THE MOMENT TOM MAXWELL stepped inside Charlie’s Grocery last June, he had a feeling that the little Alexis Park store was where he and his wife Louise needed to be.
“There was just something about the place that tugged on our hearts, and we felt that this was the perfect place for us,” says Maxwell.
Part of the attraction was the size of the store. With just a few hundred square feet, the shelves were filled with all the necessities of a neighbourhood convenience store, from milk and lotto tickets to Tums and slushes. Perfectly manageable for a couple not yet ready to retire.
What was also attractive to the couple was the neighbourhood itself and the types of customers who walked through the doors morning until night for mints or coffee, or just to talk. The big yellow and red Charlie’s Grocery sign stands tucked just off Alexis Park Drive, surrounded by high density housing for seniors and lower income families.
“Louise and I spent a number of years working with seniors and working-class families in the inner-city of Calgary, and that was really comfortable for us. It’s in our DNA to be with that crowd,” says Maxwell. Before the idea of purchasing a convenience store in the North Okanagan came to his mind, Maxwell worked nearly a decade as COO for the Calgary non-profit Victory Foundation. His last project there, which spanned several years, was overseeing the conversion of a condemned heritage building into transitional housing for 60 men trying to overcome homelessness.
But it was time for a change, and a previous career managing grocery stores in the Northwest Territories and British Columbia gave Maxwell some ideas: The Okanagan. Buy a business. A convenience store.
There was just one problem. Despite coming close, local financial institutions were unable to assist with the loan Tom and Louise needed to buy Charlie’s Grocery, operating in Vernon, it’s said, since 1959.
We just needed someone to take a chance and believe in us.
“We went to three or four lending institutions and we just couldn’t quite get there. We spent four months in that cycle and it was getting frustrating. They were just looking at the numbers, and it felt like, ‘They don’t even know us. I know we can make it work.’ We just needed someone to take a chance and believe in us.”
And then someone told him about Community Futures North Okanagan (CFNO), and their business loans program. Before long, he’d had several phone conversations with CFNO loans coordinator Rob Short, and things looked promising.
“It felt surreal. We had been up against so many obstacles. It was a rollercoaster of, ‘It’s going to happen!’ to ‘It’s not happening.’ We thought, let’s apply, but we were expecting the same answer. That door was open just a little and I said as long as that door’s not closed, as long as there’s a glimmer, let’s see what happens.”
What happened was Community Futures’ loans committee approved Maxwell’s loan. On Dec. 20, 2016, the couple took over Charlie’s Grocery. And as the couple recently celebrated their first month in business—and is already on a first-name basis with a handful of customers—Maxwell says he still has that feeling about the place.
“Some people wondered why we would want to buy Charlie’s.’ It’s not for everyone but it’s a perfect fit for us, it really is, and we realize that more and more every day. For us, the business part is not the be-all end-all. I envision myself taking time to chat with the customers and look forward to having a positive impact on the community, and that’s the part I love. That’s the bigger picture.”
Short, who facilitated Maxwell’s loan application, says a landmark has been preserved, and a valuable social need has been filled for that neighbourhood.
“It has a much bigger impact on that community than just a fellow owning a general store. His approach with his customers and his vision to make it a local meeting place, that’s what really rang the bell for us.”
As Maxwell stands below the iconic Charlie’s Grocery sign (and he didn’t even think about changing the name), he says he’s grateful Community Futures was able to look beyond just the numbers.
“More than words can say, I appreciate that someone believed in us and took a chance on us.”
Do you dream about opening your own business? Community Futures North Okanagan offers loans for a range of business purposes, including start-up, working capital, seasonal needs and expansion. Contact our Business Services team today. Call 250 545 2215 or visit our website to learn more.