From cornerstore to a little piece of Oaxaca – guest blog

Monday, 28 January 2013

(by Mike Bulthuis)

Images, clockwise from top left: the former Barrette Confectionery Grocery, Mitla’s draft floorplan, “Opening Soon,” the white pine boards of Marier (credits: Mitla/Ana Collins, 2012)
Walking into Mitla, the new Oaxacan take-away restaurant at the corner of Barrette and Loyer, you really need to look down, at the floors. The 100 year old white pine boards represent a community’s sweat equity. Ana Collins came across the boards in 2012, finding them in a house on Marier while it was being demolished, just as she was planning to open Mitla. As she explains, “I had this image in my head of hardwood floors, but you know how much they are… These were free. People helped pull nails, sandpaper, lay them down. This began with community.” The story is an apt snapshot for Mitla, representing the entrepreneurial and innovative approach that is bringing back life to this once busy corner confectionery. Collins had her eyes on the vacant storefront for some time, in her words “pestering” the owner for a few years before he rented her the space. Since opening in December, residents from across the city have been drawn to Mitla’s unique Oaxacan offerings. Moreover, passersby are popping in for take-away. Of course, this walk-by traffic (along with bike-by and drive-by traffic) was always in the plan. Before opening, Ana and her son would chalk the numbers of passersby between 4:00 and 6:00 pm, counting those on foot, on their bikes or in cars as they passed.
There’s little doubt the neighbourhood was keen to see this long vacant storefront assume new life, demonstrating a form of community ownership over the building’s new lease. After commenting positively on Collins’ exterior paint job of the building’s first level, an enthusiastic neighbour returned from the local paint store with enough of the same colour to do the building’s second level. Soon, another neighbour was on a ladder getting the job done.
While the neighbourhood may be here for Mitla, so too is Mitla here for the neighbourhood. “I want to be part of the neighbourhood: Vanier needs something a little bit funky” Collins told Laura Robin earlier this year. Local art hangs on the wall. Sidewalk tables may draw you in as spring beckons (and it will). And soon, inspired by her social activist roots and the cultural salons of European cafes – or more locally by the popular Science Cafés held at Wild Oat – Collins is planning to give one evening per week over to dialogue, with residents presenting on ideas of interest. Whether wanting to share your experience on the Camino de Santiago, screen your latest film project, knit in the company of others or promote the idea of windfarms, the stage may be for you (and those interested to listen over a beverage and bite to eat).
In these ways, Collins hopes Mitla becomes more than just a take-away restaurant or caterer. The “old way of thinking is to do just one thing,” she explains. “You need to provide all sorts of services to people, a little here, a little there.” This helps to explain why Collins, a self-identified avid cyclist, imagines giving over part of her space to a bike mechanic, even becoming a place to pick up an innertube, break pads or other missing bike part. Ideas like this mean the space “becomes much more holistic — an organic space, rather than thus just a purely economic space.” Collins’ entrepreneurial, outside the box thinking stands as one example of the renewal of vacant space – an inspiring story when considering other unused or underused spaces in our hood.
Starting a business is no small feat. Collins is still having fun, joking that reality may still be sinking in – while acknowledging that “intellectually knowing something, and then emotionally and physically going through it, is something different.” All the more reason to celebrate. Plans are being finalized for Mitla’s Grand Opening Party this Saturday, February 2, from 12-4, complete with hors d’oeuvres of an Oaxacan flavour, party games, tricks and old-fashioned foolery – and of course, Mitla’s signature food.

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