Past Pieces of Toronto: Towers Department Stores

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally published on June 3, 2012.

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Toronto Star, November 16, 1960.

As the 1960s dawned, the discount department store heralded a new era of shopping. While Toronto had been home to stores such as Honest Ed’s for some time, the new breed of bargain emporiums were large, suburban sites which promised low prices, self-service and plenty of parking. Two years before future industry giants K-Mart, Target, Wal-Mart and Woolco opened their first stores in the United States, Towers brought Metro Toronto consumers a taste of the future of retail.

Launched as the Canadian division of U.S.-based Towers Marts International, the chain’s plan was to erect stores, sell them to recover the capital costs, then lease them back. Concessionaires rented space inside each store to operate individual departments—one merchant ran men’s clothing, for example, while another ran the pharmacy. The initial 14 concessionaires, including familiar names like Coles books, signed a one-year deal, with the cost of the lease afterwards determined by their sales volume. By coming together under one roof, everyone saved money by using common cashiers, bags and fixtures.

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Toronto Star, November 15, 1960.

After six weeks of construction, the first Towers store opened at Lawrence Avenue East and Midland Avenue in Scarborough on November 17, 1960. An ad printed in the Star two days earlier depicted a child clad only in a rain barrel declaring “I’m not buying another thing” until the doors opened. The ad promised shoppers “bargains in sufficient quantities to fill your needs,” “forty-eight self-service, pressure-free departments on one floor to fill every need for all the family,” and “acres of free parking.” The festivities included the crowning of Mrs. Canada, who represented “the nation’s happiest housewife,” or at least the happiest homemaker to shop at Towers.

More gimmicky touches were used when Towers opened its third store on Dundas Street West between Bloor and Roncesvalles in June 1962. The first 1,000 customers could spend money to get more money—in this case, silver dollars for 80 cents. Seven sets of triplets, ranging in age from 3 to 34, were on hand to perform duties that including modelling the chain’s latest fashions and burying a time capsule intended to be left untouched until 2062.

Whether Towers would survive one more year, let alone 100, was a reasonable question. Messy relationships with its concessionaires, an inability to sell properties as fast as they were built, and a split with its American parent led to Towers falling into receivership in March 1963. During a creditors meeting at the King Edward Hotel that month, the receiver noted that untangling Towers’ affairs was “the most complicated matter I’ve ever been connected with” thanks to numerous unfavourable agreements it had made. Sales weren’t helped whenever customers unhappy with one concessionaire’s products said to heck with the rest of them and never set foot in Towers again.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1980.

The ultimate solution to the company’s problems was a gradual acquisition by grocer Oshawa Wholesale (later known as Oshawa Group) between 1965 and 1967. The chain’s numbers were boosted when Oshawa converted its Rite-Way discount stores to the Towers banner. The concessionaire model was phased as leases expired. Many stores built thereafter were paired with a Food City supermarket. Apart from some bumpiness in the mid-1970s, the chain became profitable and opened stores around Toronto in spots like the Galleria on Dupont Street.

Despite appearances in shows like Degrassi Junior High, Towers’ modest store count made it an attractive proposition for a sell-off as the 1990s loomed and Oshawa Group concentrated on its food and drug businesses. A bidding war erupted between the Hudson’s Bay Company and Woolworths for the 51-store chain, with HBC emerging the victor in October 1990. Over the next year, most of the stores were converted into Zellers locations. Figuring out where Towers locations were in Toronto without a store list isn’t too difficult: the tell-tale signs are malls and plazas where Zellers was/is located in close proximity to a FreshCo/Price Chopper/Sobeys grocery store.

Additional material from the September 9, 1960, November 15, 1960, November 16, 1960, June 14, 1962, April 1, 1963, and September 11, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The first time I wrote about Towers was the following installment of “Vintage Toronto Ads” originally published on Torontoist on October 30, 2007:

Vintage Ad #370: The Devil's Polyester (or Satan's Slacks)

Toronto Star, October 2, 1972.

