There is something so warm, so inviting when you open the door to Bearance’s Grocery on the corner of Union Street West and Livingston Avenue.
Maybe it’s the historic building, with its classic red brick exterior complete with decorative, white-painted corner brackets along the eaves. Perhaps it’s the cozy interior, and the fact the floorplan is that of an old home rather than a modern supermarket. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.
“It’s the people,” said Michael Greenwood, owner of Bearance’s Grocery since 1987.
Greenwood was referring to both the friendly staff that know many of their customers by name, and the incredible diverse clientele that frequent the Kingston mainstay – over the course of 15 minutes just after the lunch hour, a construction worker on break from work came in to grab a fresh, made to order sandwich at the deli counter; an impeccably well-dressed (and locally well-known) female doctor who heads up a number of boards at Kingston General Hospital picked up a few bits and bobs after placing a special order for a large family dinner; and a friendly senior gentleman who lives close by picked up some fresh apples and chatted about the dreary fall weather with the cashier and two students in Queen’s jackets waiting in line behind him.
It’s a scene that happens every day, repeatedly, and one of the reasons Bearance’s has maintained such longevity in an industry that has otherwise struggled to survive in a world full of big box franchises and megastores.
Originally opened in 1918, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Bearance’s Grocery, which has remained at the corner of Union Street and Livingston Avenue since it was opened by Elwood Bearance a century ago. Then, the now-bustling area of the city was far less developed. The houses were further apart, and there was a field across from the front of the store where the Bearance’s horse lived. Greenwood recalls talking to brothers Ron and Elmer Bearance about just that when he purchased the business from them 31 years ago.
“In behind the store here, when you look down the laneway you’ll see a little two storey building. That was across the street and it was the horse stall,” Greenwood explained.
“There was nothing across the street, there was a field there, Ron told me, and that’s where the Horse lived.”
That horse was used by Elwood Bearance as he delivered groceries door-to-door each afternoon, either by horse and buggy or horse and sleigh, depending on the weather. Those deliveries only occurred after the senior Bearance would complete a round of collecting orders door-to-door in the mornings.
Of course, Greenwood doesn’t deliver groceries door-to-door, and there is certainly no longer a field across from the store – in fact, the closest field is likely at Richardson Stadium, but that field is definitely not used for housing horses.
But Greenwood, whose family is the second of two to own the store in 100 years, still employs many of the same services and details that the Bearance family did all those years ago; he and his staff treat every customer like they are neighbours – in fact, since Greenwood just a block from the store, many of the customers are, indeed, neighbours. For Greenwood, it’s been all about changing only the things that needed to change while ensuring those things that make Bearance’s unique and well-loved remain the same.
“Technology has changed, but people are people. They have not changed,” Greenwood said, noting that good, quality meat and produce are always in demand, and have remained the focus for himself and the staff year after year.
“Some of our products have changed over the years to go with the latest trends, but we’ve always had a very good butcher shop, and, believe it or not, a cow is still a cow.”
Indeed, the store no longer employs the hole-in-the-wall system where ice chunks harvested from Lake Ontario were passed through the wall to put in iceboxes alongside the meats. In fact, Greenwood estimates he’s ordered at least one new piece of equipment each year he’s owned the little Kingston landmark (which has doubled in size) to maintain efficiency and upgrade technology along the way.
Still, when they cash out the till at night and lock the doors, or when they wake up early to ensure a delivery is received and unpacked, ready for customers before the doors open again, it is the same thing that made the Bearance family love the work they did for nearly 70 years that makes the Greenwood family remain at the helm of what has become a local institution.
“I like the people. I stay because of the people. I enjoy our customers, we know a lot of them by name, and, in some cases, we’ve known their family for three generations,” expressed Greenwood, who shows no signs of slowing down the business now and said he wouldn’t be surprised if the business is still open for its 150th anniversary.
“There are neighbours that meet at Bearance’s Grocery that never see each other elsewhere. Sometimes you see the odd house for sale, and it will see ‘walking distance to Bearance’s’ so we’re certainly part of the neighbourhood social fabric… We’re just one big happy family!”