THE CORNER STORE THAT CHANGED RUNNING IN AN ENTIRE PROVINCE
Salam Hashem has been operating a small variety store in Charlottetown, p.e.i., for over 50 years. Hashem’s Variety is like any other modest shop in Canada; there’s fresh produce, loaves of bread, snack food and milk in the fridge. But in the back of the store there is something special: dozens of boxes of Asics running shoes. Hashem’s Variety isn’t just a variety store – it’s a part of the running lifeblood for an entire province. Alex Cyr goes to the back of the Hashem’s Variety to find out why Mr. Hashem has been selling running shoes at a deep discount for decades.
Before Stanley Chaisson became a three-time p.e.i. Marathon champion and the province’s record holder in running’s most iconic distance, he was a kid with a running habit, pounding through sneakers at an expensive rate. Growing up in the 1990s near Charlottetown, he relied on local traditional running stores to stock up on shoes, and to pay a lot for a pair of trainers was commonplace. So, when his parents heard word of an unconventional dealer selling Asics merchandise at a discount price downtown, they ventured over to see if they could save the family some cash. With Stanley in the backseat, they followed directions to a makeshift, white-panelled miniature warehouse on the corner of Fitzroy and Cumberland Street and double-checked to make sure they had read the address right. Confused, they made their way to the entrance.
“I followed my parents inside this little corner store,” remembers the now 35-year-old Chaisson, “and was looking for the shoes. Usually, traditional running retailers make them visible and display them on the walls.” This was no traditional running retailer. The young Chaisson had to navigate through a sea of fresh produce, a large bin of rag-tag socks, a generous display of chewing gum and cigarettes and a dusty ice cream freezer before coming face-to-face with a singular black bench surrounded by shelves of blue and grey closed boxes. A slender man with thin hair and a permanent smile stretching his rugged skin stood by the shelves. Upon seeing the young boy, he confidently stated, “I find the shoe for you, my friend,” before making a purposeful beeline toward the back corner of his emporium. Little did Chaisson know that he would hear that exact phrase countless times over the next two decades.
Salam Hashem, the lone worker in the shop, scanned the blue and
WE WOULD MEET FOR A RUN EVERY SUNDAY MORNING, AND WHEN IT WAS STORMING, THE GROUP WAS THE BIGGEST BECAUSE WE DI D NOT WANT TO DITCH EACH OTHER.
grey boxes and finally settled for one amid the jungle of cardboard. “This, my friend” he told his client, “is your shoe.” Peering at a few newspaper cut-outs depicting Hashem winning various road races, Chaisson quickly laced up the shoes, and, to his parents’ delight, bought them at a heavily discounted price. He was given a complimentary pair of socks with his purchase, and had he asked for a pack of gum and some bananas along with the footwear, he probably would have struck an even better deal.
Twenty-two years later, Hashem’s Variety is still a mainstay market on p.e.i. Word of mouth and bargain pricing are popular sales tools in a small province, which is made evident by the increasing ubiquity of the Asics logo on running feet across the Island since the store’s opening in 1965. Back then, Hashem had no intention of becoming the province’s (and perhaps the Maritimes’) most reliable yet unusual running shoe salesman; he simply wanted to help out a few friends.
“I always loved to run,” recalls Hashem, “everything from the 100m to the marathon, so when I came to p.e.i. in the 1960s, I made some friends through running. We would meet for a run every Sunday morning, and when it was storming, the group was the biggest because we did not want to ditch each other.” One day, a member of the running group complained about the steep price of shoes. Hashem, still without a profession, did what he could to help. “I had a friend who worked at a shoe company,” he recalls, “and so I asked him if I could buy a few pairs from him at production cost. When I told my friends, many of them wanted me to buy for them, so I bought 10 pairs and distributed them for slightly more than that price.”
Things snowballed f rom there. Local runners were hearing of Hashem’s in with Asics, and i n no time, he was solicited around the clock. Because he was rapidly selling each pair of Nimbus, Cumulus and Kayanos they sent him, Asics made sure he never lacked merchandise to move. Half a century later, he still orders directly from the company. “It was more common to have these types of corner stores back then,” says Hashem of his unconventional setup. “I’m fortunate to still be going. There is nothing I love to do more than running, so I am happy when I can make it easier for a runner to afford to do what they like to do.”
