Gastown says goodbye to a beloved piece of its disappearing old neighbourhood

Vancouver is without magical shop Salmagundi West for the first time since 1973.

Salmagundi West owner Anne Banner gets ready for her last two days at the historic Gastown location. Photos by Laura Sciarpelletti.

If you find yourself in Gastown at any point this week, you may notice the absence of one of this city’s most beloved and long-standing stops. Magical emporium Salmagundi West closed its West Cordova Street doors for the last time on Sunday, January 28th, following a post-Christmas eviction notice.

“When the landlord said it was time, I took a walk down the street,” says owner Anne Banner. “I feel like this store is connected to old Gastown—Gastown prior to the major gentrification.”

Designer brand Versace moved in across the street from Salmagundi West around the time Banner took over the store, and she says that’s when the old Vancouver district began to really change.

“That’s when things shifted to high end, white walls,” says Banner. “I think that [Salmagundi West] was very relevant throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s—but moving into this modern time, I don’t feel that the store belongs in Gastown anymore at all.”

The way of gentrification

Prior to shutting down last week, Salmagundi West was a creaky, gorgeous, dark shop filled with incense, mystical knickknacks, antiques, candles and, yes…even a haunting. It was a snapshot of what Gastown was in its more magical days. People felt the urge to just simply be in the space—possibly buying an old black and white photograph or a deck of tarot cards. Vancouver’s changes are no secret—from skyrocketing housing costs to a constant rotation of new businesses, it was inevitable that Gastown would evolve into something new and shiny.

 “The rent will go up a lot due to property taxes,” says Banner. “It’s the way of gentrification. As almost an outsider looking in, I realize this store doesn’t fit into Gastown anymore, because Gastown has changed all around us.”

Banner has worked at Salmagundi West for 10 years and has owned the store since 2012. But she first walked through its doors in 1989 when she was new to Vancouver, living off of Ichiban noodles at only 18 years old.

“When I first walked into the store, I was like…woh,” says Banner. “It was reflective of me. It was like walking into a second home almost. What is this magical place? This is totally like something from childhood dreams.”

Just a handful of the magical things you can find on the counters of Salmagundi West.

Salmagundi West was originally opened by Lynn Brown in Toronto in the 60s. Brown eventually moved the mystical shop to the Gastown location in 1973. Those who have walked into the shop, have glanced at the stain glass windows and tried on witchy jewellery, know that it’s not just a store. It’s a place to be. Banner felt that immediately, as did her twin daughters who have had a deep connection with the shop since they were little. Over the years both girls have worked behind Salmagundi’s counter, had parties there and held costumed photoshoots in the space.

While Banner admits it is painful to leave the heritage building, she feels that because everything else in the area has changed considerably, it is time for Salmagundi West to make a change. Banner and her new business partner—graphic designer and entrepreneur Adam Woodhouse—are now searching for a new home for the mystical shop, hopefully in a part of Vancouver with like-minded retail.

“My initial knee-jerk reaction was to be upset because [the eviction] was shocking, says Banner. “But I felt pretty soon after that that I had to be grateful because as the store’s second owner, the rent could have gone up considerably because of what was going on across the street. But the landlord chose not to do that for whatever reason.”

The building and those that haunt it

Banner has had a lot of time to reflect on her early days with Salmagundi West over the last month, as friends and long-time shoppers reached out with their support. She even remembers one of the first things she ever bought at the store—a little plastic pyramid with a falcon balancing on the top of it, a treasure from the beloved “drawers” downstairs in the shop’s basement. Banner still has that pyramid to this day.

Leaving the space also meant leaving the spirits that many say pass through the eerie basement—possibly a result of the deadly fire that shook Gastown three years prior to building’s creation in 1889.

Banner in front of the Gastown space’s iconic stain glass window.

“I think they are transient spirits that are just connected to the magical elements of the space,” says Banner. “They like the people that come through and the artistic bent of things. But I also think there is a darker vibration there too…something more permanent.”

Over the years many shoppers that are particularly sensitive have mentioned feeling something near the stairwell—an uneasy feeling that grows as they descend into the basement.

“Mediums often describe the space as high traffic. Kind of almost like a vortex of spirits…like a portal,” says Banner. “But yes, it’s pretty haunted down there.”

Moving out, moving on

Those who talk to Banner now about her store will notice an infectious optimism and excitement for what is to come. The loss of the historical space is hard, but the change has meant joining forces with Woodhouse and creating a new version of the business: Salmagundi West Tea and Tarot.

“Its emotional for me, but it’s also emotional for those who are third generation shoppers,” says Banner. “A grandmother came in with her grandson and she had been coming here since she was young. And that kind of impact is a big deal because this store is about the space. I’m not going to play that down, I realize the two are very tied together.”

New partners Adam Woodhouse and Banner have some laughs in front of Salmagundi’s “drawers.”

But Banner and Woodhouse will try their best to transfer some of the essence of the space to a new location in the summer. Long-time Salmagundi lovers will notice special ambience items like carpets and fixtures in the new location. Banner and Woodhouse hope to recreate the space and give shoppers a déjà vu feel.

“We’ve been trying to figure out how we can continue the Salmagundi West story and really make it attractive and appealing in both its old ways and in new ways too,” says Woodhouse.

The duo plan on doing that by featuring palmistry, tea leaf readings, tarot card readings and…plenty of tea. The owner of a “stereotypically British passion for tea,” Woodhouse plans on spending the upcoming months blending teas with Banner and setting up a plan to let customers create their own tea blends as well. Salmagundi West has always been an interactive environment, and the new reincarnation of the shop will continue that tradition.

A bit of this and that in Salmagundi’s haunted basement.

As of right now, Salmagundi West lives in the minds of Banner and Woodhouse and in the hearts of its long-time customers. But the shop is certainly no transient spirit like those who still pass through the old Gastown space. The summer will bring a new Salmagundi West

 “I am grateful to have had that beautiful space as long as I did and that it was here for so long,” says Banner. “No one embraces change, but change is something we can depend on.”