With Halloween almost upon us, the mind turns to the dark side. Though today’s ad seems innocent enough on the surface, its evil intentions are evident from its most prominently displayed sale price. While humans usually sell their soul to demons for wealth, power or self-sacrifice, all your eternal fate will earn you at Towers is a pair of cheap polyester pants.

Halloween items were likely among the products on sale when Towers opened their Galleria location in the fall of 1972. The mall site was previously home to the Dominion Radiator Company. An essay on the industrial life of Dupont Streetreferred to the heating manufacturer’s replacement as “soulless,” so perhaps devilish dealings were afoot beyond these pants.

Towers was one of Canada’s earliest discount department store chains. After being purchased by Oshawa Group in 1967, several locations included or were built next to their grocery (Food City) and drug (Kent) stores. The chain had 51 stores across Ontario, the Maritimes and Quebec (as Bonimart) by the time it was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1990. Within a few months most locations, including the Galleria, were converted to Zellers stores.

Other than the price, the main eye-catching element is the artwork. The legs are so spindly that the “B” model snapped in two after attempting to stand straight.

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Saluting Saturday Night at the Movies (and Magic Shadows) with Elwy Yost

Part One: Saturday Afternoon with the Tow Truck

Originally published on Torontoist on January 2, 2008.

Vintage Ad #439: Saturday Afternoon with the Tow Truck

Toronto Life, December 1985.

Nobody likes to be stranded during the holiday season due to car trouble. Whether it’s a dead battery, unexpected snowfall, or executing a 180-degree spin into the ditch alongside the 401 on the way back to the city, inclement weather and Murphy’s Law often combine to make this a busy time of the year for auto clubs like CAA. Even beloved weekend movie hosts occasionally require their assistance.

Before gaining fame as a movie host, Weston native Elwy Yost’s occupations included stage actor, high school English teacher, employee in the personnel department of A.V. Roe during the Avro Arrow controversy, and television quiz show panelist. Yost’s first film show was Passport to Adventure, a mid-1960s CBC series in which features were presented in a serialized format alongside interviews with performers. When Yost began his film-hosting duties for TVOntario in the 1970s, he utilized the serial format for Magic Shadows on weeknights, while a rich archive of interviews with filmmakers and critics provided the context for the feature presentations on Saturday Night at the Movies. The bubbling enthusiasm he displayed for films during his 25-year run on TVOntario helped inspire a generation of film geeks. For his final broadcast in 1999, Yost screened Speed, written by one of those he inspired, his son Graham.

While waiting for his vehicle to be pulled out of the snow, one wonders if Elwy and the driver discussed movies with well-framed towing sequences.

Part Two: Curtains Fall on Saturday Night at the Movies

Originally published on Torontoist on November 13, 2012.

When the phrase “plan that looks to future” sits atop a press release, it’s often code for cutbacks or reallocation of resources. So it is with a missive released today by TVO, which buries the axe amid plans to direct reduced provincial funding into digital children’s and current affairs programming. Not until paragraph six does the bombshell hit: Saturday Night at the Movies (SNAM), currently the longest running movie program on television, will soon load its final reel.

According to TVO CEO Lisa de Wilde, “When Saturday Night at the Movies began almost 40 years ago, it broke new ground but now entire TV networks and web services are dedicated to movies.” While this may be true, those other services lack the extensive archive of interviews TVO has built up since SNAM debuted in March 1974. Those other services offer studio-produced puff pieces and PR junket quality featurettes on movies, but they don’t reach into the mechanics of filmmaking as SNAM’s conversations do. Since the late 1990s, the series has been included in York University’s film curriculum.

Beyond fulfilling TVO’s mandate as an educational broadcaster SNAM, especially during Elwy Yost’s quarter-century run as host, turned a generation of viewers into film connoisseurs. As Torontoist’s Christopher Bird noted in his obituary for Yost last year, “He was the friendliest man on television who wasn’t Mister Rogers, because he had the best job ever: he got paid to talk about movies, and movies deserved better than cynicism and snark to someone like Elwy Yost.” His manner and the show’s excellent programming choices helped the series become the network’s highest-rated series.

