COLUMN: Distinctive shop will be noticeable loss

Death of Old Curio Shop owner Barrie Cohen brings likely end to one of South Surrey's most recognizable buildings.

Years ago, a few months into my tenure here at the Peace Arch News, my former editor assigned me to go write a feature on South Surrey’s Old Curio Shop.

“Go down there and see what it’s all about – it’s an interesting place. Take a photographer with you,” he said, his second sentence proving just how long ago this was.

So, off we went down King George Highway – it was a highway, not a boulevard, then – until we came upon the rundown building on the east side of the street, just north of 14 Avenue.

The shop looked – then, as it does now – like something out of a Flintstones cartoon, rock-like and painted white, surrounded by trees, brambles and, well, a lot of stuff.

“Always buying,” read a sign out front.

Well, duh.

With no sign of shop owner Barrie Cohen – he’d previously told us to stop by anytime – we walked toward the front door, tip-toeing over a few boxes in the entryway, which, if I remember correctly, were filled with plates and other dinnerware.

This is where the story hit a snag.

We couldn’t get in.

Beyond the boxes of cups and saucers were more boxes, their contents a mystery. Beyond that? Darkness.

After no one answered our calls of “Hello?” we left.

There was no way, we decided, we were venturing any further than a few feet into the dark abyss. We’re reporters, we reasoned, not Indiana Jones.

The story never got finished.

I’ve been back plenty of times since, though I’ve never ventured inside. Instead, I’ve been out in front, watching members of the RCMP, or fire services, or Surrey bylaw officers on the property, as they’ve gone about their business.

And recently, they’ve been there a lot, doing everything from cleaning up the property after complaints it was unsightly, to rescuing a man who became trapped – due to falling debris – in a staircase inside the home on the property. My last visit was Friday, and I watched as men from a restoration company boarded up the front windows with plywood.

A few hours later, we heard that Cohen had passed away, bringing a possible end to the Old Curio Shop which, for better or worse, has always been one of the Peninsula’s quirkiest, most recognizable buildings.

Cohen – with his trademark winter hat always atop his head, no matter the season – was one of the area’s quirkiest residents, too. He was a regular at local garage sales, and a frequent visitor to the Peace Arch News office, placing ‘for sale’ ads for the treasures he’d collected.

He was more than just a collector, too. According to family, he held multiple university degrees in the sciences, painted – even served as a newspaper photographer in the 1970s.

The things you don’t know.

If it is the end of the line for the Old Curio Shop, I imagine the lot will be cleared, and, sometime in the future, some kind of high-density residential project built in its wake.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unique as it was, the Curio Shop had gone beyond being an eyesore to a few neighbours, who never hesitated to wander outside to tell a visiting reporter what they thought of the place.

Over the years, it had become – or always had been, depending on who you ask – a health and safety risk. In March, RCMP Cpl. Bert Paquet said as much, telling PAN “we are concerned with the safety of the residents” on the property.

But for all its faults, it was unique – a true curiosity, in a time when fewer and fewer such places exist.

And though people had problems with the place, I imagine – ironic as it may be – they may have similar complaints if, a few years from now, some new higher-density development goes up in its place:

Too much, crammed into too tight a space.

Nick Greenizan is a reporter at the Peace Arch News.