Crosstown Traffic is a 1970s time capsule that captures the essence of the psychedelic rock era. The Bank Street store is also the ultimate haven for ex-rockers and marijuana enthusiasts in Ottawa.
And at the end of March, three decades after it carved a unique niche in the capital’s retail landscape, Crosstown Traffic is closing its doors permanently.
The Velvet Underground blares as you walk into the shop. Visitors are greeted by a blown-up image of Janis Joplin on the left and a tie-dye-patterned bong on your right.
It’s no longer 2023. Suddenly it’s 1975 and pot is not legal. Time has been standing still in this place at the north end of Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood for the past 30 years.
“We were part of the rebellion. We were part of the counterculture. There’s a little more romance involved in all of that,” said store owner Mike Foster, commenting on cannabis culture pre-legalization.
Foster has been running Crosstown Traffic, the city’s best-known head shop and vintage ’70s collectibles spot, since 1992.
‘We were part of the rebellion. We were part of the counterculture. There’s a little more romance involved in all of that.’— Mike Foster, owner, Crosstown Traffic
“If you told me when I was younger I would have run a business, I wouldn’t believe you. But here we are 20-something years later,” said Foster.
Make that 30-something.
The store’s quirky charm might appeal to anyone walking by. Even though Crosstown Traffic could comfortably hold no more than a dozen customers at a time, its eclectic selection of items might leave a browser wandering around for hours.
The store was once indispensable for pot-smoking supplies before cannabis went mainstream, but it also served as a community hub for some of the city’s creative subcultures throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.
Crosstown’s wide selection of underground vinyls and vintage magazines — early ’70s copies of Rolling Stone, for example, when the famous magazine was issued on newsprint — has been a selling point for music geeks and throwback-era enthusiasts.
It also sold vital accessories for marijuana smokers and became a gathering place for them in the pre-legalization era. Foster became a familiar face to many Ottawa residents.
Brent Knox, an original patron of Crosstown turned employee for the past 23 years, has watched the store turn into the Ottawa cultural phenomenon it is today.
“This was a place where nobody got judged, everyone was welcomed and I just loved the vibe of the place from the moment I first walked in,” said Knox. “It was truly a unique little spot.”
But Crosstown Traffic lost much of its cachet when marijuana was legalized in October 2018. Customers found themselves buying items at the minimalist weed store next door rather than the eccentric little time machine just south of the Queensway.
“We are the Uber Eats generation. It’s easier to have a mild smoke from a joint bought from a dispensary than to go out of your way to use lots of accessories,” said Fiona Murray, a 21-year-old marijuana enthusiast.
‘This was a place where nobody got judged, everyone was welcomed and I just loved the vibe of the place from the moment I first walked in.’— Brent Knox, patron-turned-employee, Crosstown Traffic
While the store has maintained its nostalgic appeal, that hasn’t been enough to keep the doors open. CT will shut down March 31.
Guitar god Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic inspired the name of Foster’s business. As Hendrix sang, “My signals turn from green to red” — from go to stop, a foreshadowing of the store’s fate.
Crosstown Traffic’s scheduled closure comes at a time when many local businesses have shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The shop’s loyal clientele are sad to see the place go. “Ottawa is becoming less cool all the time,” said Christian Fielding, a CT customer for the past 25 years.
As the joint prepares to butt out, longtime patrons have been stocking up on discounted records, comic books and rolling papers.
‘Ottawa is becoming less cool all the time.’— Christian Fielding, long-time customer, Crosstown Traffic
Foster’s next step is into retirement, pursuing his other passion: exotic animals.
“I will be spending lots of time at an animal sanctuary, Saunders Country Critters, where I work with lemurs.”
When Crosstown Traffic closes and Foster moves onto the next chapter of his life, the Glebe will become a little less colourful.
“When I first moved here there were lots of cool places to go to,” said Feilding, “and now they all have kind of just disappeared. It’s tragic.”