To a child growing up in a pre-cable household during the 1980s, SNAM was a gateway to classic movies that weren’t regularly shown on television. Under Yost’s warm guidance, it was a place to discover films that they only knew through stills in picture books, to understand who Groucho Marx was beyond the inspiration for gag glasses, spot Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos, and crack the mystery of “Rosebud.”

Besides SNAM, TVO also announced that it is ending Allan Gregg in Conversationafter 18 years. While Big Ideas is being cancelled as an ongoing series, the network indicates the lectures will reappear as an occasional segment of The Agenda with Steve Paikin. The total cuts announced today will save TVO $2 million and axe up to 40 jobs. But amid the carefully vetted talk about fiscal realities and leveraging efficiencies, a little magic has been lost.

Part Three: More Than Turning On a Projector

Originally published on Torontoist on November 20, 2012.

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Globe and Mail, November 5, 1975.

Last week, we reported that TVOntario is cancelling Saturday Night at the Movies after almost 40 years on the air. Today’s ad from the show’s early days sums up the things that made it a hit: an enthusiastic host, smart programming choices, and the use of the medium as “a springboard for discussion, ideas, feelings and—education.”

Saturday Night at the Movies was prominently featured in the network’s “TVOntario opens eyes” print advertising campaign during the mid-1970s. Today’s ad gives a feel for the range of films the series was showing at that time: Hitchcock thrillers, swashbuckling adventures, and Cold War–paranoia sci-fi.

Sharing space in this ad is host Elwy Yost’s weeknight gig, Magic Shadows. To fit the half-hour slot, movies were split up, serial style, and curated by Yost in a less formal manner than the Saturday-night feature bills. The show featured an imaginative—if slightly frightening to children—animated opening sequence.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Here’s a sense of what Magic Shadows was like, via a series of intros from its presentation of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

TVO’s online archive includes several episodes of Talking Film, which thematically compiled Yost’s interviews (and was another series I ate up as a kid).

Combined, all of Yost’s TVO film shows, combined with the guidance of my father and devouring many library books, helped me develop an appreciation for cinema that remains today. The few times I watched the series after Yost’s retirement, it always felt like something was missing. I think it was his sense of infectious enthusiasm, mixed with a deep appreciation for film history, that made the package work.

Off the Grid (Ghost City): 346 Spadina Avenue

Part One: Ghost City

Originally published on The Grid on September 12, 2012.  This was my first piece under the “Ghost City” banner, which the publication had used periodically for similar pieces. “Ghost City” lasted as a weekly column through June 2013, though the title was occasionally brought out of mothballs by other writers. 

When the Gold Diamond restaurant opened this summer, it inherited a building teeming with ghosts: Paranormal spirits are reputed to have inspired the lion statues out front and once required the services of an exorcist. Symbolic ghosts have also left their mark through the legacies of a Jewish-community landmark and a series of Chinese eateries.

Dress-making strike, crowd at Labor Lyceum, 346 Spadina Avenue, February 25, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 23262.

Originally occupied by residences, the southwest corner of Spadina Avenue and St. Andrews Street was purchased by the Toronto Labor Lyceum during the 1920s. Founded in 1913, the organization promoted trade unionism among the city’s growing Jewish community, and offered a home for garment-industry organizations like the Internatonal Ladies Garment Workers Union. As longtime union activist and politician J.B. Salsberg observed, “no single institution and no single building on Spadina—the main street of Jewish Toronto—was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew than was the Labor Lyceum.” Beyond union meetings, the building met the community’s cultural and social needs by providing a venue for concerts, a beer parlour, dances, lectures, and hanging out.

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Obituary for Emma Goldman, the Telegram, May 14, 1940.

Anarchist Emma Goldman spoke many times at the Labor Lyceum while intermittently residing in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Her talks ranged from lecturing about drama to raising money for the defence fund of condemned American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. While Goldman respected the city’s appreciation for the arts, her criticisms of the influence of the Anglican and Catholic churches did not make her a fan of the “Toronto the Good” mentality. When she died in May 1940, her friends told the Star that the funeral service would “not be a religious one but will be rather just a gathering of friends.” While her body lay in state at the Labor Lyceum, she was remembered “as a woman who had put ideals above suffering.”

