By Richard White, February, 26, 2014
For Calgarians and tourists alike, exploring Calgary’s urban street life means all too often we head to the same places – 17th Avenue, Inglewood, 4th Street or Kensington, or maybe the Design District or Stephen Avenue.
Nothing against any of them, but I thought it would be fun to flaneur the fringes of urban city centre, beyond the Downtown core, beyond the streets of the Beltline, Mission, Kensington/Sunnyside and Inglewood. To flaneur where no flaneur has gone before, to off-off-the-beaten path places in YYC’s urban fringes.
Part One (this blog) will take us along the TransCanada Highway (16th Ave. N), while Part Two will explore 19th Street NW (south and north of the 16th Ave. N) and Part Three will wander the west of the Beltline.
16th Ave N aka TransCanada Highway
When was the last time you explored 16th Avenue North? Ever wonder why it isn’t like 17th Avenue South in terms of shops, restaurants and cafes? While the “urban picking” is sparse, there are some hidden gems along the Trans Canada Highway. If you take transit, grab the LRT and get off at the SAIT/ACAD stop, wander the campus, as there are lots of interesting new buildings and then head to the north side of 16th Avenue at 10th Street and walk east.
Phoenix Comics (1010 16th Ave NW)
Since opening this location in 1994 (it also has a southwest store), Phoenix Comics has evolved into one of the top comic bookstores in Western Canada. Their goal is to have every in-print volume of every title in stock every day. They also carry out-of-print comics, graphic novels of all genres, Manga and games like Dungeons and Dragons. Every Friday they host two free “Magic: The Gathering” tournaments. Selling over 1,000,000 magic cards a year, it’s no wonder Phoenix Comics has been dubbed by some as Calgary’s “Magic Place.”
Aquila Books (826 16th Ave NW)
Two blocks east, Aquila Books is possibly one of the best Canadiana bookstores in Canada. Owner Cameron Treleaven is respected as one the most knowledgeable and connected booksellers in the world. He specializes in books dealing with Polar Exploration, Western Canadiana, Mountaineering, Canadian Pacific Railway and early voyages. Recently, he published catalogues on Mount Everest’s 60th Anniversary and bios on Robert W. Service and soon Lucy Maud Montgomery. It is a fun place to flaneur antique maps, prints, photos, letters, postcards, scientific equipment and bookcases – and yes, books too!
The Audio Spot (632 16th Ave NW)
Another two blocks away is The Audio Spot. Opening in April 2013 in a house on the highway (a reminder that at one time it was just a regular residential street), it’s owned by Marilyn Hall, owner of The Inner Sleeve in Marda Loop. It’s 90 percent vintage “two channel” stereos from the ‘70s and ‘80s with a little new equipment mixed in. There are also lots of records and three separate listening rooms, making it a great place to hear some “blasts from the past” in an authentic setting.
GuitarWorks (602 16th Ave NW)
Established in 1987, GuitarWorks opened this its first store on 16th Avenue. It has since grown to four stores with this one being its flagship acoustic guitars store – they offer over 18 different brands of guitars. It is not just another music retail store, as everyone who works here is passionate about music and plays the guitar. They offer free personal (one-on-one) shopping experience with one of their staff. If you are a picker, this is a fun place to check out.
The Movie Poster Shop (112 16th Ave NW)
Continuing eastward will get you to this unassuming shop. It is a mecca of posters from original Calgary Stampede posters to those of Star Wars and the Rat Pack movies – 6,000 posters in all. I am told people spend a whole day here, enjoying this one-of-a-kind experience.
Don’s Hobby Shop (1515 Centre St. North)
Continuing east, veering south off 16th Ave onto Centre Street and you will soon find yourself at Don’s Hobby Shop. Here you will find everything from Superhero toques to magic and juggling equipment. Maybe sign up for a FX Makeup Class or pick up some joke gifts for your next dinner party. Definitely worth a visit.
Peters’ Drive-In (219 16th Ave NE)
Head back to 16th Ave, continue two blocks east and reward yourself with a milkshake at Peters’ Drive In (maybe a burger and fries too). These are thick, creamy, old fashioned milkshakes (real ice cream, real fruit) that make you work for every swallow. They offer 30+ flavours of milkshakes including Toasted Marshmallow. As they can sell over 4,000 milkshakes on a hot summer day, be prepared for a line up if the weather is nice. This Calgary icon has been serving burgers, fries and milkshakes since 1964.
Even though the 16th Ave N aka the TransCanada Highway is 6 lanes, it really doesn’t seem like a highway as it is divided and you really don’t notice the three lanes on the south side. It is not much different than Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, which is a successful pedestrian oriented street.
The fact that 16th Ave shops are all on the north side of the street means you are walking in the sun, even in the middle of winter. It was -20C the day I flaneured it and I found it very pleasant. I do think there is an advantage to walking east to west on 16th Ave N facing the west bound traffic as you can anticipate the cars going by.
What 16th Ave N needs to make it a more attractive pedestrian destination are more condos on the neighbouring blocks to the north. More density and diversity will attract more local retailers and restaurateurs to locate there, which in turn will attract more people to want to live there. It is the old question, which comes first - the people or the shops?
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