In 1976, Joe Thomeh opened Thomeh’s Market Kwik-Way Convenience Store at the corner of Cornwallis and Maynard Streets, in Halifax’s north end. The two-storey building with red bricks on the bottom and matching red shingles on top is now overshadowed by nearby highrises and apartment buildings. Its letterboard sign has read “MILKHOMO” for as long as anyone can remember, and an old-fashioned shopkeeper’s bell sits above the door, jingling each time a neighbour comes in to pick up a lighter, coffee creamer or just to say hi.
For more than four decades, Youssef Thomeh, known to everyone simply as Joe, ran the store with his wife Kamlie (Kim). Their four kids—Najah, Nassim, Rima and Samira—grew up there, playing behind the counter and stocking shelves after school.
But over time, Thomeh’s children became adults and had families of their own. Kim passed away in 2018. Then the pandemic hit. Earlier this year, Thomeh finally decided it was time to pass the torch. “I just want to relax,” he says.
It would’ve been easy to sell the building to a developer and let someone open a coffee or pizza chain in place of the beloved local convenience store. But Thomeh didn’t want that.
“I was looking for a family, like I have,” he says. Thomeh’s son Nassim will keep managing the building itself, but the business inside has been sold to a young couple: Danny and Clara Vo.
The Vos immigrated to Canada from Vietnam about 15 months ago. Although they started from a different continent than the Thomehs, who immigrated from Lebanon in the ’70s, the two families quickly learned they had much in common.
“Fourty years ago, his wife and his kids, were the same as us right now,” says Danny Vo. “So I think in 40 more years, I’m going to be like him.”
Formerly a teacher, Vo says he’s learning all he can from Thomeh before he officially retires. That includes making relationships with suppliers as well as with the neighbours who come into the shop. When a customer brings her bottle of soy sauce to the counter, Vo looks to Thomeh, who’s watching over his shoulder: “How much?” Thomeh quickly and confidently answers, “$3.49.”
“He’s very supportive, very friendly with us,” says Vo.
At the back of the store, Clara makes a stir fry in a wok. Right now, it’s just lunch for herself and Danny. But once the food permit comes in, they plan to sell Vietnamese and Thai food like pho, spring rolls and Thai curries. “And, my Papa right now,” Danny says as he laughs and gestures to Thomeh, “he is teaching me how to make hamburgers.”
There will be some other changes around the shop. Vo says he wants to stock Asian teas in the future. And a new set of children will grow up behind the counter. But the Vos hope to continue Thomeh’s legacy of being not only store clerks, but a part of the community.
“I’m most excited to meet interesting and nice people here. Coming to Canada, everything for me, for my family, is very new,” says Danny. “Some people come here, and we feel that we will have a good relationship with them forever. They’re so friendly to us.”
A retirement celebration for Thomeh will take place at the store on Sunday, May 15 starting at 2pm.