooted BiWay retailer's website, the latest iteration of the bargain store is "coming soon." It's slated to open in an area of North York in Toronto that has outlet stores and other discount retailers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2020.

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