Anyone who ever had a drink or a get-together in the basement of Acme Food Co. probably wasn’t aware they were sitting in the grease pit of an old service station.
Before Jean Burns opened up her store in downtown Nanaimo, when Terminal Avenue was just an alley overlooking a sports field, James A. Irvine had an auto accessories and service store at the corner of what is now Terminal Avenue and Commercial Street.
Irvine, a former diamond driller from Manitoba, worked his way drilling rock across Canada and the U.S., before he settled in Nanaimo and opened the station in 1915.
Decades later the shop would become part of the Jean Burns Building, which burned March 30.
Isobel McDonald, Irvine’s granddaughter submitted a photo of the building to the News Bulletin recently after reading about the fire.
McDonald, now 88, grew up in Harewood and lived in Nanaimo until last year when she and her husband Ross moved to Coquitlam to be closer to their daughter.
“It was mostly car parts, vulcanizing – fixing flat tires,” McDonald said.
“There were big folding doors on Commercial Street … you can see the old Tin Lizzies on each side of the picture. They’d drive in and get their cars fixed or their tires or whatever and drive out the back because that was just an alley and it went to what was called the central sports ground. Now that’s Harbour Park.”
Harbour Park is now called Port Place shopping centre.
McDonald recalls the glass-topped gasoline pumps in front of the shop, the spare tires, tubes and cork head gaskets that hung on the walls inside and her grandparents giving her and her friends dimes so they could go see the movies and buy milkshakes when they walked past on Commercial Street.
“And he had a pit, so the mechanic could go down in the pit and work on the bottom of the car,” McDonald said.
She said Irvine sold the building to Burns in the 1930s when he retired.
‘He was still there when we were teenagers,” McDonald said. “We would always call it ‘grandpa’s store’ on the way to the show and the show was 10 cents. It was by the (Bastion Street) bridge, the Capitol Theatre.”
Burns had a chain of stores in Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Duncan and Courtenay and Port Alberni.
“Oh, she was a little Scottish lady and she worked her butt off. She had a beautiful store and a wonderful staff,” McDonald said.
Burns renovated the service station into the Jean Burns clothing store.
The Jean Burns Building, the portion that burned March 30, was designed by Thomas McArravy, a prominent local architect, and constructed in 1955, according to the City of Nanaimo Heritage Register.
A decision has not yet been made on whether the building will be rebuilt or torn down.