Tosi Foods - the shop that time forgot.
Updated: Oct 22, 2022
In 2018, I was asked to go out to set to deliver some decoration items that I had made. I would always jump at the chance to get out of the office and bask en plein air - sitting in front of graphic design software in dingy design scriptoria for decades inevitably leads to an intense longing to be outside. The address was on Main street at Keefer, in the heart of Chinatown. I parked up and headed towards the all-too-familiar familiar phalanx of white trucks, further along the street. They were positioned outside an old low-rise shop building that I had never noticed before. The façade was remarkable: at the sidewalk level, tiles as black as piano lacquer terminated at a checkered band, some 4-inches thick, underscoring the large plate glass window. At the foot of the wooden door, a mosaic - a russet font was widely spaced on speckled, salt and pepper granite; an indelible doormat which read, ‘Tosi’. My curiosity was piqued. I opened the door and steped inside. Immediately I found myself in a different temporal realm, a living palimpsest of time, layered like a mille-feuille pastry. An Italian delicatessen, the like of which seems part dream and part (unreliable) recollection. I was buffered into a world of first-name salutations, where tiny bells tinkle above door jambs; a habitat of redoubtable weighing scales and cash registers that resemble steampunk time machines.
Tosi Foods, Photographs by Backstory.
In a city such as Vancouver, where any soupçon of local history is routinely exsanguinated in the name of neophilia and profit, I immediately intuited the distinctive peculiarity of the space. To describe it accurately would demand a monograph of exhausting complexity, one which I fear may be too time-consuming to delineate. An effective précis of Tosi’s Foods would be bound to point out that it was one of those places that sold pretty much anything that they could get their hands on. Silk-banded sock garters, Norwegian Lutefisk, heirloom seeds, lead crystal glasses, and exquisitely lathed, wooden cork extractors mingled among the more predictable, Italianate fare. On the shelves leading to the purgatorial, unlit loading area, I noticed teetering stacks of old tins - surfactants and unguents, soap cakes, and canisters of sewing machine oil - rusting, seemingly awaiting a time that would never arrive.
Tosi Foods, Photographs by Backstory. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Today is a glorious, sunny day. The kind of day that has heretofore been an impossibility at this time of the year. The flanurge is upon me, I yearn to go out and run my fingers along some pock-marked brickwork, to straddle along what skein of evidential history Vancouver has left to offer. Walking along Main, winding my way through the smells of piss and dried fish, I stop at a familiar plate glass window. In front of a doorway, two old people (an old white man wearing a woolen beanie and an apron, and a tidy Chinese woman with even features) sit on tubular-framed chairs, facing the busy thoroughfare. I say hello to the old man. ‘May I take look inside?’ He nods and I walk almost reverentially into the Trove that is, and forever will be, Tosi’s Foods. He follows close behind with surprising swiftness. “Have you tried my cheese?” “No. I have not.” “You should try our blue cheese and our fontina.” He follows a worn chicane to a plastic tray covered with a tea towel, unveiling the victuals underneath. “I will cut to the chase: I came here back in 2018 when I was working on a TV show. Your backroom was our bad guy’s hideout. I noticed that you had a collection of old tins on the shelves. I collect this type of thing now - I am into antiques and old packaging stuff - and, well, I was wondering if you would be interested in selling any of it to me.” He is hard of hearing and asks me to repeat my entire spiel. As I speak, he cranes his left ear towards my voice. “ So I was wondering if you would be interested in selling any of it to me.” He smiles. “Sure. Go back there and take a look.”
Angelo is now 93. He has been running the place since his father, Peter (who started the business in 1906) died in the early seventies. “There is not a lot of light back there, but it was my father’s dying wish: ‘he said, son, promise me that you will never ever put in any of those ugly fluorescent lights…’”
Such a cordial, warm personality: he must have patted me on the shoulder at least five times while I was there. He let me root around and as a consequence, I was able to add some novel items of mid-century packaging to my nascent collection.
In my car, heading home, I spritz the interior with some of his vintage air freshener. I think to myself: I wonder, just what does the 1950s smell like?
The verdict? F***ing awful. It almost makes me gag. It smells like dime-store potpourri and decaying dreams...
My Tosi Foods booty - Photograph by Backstory.