While stumbling and bumbling around, a drunk man tripped into a small store, which had just opened on the corner of Bank and Gilmour streets.
He wandered through, gazing at its vibrantly coloured collection of bed spreads, dresses and textiles, unsure of where his drunken adventure had led him. It was different from the other stores he meandered by on the street. The aroma of the burning incense enticed him to wobble down to the back end of the shop. Intoxicated by the smell, he grumbled, grabbed a pack of the sweet scented sticks and dropped a dollar bill on the counter. Excited, the owner, Aziz Ujjainwala, accepted the bill and processed his first customer, before he tumbled out of the store.
Fifty years later, that dollar bill is still at Aziz & Company, framed and perched over the counter.
“We still offer incense to people of all various states of mind,” jokes Sheena Zain, Aziz’s daughter who now runs the store. “It all started with that dollar, one little box of incense and an inebriated gentlemen. From there, we have grown and carried on.”
Sheena’s parents arrived from India a few years before opening the store in 1964. They had one goal in mind: provide a better life for their children. With that, Aziz and his wife, Zubeda, made their way to Ottawa.
Aziz started off by selling his wares door-to-door. On trips back to India, he would stuff his suitcase with goods to sell. His mobile business succeeded, which had Zubeda thinking it was time to open a shop.
“My mother was the one who gave my dad the idea to open the store when he had success going door-to-door,” says Sheena. “Another reason why my parents opened the store is because my mother wanted to have a place to work where she could [pause] work if she needed to look after us.”
Sheena and her older sister Jasmine essentially grew up in the store.
“It was great. When we were little, everything was so different from everywhere else outside… it became a bubble, but it was a wonderful bubble,” says Sheena. “I remember climbing on piles of bed spreads stacked from the floor to the ceiling. That was play time.”
“So it was interesting, because family time was always interrupted when people came into the store. My whole life has been peppered with people coming in and saying ‘I remember you when you were just a little girl playing behind the counter’. That’s something you can’t put a price on.”
[Aziz Ujjainwala (founder, dad).]
Despite passing away 16 years ago, Aziz’s influence on the store remains intact, although the store is evolving to reflect its changing surroundings.
“My parents are infused with every, single, square centimetre of this store,” says Sheena. “We being born and raised here, we took those Indian values and we merged them with Canadian values. In that sense, the store evolved from my parents’ mission of just wanting basic success to my sister and I wanting success balanced with social values.”
On purchasing trips to India, Sheena ensures the goods she brings back are made by manufacturers who share her values. No child labour is used to make any of the products in Aziz and Company’s inventory. She ensures everything in her store follows the mandate she’s ushered in since she took over from her sister last year.
“I like to curate things in a way I can tell people there’s a story behind how this is made. There’s a history of India in how this is made. And it’s still made the same way as it was hundreds years or maybe even longer ago. I like to have that ability to create a colour palette, with a lot of history and a lot of consciousness.”
In October, Aziz & Co. will be fifty years old. It’s not only served as a shop over that time, but also as a neighbourhood destination, where people can spend a moment vicariously in India.
Most notably, however, is it still serves as a family home.
“Looking back, my favourite memory is when I’d get tired, my Dad would just take bed spreads off the shelf and make a little bed for me behind the counter. I’d lie down…and he’d just tuck me in and put me right to sleep right behind the counter,” says Sheena. “I’d get up and I’d hear my Dad chatting and having a cup of tea with somebody. Nothing could be more like home than that, this has always really been my home in that way.
We carry a wide variety of clothing, gifts and décor, including a lovely line of designer handbags, wall hangings and home décor made by Gagan Gulati, a female designer in New Delhi, among other partners.