Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering Long Gone Stores - downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Simplicity Pattern Sewing Contest 'models', Hudson's Bay Company, downtown Vancouver store, early 1950s.

A Meme: Stores of Yesteryear...inspired by the Smoky Mountain Family Historian.

This is a bit of a ramble...but that seems to be partly what an on-line meme is all about, rather like that party game where one phrase is whispered from person to person around the room...

What I remember best from ‘long ago’ here in Vancouver are the three downtown department store buildings we used to shop at on Friday nights – the Bay (1927), Eaton’s (originally Spencer’s, 1907 – bought by Eaton’s in 1948) and Woodward’s (1903). Two of the buildings remain. The Eaton’s building, now often called the Spencer building, houses Simon Fraser University’s main downtown campus, but the Woodward’s building has been mostly demolished for redevelopment - a painful topic to many still. Only the Bay, Canada’s oldest corporation, remains in business and it’s at the same location. (I just spent several days at Fort Langley, a Hudson’s Bay fort, now a national historic site. The Bay has changed a lot - "the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay" might not recognise much of the business now. )

Many Friday nights, Mum and I would head downtown and eat dinner together, afterwards we’d shop. No malls then; we took a bus from up Cambie, perhaps to the Bay, walked down Granville, and along Hastings to Eaton’s, then to Woodward’s. Sometimes we went on a block east on Hastings to Army & Navy (1919), Canada’s ‘Original Discount’ store, but that wasn’t as often.

Each department store had its own atmosphere, but some things seemed the same. Remember the elevator attendants? Woodward’s was more the ‘working man’s store’ (although it was women doing the shopping). Eaton’s had nicer things and fewer work boots, and the Bay was reputed to sell the best line of everything. Each store had its own loyal customers, except perhaps on Woodward’s $1.49 days when everyone lined up for the bargains.

I don’t think Mum really had a favourite, although she used to work at Eaton’s in Winnipeg, so she talked about Eaton’s more. The Bay had the biggest candy department as I remember, and, I think, the best fabrics and the latest patterns. I remember being lost in that fabric department as mum checked out the newest from Butterick or Simplicity or Vogue. She entered the Bay’s sewing contests too, as witness the photograph here. She did love to sew. I was never so domestic. I just remember now how the fabrics felt and how the outfits looked on mum or me when finished. Once I went to ‘teen charm school’ at the Bay – oh, dear! Confessions! Eaton’s had the Marine Room restaurant though. That was by far the nicest place to eat.

Woodward’s had the Food Floor – everything you could want in those days, even imported English pickled walnuts – no Brie or anything too fancy – and we could eat strawberry tarts in the mezzanine cafe. Maybe Woodward’s had the best toy department too, or the best prices on toys; many of our Christmas photographs with Santa were taken there. Woodward’s certainly always had the best Christmas windows – back then store windows were really important. People crowded around on the sidewalks to really look.

Truthfully I didn’t pay that much attention to the everyday shopping Mum did. Typical, I suppose. What I remember shopping for best is books, still my favourite shopping experience. Since I never had much money, I bought books at rummage sales and church jumbles, like the book below, sold originally at Spencer’s. (I thought the prices were of interest too.) New books appeared for birthdays and Christmas, and I imagine many were bought at Woodward’s since I remember that store having the best book variety and the more reasonable prices. I wonder if they had Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1961 when the Mounties raided stores and the library looking for copies? (I’ll bet Eaton’s didn’t ever sell Miller- Eaton’s was always known as a ‘puritanical' store - even my mother said so –no tobacco, for instance.)

Duthies’ (1957) was the first independent ‘new book’ store I remember here – what a revelation – all the great books from the library were for sale there right downtown. Then in the mid 1960’s, along came MacLeod’s Books, the best ‘old’ book store here – maybe anywhere. Books piled everywhere...beautiful books, literature, art, history, antiquarian books, banned books, even just ‘plain curious’ books, By that time our Friday night shopping trips were history. Mum still came along with me to the bookstores though. We used to ‘share’ – I’d buy one book and she another – we knew we could always read each other's. I still miss Woodward's myself, but today both Duthie’s and MacLeod’s are still in business, thank goodness, though not at the same locations.

Hudson’s Bay Company history:

Eaton’s: A Canadian Institution, radio and television clips, CBC Digital Archives:

The history of the Woodward’s building, GVTV video:

Army and Navy, Company History by Catherine C. Cole, Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian Mail Order Catalogues, – the Canadian Museum of Civilization:

1950’s Fashion History: The 'Look' of 50s Glamour with Fashion Dressmaking Patterns:

Censorship in British Columbia: A History, B.C. Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee:

Smoky Mountain Family Historian:

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