Running can become an expensive pastime, especially if you are Francis Fagan. The sexagenarian and long-time road racer’s lifetime mileage exceeds 80,000 kilometres – all of which he ran in locally purchased Asics Kayanos. Over the years, Fagan has made regular visits to Hashem’s store to support his heavy running habit and also to keep in touch
with a friend. “Salam is a great person,” says Fagan. “He is always willing to offer great advice on running to anybody who requests it, and is also willing to listen. I have run over 120 marathons, all in Asics from Hashem’s Variety.”
Variety is the best word to describe the unique shop’s selection. As was Chaisson in his first visit, new patrons are often mystified by Hashem’s layout of merchandise. Anytime Hashem notices a need for goods in the community – regardless of whether the good is particularly profitable – he makes an effort to make it available, which explains the fresh trays of fruit at the store’s entrance, as well as the odd stock of cigarettes starkly juxtaposed with running shoes. “We sell a bit of groceries,” says Hashem. “Bread, milk, fruit, that kind of stuff. It keeps us busy. You just have to do your job and provide for the community when they need it.”
Multiple communities have benefitted from Hashem’s generosity over the years. Hashem’s Variety sponsors the p.e.i. Roadrunners Club’s Points Race Series. Rob MacKenzie, a competitive runner, former p.e.i. Roadrunners board member and current race organizer recognizes that as long as the Asics goldmine is around, the local running scene is in good hands. “Aside from the Points Race sponsorship, Salam donates racing shoes as prizes for half a dozen races in any given year. If a race asks him to be a sponsor, he will likely say yes. He is very generous to that cause,” says MacKenzie. He also recognizes the establishment’s value to local runners beyond the sponsorships Hashem provides.
“I think what has made him such a mainstay on p.e.i. is that he made running shoes more affordable than anywhere in Canada,” says MacKenzie. “Salam has, perhaps unknowingly, kick-started many running careers.”
For Chaisson, Hashem has been an invaluable source of goods and guidance. Ever since that first pair of shoes as a youth, the two have developed a strong friendship. “I love talking races, times and performances with him,” says Chaisson. “We have a lot to talk about, because we both run or ran competitively. Chaisson points out that Hashem values everyone who comes into the store – no matter what level of runner they are. “He is so encouraging and genuine, and that makes people comfortable to share their running stories and struggles with him,” says Chaisson. “He’s never rushed, and no matter how many people are in the store at a time, he will take care of every new customer and learn a bit about them. In a way, he is the Yoda of p.e.i. running.”
“I like talking with Stanley about times and races,” says Hashem. “It is fun to learn those things about everyone who comes in the
store.” Although he takes interest in his customers’ running stories, having him disclose his own race results sometimes takes some prying. Aside from his slim physique, those old newspaper cut-outs of Hashem running are the only remaining clues of his prowess as a racer. He remembers, “back when I was running lots – 90-mile weeks – I did OK in the marathon,” he says. “I won age-group titles and medals in Kamloops, Summerside and Toronto, but that was a long time ago.” Legend has it, he has an impressive number of sub-three hour marathon finishes to his name, some of which he ran in his 40s and 50s. He doesn’t race often anymore, but he still runs 25–35 kilometres per week. “As long as I have health, I will run. I also do a bit of weights to stay strong in my upper body,” he says.
Hashem’s racing career may have been more illustrious had he not been tied down by his store. “It’s crazy that this man has never been to the Boston Marathon” says Chaisson. “He must have qualified several times, but was never willing to leave the store behind for a few days. He likes being there and dealing with clients.”
“The store is always busy,” confirms Hashem, “so I like being around.” The long work hours and infrequent vacations do little to faze him. “I love what I do. Most people you meet in this sport are good, honest people. For me, it’s simple. I do the best I can for the sport I love. I want it to grow and get more people into it, and I hope to keep making a difference.”
I’ M FORTUNATE TO STILL BE GOING. THERE IS NOTHING I LOVE TO DO MORE THAN RUNNING, SO I AM HAPPY WHEN I CAN MAKE IT EASIER FOR A RUNNER TO AFFORD TO DO WHAT THEY LIKE TO DO.