It’s hard to decide where your eyes should land when you’re walking down Concession Street on the Mountain.
There are sidewalk patios lining the thoroughfare. Colorful murals adorning restaurants and local businesses. Large black-and-white photos superimposed on the buildings or corners they capture from days gone by.
“People are just fascinated with them,” said Lorraine Halpin, owner of Opie’s Quality Meats, a Scottish shop on the strip. “We’ve got a really nice neighborhood.”
Concession Street is one of more than a dozen Business Improvement Areas (BIA) dotting the city. Considered one of the largest in Hamilton, it reaches from Upper Wellington Street to just east of Upper Gage Avenue.
It’s one of many commercial districts – not every neighborhood has a BIA – that has seen changes amid the pandemic and perhaps now, a renewed interest from shoppers as the city continues to make its way back to normal.
The Spectator visited Concession Street earlier this month and spoke to a handful of small business owners to get their take on how the pandemic affected the area and what they’re hoping to see in the coming weeks and months.
Juliene Gauthier, owner of Candi Werx, said the street hasn’t seen a “huge shift” over the last two and a half years.
“There have been new businesses coming in to the very small amount of openings that there have been,” said Gauthier, who has run the candy shop for eight years. “But there haven’t been a lot of businesses leaving.”
Cristina Geissler, executive director for the BIA, said more than a dozen new businesses and counting have opened on the street since the pandemic hit.
Some of those new ventures include The Parlor, Revel Realty Inc., The Urban Zoo, Sparkle Cannabis Company, Suzy Sweet Tooth, Wyskt Facial Bar, Jeldon Extensions and Canine Clips.
She noted that only four shops have closed since spring 2020, including the popular Hawaiian sushi bar Pokeh and longtime brunch spot Papa Leo’s – both of which shuttered in 2021.
“Luckily vacancies do not stay that way for long,” said Geissler. “(Businesses) want to be part of what is happening here.”
And with spring in the air, pedestrian traffic is starting to “pick back up,” said Halpin, pointing to the return of in-person events in the neighborhood.
The monthly music series Sidewalk Sounds recently kicked off and after a two-year hiatus, Streetfest will make its return on June 11.
“People are eager to get back out, walk around, visit stores and they feel safe doing it,” said Jeff Schuster, owner of Retrosaurus, a vintage toy and games shop, while noting the events are good for exposure.
But even as things return to some level of normalcy, Geissler said the soaring cost of living, staffing challenges and ongoing pandemic concerns are still hitting businesses.
“Things are better but not where everyone would like them to be,” she said. “Every day is a new challenge in finding ways to keep customers coming through their doors.”
Gabe Grace, a staff member at Retrosaurus, noted he’s seeing fewer out-of-town shoppers, even though the retro video game and nostalgia shop would be considered a “destination” store.
“I feel like inflation and the rise in gas prices have hit people’s budgets a bit,” Shuster added.
Both Halpin and Schuster also noted that even with a push to shop local amid the pandemic, they still often see new customers coming into their shops who didn’t realize either shop existed.
Opie’s has been operating on Concession since the late 1960s, while Retrosaurus opened its doors around four years ago.
“It’s hard to get people in sometimes,” said Halpin, calling Concession a “hidden gem” of a shopping district. “People really don’t know we’re here.”
The Spectator’s shopping list
When The Spectator visited Concession Street earlier this month, we got a taste of what you can find at a handful of shops on the strip. Here are some of the highlights.
At Candi Werx, you can find a wide selection of candy, chocolate bars, fudge and ice cream. The candy shop also serves up coffee, tea, cocktails and milkshakes. They have both indoor and outdoor seating.
At Retrosaurus, you can find anything from vintage Care Bears and Barbies to just about any Star Wars action figure you can think of. The nostalgia shop also sells comics, classic gaming machines and video games.
Opie’s Quality Meats
At Opie’s Quality Meats, customers can pick up haggis, black pudding, sausages, savory pies and baked goods. They also have a selection of British snacks, including pop, chocolate bars, candy and chips as well as other dry pantry goods.