It's official. Main Street, where women of a certain profession once worked the street corners in stilettos, is certifiably hip. It has a catchy...

Share story

VANCOUVER, B.C. — It’s official. Main Street, where women of a certain profession once worked the street corners in stilettos, is certifiably hip.

It has a catchy moniker, SoMa (South Main), plastered over brochures and mentioned on the Vancouver tourism Web site.

Concierges now recommend this drag to hotel guests who inquire about trendy boutiques.

With its hipster vibe and seedy past, Main Street has always gravitated toward the far left, away from the tourist shopping district, Robson Street, and the mainstream.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

But the explosive growth in the city, coupled with the cheap rent in this Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Southeast Vancouver, has brought a surge of new boutiques, novelty shops and fancy restaurants to the strip.

Main Street now straddles between high brow and low brow: Aurora Bistro, with its $120 pinot noir, stares across at Fox Cinema, a porno theater. If this city were a party, Main Street would be the conversation piece.

The strip hosts noodle houses and coffee houses, with boutiques and art-deco furniture stores plopped between antiques dens and consignment shops.

“Think of it as a big, sprawling mosaic,” with clashing colors and textures, said art critic Christopher Brayshaw, who also owns Pulpfiction Books on Main Street. “You got wildly different incomes, social classes coexisting, cheek by jowl.”

Of course, that’s the lure of Main. It doesn’t fit into any box or category.

The fashionable place to be

Credit the young clothing designers who made it fashionable to be seen here. They either couldn’t get their lines into the big department stores, or they couldn’t afford the rent in tony Yaletown nearby.

Their boutiques dot the commercial strip throughout 18 blocks, especially around 21st and 22nd avenues, “Boutique Row.”

Indie labels and vintage-inspired lines rule here:

• Twigg&Hottie, started by three young women fresh out of design school, features more than 50 local designers.

• Eugene Choo showcases the cult French label A.P.C. shirts and Switzerland’s Freitas, pop-art-designed messenger bags made from recycled material, the rage in Europe.

• Then there’s Narcissist, a contemporary women’s boutique. Its signature dress, “The Pamela,” costs $185 (Canadian). To hear the girls tell it, it holds superpowers and can solve all of life’s riddles. It’s a dress that can be adjusted to wear eight different ways, from strapless to halter, to an open back with a cross loop neck (see the demo video at

It’s undoubtedly the most talked-about dress on SoMa and underscores to many young shoppers why Main Street is emerging as the city hub for the most exciting and cutting-edge designs.

The prices — $20 to $250 for shirts and dresses — are more reasonable than other shopping districts in Vancouver because of lower overhead and because these young designers are still looking to make a name.

This spring, SoMa designers are rolling out environmentally friendly clothes: dress shirts and blouses made from organic cotton, soy and bamboo fiber. Mixed-texture clothes, such as silk and linen shirts, are big, as are stripes. For guys, vintage-inspired vests to layer with T-shirts, dress shirts and sport coats are in.

Shops with characters

Many of the city’s best consignment and vintage stores, such as trendy Front & Co. and Madison on Main, are scattered along Main.

The consignment shops also house some of the street’s most colorful characters. Burcu Ozdemir, the diva of Main, is the much-loved owner of Burcu’s Angels. I know this because she told me.

Her vintage clothing and costume shop draws in a crowd as colorful as she is. Where else, in the span of five minutes, can you witness a Russian immigrant looking to suit up for a shotgun wedding followed by a stripper looking for a “really short skirt” to play a bad Catholic girl?

A few blocks down is Echo, a consignment store without a storefront sign, where opening hours are listed as “occasionally as early as 11:30 but some days as late as 12:30.”

Young designers may have bumped up the “class” factor in the neighborhood, but Main Street still revels in its eccentricities. Happy Bats Cinema, a DVD rental store, offers the William Shatner movie spoken in Esperanto. Motherland sells locally designed T-shirts with images of Lenin and the former Soviet Union. A toy store, Voltage, sells mice toting AK-47s and cuddly figurines with evil scolds.

Said Voltage owner Christian Mackenzie, who opened the shop three years ago on Main, “We wouldn’t have fit in anywhere else.”

The secrets of the streets

Until the property was boarded up and fenced recently, a doughnut shop on the corner of 33rd Avenue and Main Street was a hub for locals to play cards and place bets, beneath a sign: “No gambling.”

Main Street was crime-infested 20 years ago, but that just meant cheap rent to starving artists and Asian immigrants who were looking for studio and restaurant space. They led the revitalization.

Their roots remain. SoMa has the melting-pot character of Seattle’s Beacon Hill and the artsy vibe of Capitol Hill. Some of the city’s best Southeast Asian food is here, in places such as Rekados, a Filipino tapas restaurant; Sawasdee, one of the city’s oldest Thai restaurants; and Hawker’s Delight, a Singaporean dive specializing in street-vendor food.

Artists remain, but the art scene is more underground. The art gallery on Eighth and Main is located behind door “No. 5” in a gray, nondescript building. To find it, you have to ask.

Nearby, Antisocial, a skateboard store with an indoor skateboard park, keeps an art gallery in the back.

“Main Street is full of things like that … that you only know by being on the street or being friends of someone who works or lives on these streets,” said Brayshaw, the bookstore owner.

By that, he means more than just the art scene. Hookers don’t work the drag anymore, but Robin Bougie, an X-rated comic-book artist who lives and bikes around Main Street, points to a building where the sex trade still lurks by night.

Still, Main Street feels safe. The city put in streetlights and paved wide sidewalks to encourage walking. Mothers with baby strollers frequent these blocks along with pierced artists and skateboarders.

For all the concerns of gentrification, Main Street appears unremarkable, with its worn storefront signs with missing letters and storefronts in need of a new coat of paint.

They just all seem to blend into this street’s gritty roots and who-cares-what-outsiders-think attitude.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.