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Source: Canadian Jewish News, December 24, 1971.

When scaffolding went up after the building was sold in 1971, locals figured the wrecking ball would follow to the increasingly shabby-looking site. Instead, new owner Yen Pin Chen, a Taiwanese restaurateur, spent $1 million over the next four years refurbishing the building into a restaurant complex he hoped would become the focus of the new Chinatown emerging along Spadina. Décor included walls filled with handcrafted detailing and a ceramic reproduction of Beijing’s Nine-Dragon Wall that had been in Chen’s family for two decades. Outside, observed the Globe and Mail, “two bronze-coloured lions crouch and stare imperiously from the front door into the window of the Jewish hard-goods jobber across the avenue. The façade glows with the colour of sunrise over Shanghai, that imperial shade of yellow once reserved for emperors.”

gm 1975-08-02 yen pin palace Source: Globe and Mail, August 2, 1975. Click on image for larger version.

Despite being the largest Chinese restaurant in the city, Yen Pin Place was an expensive bust. The luxurious décor was offset by bland food that the Globe and Mail’s Joanne Kates figured “would be perfect for a convention of 1,000 dentists from Des Moines.” After it closed in 1978, Yen Pin Place was succeeded by a string of eateries that Kates described as “each more outrageously pretentious and gastronomically mediocre than the last, and all of them doomed to failure.” The flops included Genghis Khan (a Mongolian BBQ), Paul’s Palace Deep Sea Shantung (once the city’s premier Szechuan restaurant, it had served better food elsewhere), and the President.

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Source: Toronto Star, January 24, 1986. Click on image for larger version.

In 1985, the building was purchased by the Hong Kong-based Hsin Kuang restaurant chain, whose name still graces its facade. The Star enjoyed the warm towels that bookended every meal and the dim-sum offerings, but found the flavours of the rest of the menu lacked character. Hsin Kuang gave way to Bright Pearl in 1997, which carried on serving dim sum until a landlord dispute led to its closing in 2010.

That Bright Pearl lasted for 13 years supports the superstitions and accounts of ghost sightings associated with 346 Spadina. The presence of the paranormal has been blamed on everything from an onsite mortuary to the billboards forming a “V” pointing at the entrance that channelled evil spirits. Ghosts are said to haunt the washrooms, even after an exorcist was sent in. Feng-shui masters have been consulted in design elements such as the placement of the “foo dog” lions to provide a healthier aura.

Additional material from Spadina Avenue by Rosemary Donegan (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985); the December 24, 1971 edition of the Canadian Jewish News; the August 2, 1975, November 15, 1976, and April 4, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 14, 1940, May 15, 1940, February 19, 1983, January 24, 1986, and August 31, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.

Part Two: Vintage Toronto Ads – A Place for Food, Spirits, and Movements

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2007.

Yen Pin Place

Source: Toronto Life, December 1975.

Mid-1970s diners expected a certain level of ostentation when eating at finer Chinese cuisine establishments. Decor was touted as much, if not more, than what went into one’s mouth. The atmosphere diners were promised at today’s featured restaurant hints at a feast for the senses.

Except that the foo dogs were not mere decoration…

The history of 346 Spadina Avenue reflects the neighbourhood’s ethnic shifts. During the mid-20th century it was home to the Labour Lyceum, a centre for Jewish labour movement activity. After her death in May 1940, anarchist/activist Emma Goldman was placed in state in the building until the go-ahead was given by the United States government to bury her in Chicago. The lyceum later moved east to Cecil Street.

The site has long been regarded as haunted, which may explain the presence of the foo dogs guarding the building. One set of restaurant owners called in an exorcist, who noted that the billboards across street pointed like an arrow, directing bad spirits into the building. Apparitions favoured the washrooms, catching patrons at the weakest moment of their meal.

UPDATE

As of 2017, the main restaurant space sits vacant. In 2013, Heritage Toronto installed a plaque commemorating the Labor Lyceum.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Signaling Fall at the Eaton Centre

Originally published on Torontoist on September 18, 2007.

