Nelson Star

Wait’s News: Nelson landmark frozen in time

It’s the lunch counter where time stands still.

For nearly three quarters of a century, Wait’s News has served coffee, milkshakes, and ice cream at the corner of Ward and Baker like a reassuring universal constant.

Thanks to a series of owners who made few changes, it’s a throwback to an earlier era, retaining its original name and look. Fourteen well-worn stools and a weathered counter line its narrow corridor. Vintage tins, Palm Dairy milk cans, and Coke signs fill the walls and shelves.

Already the oldest business on Baker Street besides the banks, Wait’s is now getting ready to celebrate its 75th anniversary on Saturday.

“It’s an institution for sure,” says Mari Plamondon, proprietor for the last three years with husband Jim. “We feel really honoured to have this business and the opportunity to share the history of how it was and still is.”

WAIT’S FOUNDER

The man who started Wait’s News rode into Nelson on a boxcar in the late 1920s.

A Saskatchewan native, Walter Wilson Wait immediately fell in love with the city, and after graduating from university, moved here permanently. He was a reporter and sports columnist for the Daily News and an all-round athlete. Despite missing an eye — the result of a childhood sledding accident — he played senior hockey, tried out for the Ice Capades, golfed, and founded the seniors midsummer curling bonspiel.

Although Wait’s biographical file at the Touchstones archives is full of details about his sports-related activities, there isn’t much about his namesake business.

Little-known fact: Wait’s News began in 1937 at 616 Baker, the present site of the Main Street Diner, before moving two years later to its present home at 499 Baker. (The timing of this weekend’s celebration is arbitrary, for no one is sure exactly when the store opened.)

Wait’s daughter Sheila Service, who now lives at Lake Cowichan, recalls boarding the streetcar with her sister in front of their Nelson Avenue home and being dropped off at the store. She began working there at 12 or 13.

“It was very much a part of our life until Dad sold it,” she says. “He was there every single day. He would usually be home in time for dinner, but it was a seven-day operation.”

Wait extended his hours to stay competitive in the post-war era when supermarkets began dominating the grocery business. “If he wasn’t open when the rest of the world was closed, he lost a lot of business,” Service says.

She isn’t sure why her father left the newspaper to start the store in the first place, but thinks the independence appealed to him. “He liked interacting with people. The store provided him an opportunity to relate to people all day, every day.”

In a 1998 history of Wait’s News, Art Joyce suggested Wait’s “affability and inventiveness [were] an ideal mix.” In the 1940s and ‘50s, “the chrome and vinyl lunch counter stools [were] noisy with teens meeting to sip malts and plunk coins into Nelson’s first jukebox.”

Often greeting customers was Margaret Morrow, whose “extra rich milkshakes” made her famous, according to son Ken. “She was the star attraction of Wait’s, with her relaxed manner, ready smile, and unrestrained laughter,” he wrote in his autobiography, A Boyhood in Nelson.

Parliamentary poet laureate Fred Wah recalled in his book Diamond Grill that around 1953 Wait’s acquired the first soft ice cream machine in town — a fact Walter sometimes rubbed in while dining at the Wah family’s restaurant a block away. One day, however, Wah’s father surprised Wait by offering him soft ice cream for dessert: “Walter’s a bit stunned; he thought he had the only soft ice cream around. Anyway, he calls my dad’s bluff.”

Wah’s father slipped out the back, ran across the street to buy an ice cream cone from Wait’s News, and then returned to serve it to Walter in a dish, much to his astonishment.

After selling the store in 1960, Wait was civil defense co-ordinator for the Kootenays and a freelance writer. He died in 1985 at 79, shortly after being made a freeman of the city. He was posthumously named citizen of the year and nominated for the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

FROZEN IN TIME

Wait’s successor at the newsstand and diner only lasted a short while before selling in turn to Ray and Don Benedetti, who became the longest-serving proprietors. In addition to expanding the menu, they added the Red Top Taxi stand, and for a while were open around the clock. Since the Benedettis sold in 1988, the business has changed hands a few more times.

Fred and Mary Anne McClelland had it for 14 years before the Plamondons took over in 2009, trading in their Greyhound agency for the iconic store that was Jim’s regular haunt.

“He’d been drinking coffee at Wait’s News for 30 years, so it seemed like a good fit,” Mari says. “If I needed to find him, I would phone Wait’s. He went there on his way to work and on his way home.”

When Jim opens at 6 a.m. people are always waiting — for years, a small group of men has met there for coffee daily. Each has a designated stool. (When one of them died, Jim paid tribute by placing an upside-down coffee cup on his seat.)

Wait’s hours have been reduced in recent years but are still long: 6 to 6 Monday to Saturday, and 8 to 4 on Sundays. Fridays and Saturdays they reopen from 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., providing pizza and popcorn to the late-night crowd.

“When we first started we thought a busy night was selling three pizzas,” Mari says. “I did 16 last Saturday. It’s definitely filling a spot.”

Like those before them, the Plamondons have been loath to make any drastic changes. “It’s pretty impressive that everyone who has owned it has kept it as is,” she says. “It’s an integrity thing: it needs to stay the way it is.”

You can still get the same milkshakes and ice cream cones generations of Nelsonites have been raised on. For the birthday celebration, customers are being asked to write their memories on cardboard cones, to be posted on the front window. Even without prompting, Plamondon says, people often reminisce.

“All the time they say ‘I used to work here,’ or ‘My dad used to bring me here. I used to sit on this very stool!’ Tourists from all over say ‘We had a milkshake last time we were here.’”

A couple of old favourites will reappear for Saturday’s party: chicken salad sandwiches (which, it turns out, were actually turkey) and chocolate malted milkshakes.

Wait’s daughter, who was here recently, is gratified to see her father’s legacy preserved, including a big photo of him behind the counter.

“I’m honoured on my dad’s behalf that they’ve seen fit to keep his image,” she says. “That really touched me.” She’s also amazed its prominence has not diminished in 75 years. “Anybody who’s been to Nelson, I ask ‘Did you stop in at Wait’s News?’ and usually they say yes. It really has not changed.”

• Mari Plamondon will be a guest on CBC Radio’s Radio West today sometime between 5:30 and 6 p.m.

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