How one store’s candour is building community How one store’s candour is building community
If you’re longing for a place that mixes the homey atmosphere of a traditional corner store with modern-day ideals (adding a dash or two... How one store’s candour is building community

If you’re longing for a place that mixes the homey atmosphere of a traditional corner store with modern-day ideals (adding a dash or two of funk in the process), look no further than Old’s Cool General Store.

Though nestled away in the city’s east end, Old’s Cool has created a voice for itself and its surrounding area, a goal the owners had in mind long before opening its doors back in 2015.

“[A] lot of people start stores because they want to sell a certain product. We started this store because we wanted to build community,” says co-owner Zahra Dhanani, a veteran east-ender.

“[It’s] a very different starting point from ‘I love coffee and I wanna have a coffee shop’. It’s a completely different way of running a business.”

The store, which offers snacks, gifts, a full-service café and more, has roots even deeper than the objective to build a neighbourhood hub.

“I grew up getting bullied in schoolyards. I grew up experiencing very harsh racism, very harsh sexism, intense amounts of violence and discrimination,” says 44-year-old Dhanani, a Canadian who emigrated from Tanzania as a child.

“[Because of that], I’ve always felt the need to create safe environments.”

Dhanani and her partner, Mariko Nguyen-Dhanani, have supplied the store with a charming array of goods.

“Everything from Prince and David Bowie cushions, to activist lapel pins, artisanal food goods as well as some of the old staples like Kraft macaroni, milk and eggs,” says Dhanani.

Even some who patron the store have items up for sale.

“Just in conversation, I’m like ‘Oh you make that! Let’s try and sell it!’. The business sustains the community, [but], ultimately, the community sustains the business.”

Before Old’s Cool, Dhanani tried her hand at multiple occupations, including time as a DJ, lawyer and public speaker. However, her mindset when tackling anything she does remains the same.

“I’ve always said, it’s not what you do but how you do it. Having the views I do around freedom, justice, and equality, craving safe spaces to gather with community…that’s what you see reflected in the store.”

For Mari Elia, an East York resident of 13 years, Old’s Cool has her coming back time and time again, for more reasons than one.

“[It’s] vibrancy, unique products, [the] owners’ warmth. [It’s] special market in the summer and samosa pre-orders,” says Elia.

“It’s so much more than just the ‘corner’ store. [It’s] a place to gather.”

While Old’s Cool has lost a few shoppers since its inception, Dhanani is confident in the stance and practices the store holds.

“There’s customers that stopped shopping with us because of our commitment to justice and equality. But at the same time, we’ve also had people love what we’re doing,” says Dhanani.

“Community means elders. Community means youth. Community means moms with their kids, families, hipsters, non-hipsters. It means inclusion.”

As for the name of the store itself? In a nut shell, it was the one that seemed to stick for the duo, both in catchiness and meaning.

“I think I came up with 10 names and none of them Mariko liked until I thought up Old’s Cool. In the past, corner stores held this very special role of being the local community drop-in. And we’re just trying to use that and bring in modern things to get people engaged again,” says Dhanani.

For the past three years, the pair have worked long days to develop the store, but to form bonds with the area’s people as well. The two hope that everyone who walks in to Old’s Cool feels comfortable and at ease.

“We kind of see Old’s Cool as our personal home. It’s a way of inviting our neighbourhood to our house. And everybody gets to share this part of our home.”

Old’s Cool General Store is located at the corner of Westlake and Lumsden at 250 Westlake Ave. Learn more about Old’s Cool by visiting

Elle Cote