J.A. Moisan, long a Quebec City treasure, takes fresh approach under new ownership

Rare are the grocery stores that make it on "must-see" lists of tour books and travel blogs.

But visitors to Quebec City regularly stroll into J.A. Moisan in search of a piece of oozing camembert for their picnic, or to browse through the memorabilia on the walls of "the oldest grocery store in North America."

"Next year it will turn 150 years old. Unfortunately, I won't be around for that," said Clément Saint-Laurent, who has decided to sell the business he took over in 1999 with his wife Nathalie Déraspe and his brother François.

With Édith Piaf's unmistakable voice booming in the background, customers have been greeted by the trio for the past two decades.

When news surfaced this week that they were were selling, several regulars stopped by to shake their hands. 

Saint-Laurent said he's seen some of them grow up from small children, when they begged their parents for a piece of candy, to university students, who now buy their own cheese and salami.

"Imagine the kind of evolution we have had here over the past 20 years," Saint-Laurent said, standing beside an antique Bélanger stove, stacked with dozens of jars of jam and confit.

Rising costs

That evolution has also made it difficult for Saint-Laurent to break even. He now pays $50,000 annually in taxes, compared with $18,000 15 years ago.

This has meant less money for salaries, and longer hours for the owners — at a pace they weren't able to keep up with.

"It's time for me to think about retirement," Saint-Laurent said, tears swelling in his eyes.

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Finding a new buyer who committed to keeping the store's original vocation has made the transition a bit easier, said Saint-Laurent.

"We feel responsible for the life that has surrounded this place, the life that we've contributed to building with residents."

The new co-owner, Donna Willett, had already stepped into the time capsule as a tourist when visiting from the Gaspé, where she is from originally.

"I was familiar with the building but just didn't realize that it was for sale. So timing is everything."

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The business, which opened in 1871, will nonetheless be undergoing major changes.

With regular grocery store and other dépanneurs just a few blocks away, Willlett said she will focus on the store's specialty products.

"I want to keep this place unique," she said. "I want to house a lot of products from Quebec as much as possible and put them on display."

To maximize profits, half the floor space will be devoted to another retail store. This means J.A. Moisan will go back to the size it was during most of its existence.

'Last remnant' of an era

Jean-Alfred Moisan, who purchased the eastern section of the building in 1885, bought the adjoining home in 1921, in the hopes of expanding the business.

But at the age of 70, and facing an unstable economy, he was unable to achieve the goal he had set for himself, according to Saint-Laurent.

Upon his death in 1927, his son Joseph-Elzéar took over, but the Great Depression drove him into bankruptcy in 1939. He ended up selling the business to his brother-in-law, who kept the family name and their philosophy.

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It wasn't until 1982 that J.A. Moisan's vision finally came to be, with an expansion to the neighbouring building, and the layout local customers know today.

The unique facade of the storefront, with darker bricks that were carved out of the cliff side of the Montmorency Falls, is a valuable heritage site Denis Angers hopes will be preserved.

"It is the last remnant of the way people used to do their shopping in the 19th century, all under one roof," said Angers, a former journalist and historian from Quebec City.

Angers said he admired the devotion Saint-Laurent and his team showed in preserving the one-on-one customer service, and the niche products they thrived to offer, based on quality rather than quantity.

"J.A. Moisan was like a dinosaur of a bygone era." 

Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

Angers said he's relieved to know the store will live on, unlike the neighbouring butcher shop, W.E. Bégin, that met a different fate.

The shop, that stood across the street from J.A. Moisan from 1904 to 2012, was torn down to make way for condos.

"Bégin was to butcher shops what Moisan was to the grocery store."

J.A. Moisan is currently clearing its inventory and will be closed for a few months for renovations, before it re-opens in the spring.