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Source: Toronto Life, September, 1985.

Fall officially arrives this week, a season that signals fresh starts. While some changes signal endings, such as leaves changing colour, events ranging from the first day of school to the launch of the new slate of television shows are opportunities to forge fresh paths. Shopping malls are no exception, as stores unveil their fall wardrobes in which consumers can strut their stuff at the office or on the town.

But is the interplay of fabrics at the top of every consumer’s mind?
The clearest signal that this ad sends out is its age. The colour scheme, the half-reversed headline with a skinny font, the tilted photo with neon background, and the contrasting moods of the model add up to a pure 1980s layout.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Your Festival of Festivals

Originally published on Torontoist on September 4, 2007.

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Source: Toronto LifeSeptember 1985.

With this year’s Toronto International Film Festival kicking into high gear, it seems appropriate to look back to the advertising for its tenth edition, back in the days when it was known as the Festival of Festivals.

Besides today’s ad, Toronto Life also featured an article on the festival, highlighting its first decade and offering a preview of that year’s fare. The “Tribute to” event was scratched for 1985, after the debacle surrounding the previous year’s salute to Warren Beatty (cost overruns due to a switch in hotels from the Sutton Place to the Four Seasons and footing the bill to jet Jack Nicholson in, plus Beatty’s decision to sit in the audience for most of the night instead of onstage with Siskel and Ebert). New features included a series of pre-festival free screenings in High Park and “Open Vault,” a series of restored silent films with live musical accompaniment.

The magazine also offered their picks and pans:

What to See: Joshua Then and Now (the opening night gala), La Historia OficialThe Devil’s PlaygroundColonel RedlKiss of the Spider WomanThe Funeral and a restored version of Way Down East.

What to Avoid: Dim Sum (“You can tell it’s authentic because people talk very slowly and never say anything very interesting”) and Mishima (“More a graduate seminar than a movie”).

Vintage Toronto Ads: Shoulders by the Grange

Originally published on Torontoist on July 10, 2007.

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Source: Toronto Life, December 1984.

To borrow a line from an old Saturday Night Live parody of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s fashion sense, you may ask yourself “why such a big suit?”

Village by the Grange opened on McCaul St in the mid-1970s as a mixture of residential and retail spaces. Any secrets the complex held by the time this ad appeared were hidden in each model’s shoulder or loose jacket. The toll of those stuck in narrow passages or otherwise injured by wide clothes across Toronto during the mid-1980s is unknown (though if anyone wants to check the police accident records, your perseverance will be admired).

If you look at the Emy’s model from a certain angle, her outfit resembles a heart—raised curves at the top, narrowing to a point by the waistline. A subliminal suggestion that anyone would love to wear this, or an early hint for Valentine’s Day gift ideas?

BEHIND THE SCENES

Now that “Vintage Toronto Ads” was rolling along, I began buying cheap used copies of old magazines to widen my selection of source material. This was one of the first from a batch of mid-1980s issues of Toronto Life I found at a bookstore along Yonge Street (I want to say ABC, but don’t quote me on that). Dated fashion quickly became handy if I was in a hurry to write the column, or when the inspiration well ran dry. I might collect some future installments together, since I usually didn’t have a lot to say – the images told a better tale than I could. What more is there to say about the ridiculously puffed up shoulders on the Emy’s model?

There will be more about Village by the Grange – rebranded in recent years as Yorkville Village – in future posts.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Preppy Pizzazz

Originally published on Torontoist on June 12, 2007

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Source: Toronto Life, March 1985.

Is your wardrobe lacking that all-important “pocket pizzazz”? Not feeling preppy enough as spring winds down? Need snazzier purple pants the next time you Hulk out? Look no further than today’s ad!
Note the exclusivity of the jackets compared to the pants. White preppy tennis gear and red bomber jackets were way too cool to be sold to the hoi polloi outside the 3 km radius of the Bay’s Bloor St store (Queen and Yonge was still Simpson’s at this point). As for the pants, pizzazz knows no geographical or socio-economic boundaries!
Feel free to slip on a pair of shades and rock out to your favourite 1980s movie soundtrack.