After 30 years of keeping the people of Ottawa comfortably numb, Mike Foster decided the time is right to close his iconic head shop, Crosstown Traffic.
The store that began it's life in 1992 as a record and comic book store before morphing into one of Ottawa's leading head shops is now preparing to close in March 2023, ironically, a casualty of the now legal cannabis industry. Everything about Crosstown Traffic – a reference to Jimi Hendrix – is a shrine to the 1970s.
You can smell the heady aroma of patchouli and sandalwood as soon as you walk into the store. The walls are covered with displays of vintage vinyl records, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, vintage copies of Playboy, Creepy and Mad, adult comics, and bongs and rolling papers and everything you need to smoke.
A classic head shop. Considering he was trading in stock which wasn't illegal, he lived pretty close to illegal, Foster wasn't shy about testing legal limits. For most of its 30 years, business was good.
“Between 2000 to 2015 were our best years because cannabis wasn't legal yet and we were brave enough to take a chance and not cross any lines and go right to the edge and put a good face on cannabis.” “We never got in trouble with the law,” he says. “I'm sure we were investigated, but were deemed to be of little interest.”
Ironically, Crosstown Traffic's undoing came in 2018, when the government of Canada decided to make recreational marijuana legal to sell, and very quickly, the market became flooded with trendy cannabis shops on every block. For the record, Foster thought of applying for the provincial government lottery for a license to sell pot but found the process too expensive and arbitrary.
“I pulled out because I thought the process wasn't transparent," he says. "In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't because there are too many stores. In a few years you'll see half the stores close.”
In the end, Foster decided to refocus his store back to its humble beginnings as a shop selling vintage comics and vinyl.
“We've come full circle,” Foster says. “I started as a comic book and record store before we brought in the pot paraphernalia and now we're back to being a comic and record store.”
Unable to compete with a flood of new players in cannabis retail, and finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, Foster decided to close the store and retire.
“I never really was motivated by money,” he explains. “I was motivated by independence. So I could embrace the tough times and ride them through. People who open businesses for money often get disillusioned and leave. There's a joy in working for myself. That's why we've hung in here in recent years.”
Crosstown Traffic begins in 1988, when Foster, then a 38 year old geological surveyor for the feds, took a maternity leave to play Mr. Mom to his new daughter while his wife worked.
“It was a wonderful experience, I didn't want to go back,” Foster says. “I could see my daughter grow up.”
He began selling records and comic books from his vast collection at a tiny booth at a Sunday flea market. Originally, his intent was to clean up his collections, but the more he sold, the more he collected, and his private collection turned into enough stock to fill a bricks-and-mortar store. So, in 1992, he took money from his pensions, applied for small business grants, and rented a small store out in Richmond for $660 a month.
“It was fun. I had no retail background,” Foster says laughing. “I was flying by the seat of my pants, but for so many years, I could do no wrong. I thought I was a terrible businessman but apparently I lasted 30 years so I did a lot better than many.”