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The J. A. Moisan grocery store first opened its doors in 1871. It is still open for business today, with one owner after another keeping alive the flame of a business tradition that gradually became like no other as the store’s heritage value increased with its charm. That said, the store is, and always has been, a place where locals can pick up their daily groceries. In that, it is a grocery store very much of its day.
Rumour has it that the man behind the Moisan store was one of Irish men and women who fled the famine in their home country in the mid-19th century. His parents are thought to have died when the ship carrying them sank not far from Québec, and a local carpenter adopted him and raised him as his own.
Jean-Alfred Moisan was only 23 when he opened a first grocery store on the corner of De La Chevrotière and De l’Artillerie (a street that no longer exists). Two years later he married Laetitia Clavet, whose father owned a meat company, and moved the store to Rue Saint-Jean, then Upper Town’s busiest shopping street outside the walls. After living in the neighbouring house, in 1885 J.-A. Moisan bought the building where the store still stands today.
The building was built around 1850 and, typical of its day, was designed to be both a home and a place of business. The family ran the store on the ground floor and lived upstairs. The storefront’s windows helped attract the attention of passersby to the products on sale inside.
In the late 19th century people usually bought food in the nearest corner store. To attract more clients the enterprising J.-A. Moisan developed a range of specialties. He responded to the obligation laid down by the Catholic Church to abstain from meat on Fridays by opening a fishmonger’s. It was kept busy, especially when oysters arrived by the barrel. Coffee was also available to customers, along with tea imported straight from England, spices, and Île d’Orléans’s famous “raffiné” cheese, the only place where it could be found in Upper Town.
In 1921, even though he was now 70 years old, he bought the house next to the store with a view to expanding his business. But the project never amounted to anything.
When the store’s founder died in 1927 his son Joseph-Elzéar took over the family business. As was common at the time, he married into the same profession with Hélène Légaré, daughter to a fruit and vegetable dealer. J.-E. Moisan successfully negotiated the Great Depression of the 1930s, but went bankrupt in 1939. Since the couple did not have any children, a brother-in-law acquired the family business and ran it until 1979.
The Moisan store’s new owner knew the family well and preserved the character of surroundings that were over 100 years old. The expansion first envisaged in 1921 finally came about in 1982 as the building next door was used to sell products in bulk, an old-fashioned practice given a modern twist.
But the focus on heritage really came into its own under the current owners, who bought the store in 1999. They carried out research, met surviving members of the Moisan family, got their hands on period photos, and displayed items that had been permanent fixtures in the store for years. Renovations restored the early 20th century look and feel, while retaining its market niche: imports and specialty goods.
This passion for history and heritage is still very much alive for the store’s current owners, who have even restored and furnished the home’s upper floors, where they run a small 19th century-style inn. The result is that the Moisan family home has retained its historic character from the attic right down to the ground floor, to the great delight of customers today.
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