‘Ottawa’ Seventy years of memories as Boushey’s on Elgin Street prepares to close
In 1946, Lebanese immigrant Diab Boushey bought a little grocery store in the very heart of the capital in the country of which he was so proud.
Ever since, there’s been a Boushey behind the counter at what’s now an Ottawa fixture.
On warm spring evening, people stop in for one last thing for dinner — their dogs, fresh from a walk in the nearby park wait hopefully — while cars double-park to pick up groaning gift baskets.
It’s the place where many Ottawans probably tried now-staple Lebanese delicacies such as tabbouleh or hummus for the first time, went to pick up that hard-to-find item like German sauerkraut or English jams, and where generations of neighbourhood kids got a popsicle.
But, after 70 years, July 31 will be the last day for Boushey’s Fruit Market.
“It was a good, round number — a positive number to go out on,” said Peter Boushey, who will soon turn 60 and runs the store with his brother, Mark.
“We’re the third generation. I’ve been here working after school since I was 12 years old — 48 years I’ve been in the store working.”
None of the brothers’ four kids are interested in working seven days a week and on every holiday so Mark, who manages the family’s properties, is seeking a new tenant.
Peter Boushey hopes to live a little, see his grandchildren more and go to Florida.
It will be a big change from working long days that start with visits to the market or farmers in the morning and end behind the cash at 11 p.m.
Clearly, it’s a bittersweet moment.
“It’s going to be a shock,” he said. “Every time I wake up in the morning, I think ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”
Boushey remembers a guidance counsellor at Hillcrest high school urging him to go to university, when all he ever wanted to do was work at the store with his dad, Charles.
“I said, I want to come work with you. I love doing it, I love the people, I love the store,” he said.
“The thing he told me that I remember — if you won’t take it home, don’t expect your customers to buy it. Keep quality number one.”
Diab Boushey bought 348 Elgin from the Thomas family and ran it as a grocery store and sit-down lunch counter, working with his wife, Jamily, 16 hours a day and seven days a week until he sent home for help in 1948.
Charles Boushey helped build the business, then bought it in 1960, adding meat and deli counters, more fruit and vegetables and making a specialty of items in from around the world and gift baskets.
Charles doubled the size of the store in 1989 and supposedly retired the following year but he still worked three or four hours a day until his death 20 years later.
Mark and Peter have carried on the tradition, offering groceries, carry-out meals and catering — homemade stuffed grape leaves, eggplant spread, meat pies — while, key to Centretowners, staying open late.
Peter Boushey has seen Elgin Street change to trendy bars, brunch spots and boutiques from cobblers, barbers and half-a-dozen little grocery stores where a customer’s pound of sugar was poured into a paper bag from a 50-pound sack.
“We are the last survivors,” he said.
Pictures given pride of place at the front of the store tell the story.
In one, Charles and Moe Boushey, wearing pristine white shirts and aprons, pose in front of the store in 1964.
In another from 1970, a customer carries a paper bag printed with the store’s name past windows full of farmer’s bushel baskets and potted flowers.
They’re images from a time when every Ottawa neighbourhood had a couple of corner groceries, like another Boushey’s run by an uncle in the family in Old Ottawa South into the 1980s, which is now a wine bar.
Customers seemed genuinely horrified Monday to hear that Boushey’s will soon close, citing “it’s right there” convenience but also memories no chain can match.
“Is it really closing?” asked Tom Dean, heading home with a bag full of groceries. “That’s awful.”
Dean, who is in the military, lives around the corner but grew up in Montreal. His father came to Ottawa twice a week for 35 years, often with his son in tow, to fit Ottawa patients with the artificial eyes he made. Boushey’s was always a stop for a takeout meal or some unusual food item.
“Walking in with my old man, who’s been retired a few years, they recognized him,” Dean said. “People remember you and if you can’t find it in the big places, they have it.”
What the customers said Monday …
“What!? I’m in here twice a day!” said Gary McMillen, who runs the Leading Note, a sheet music store down the street, and lives nearby. “I’m shocked and appalled. Boushey’s has been here since forever — it’s an institution. These guys are always here. Christmas Day they’re here.”
“I’m really sad,” said Julie Lavoie, 32, whose Elgin Street apartment is actually closer to a big chain but prefers Boushey’s for everything from Asian sauces to tabbouleh. “Everything is really fresh and they have lots of stuff you can’t find at a normal grocery store. I’m here pretty much every day. It’s a little family-owned business instead of a big corporation. I’m going to miss it and I think everyone is going to miss it.”
“No way!” said civil servant Thomas Vares. “I went to the University of Ottawa in the time of the dinosaurs, the early 1970s, and I’ve been going there since that time. Every time I go in there I say this is the next place that’s going to close. It’s sad to see. The people, the family, it’s been there for years.”
“That’s crazy,” said Josiah Martinoski, a 27-year-old from Edmonton who calls Boushey’s an “Ottawa staple,” comparing it to the now-defunct Dalhousie Street diner Mello’s. “That’s one of the things I appreciate about Ottawa; there’s such history here.”