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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Vintage Toronto Ads: Baseball’s Back at the Simpsons Dugout

Originally published on Torontoist on February 9, 2007.

Depressed by the current deep freeze? Here’s something to make you feel warmer – next week, the boys of summer (or at least the pitchers and catchers) report for spring training for the Blue Jays’ 30th anniversary season.
2007_02-09simpsons.jpgSimpsons was one of many businesses eager to show their support when the Jays prepared to take the field in 1977. The “Simpsons Dugout” concept almost sounds like the Olympic section at The Bay (also located on the second floor of the Queen-Yonge store), though it’s doubtful you can buy an Olympic ashtray. Note the happy family in their Jays finery, except for mom, who looks as if she can’t wait to tear her cap off.

Professional baseball has a long history in Toronto, dating back to the 1880s. The longest-lasting team was the Maple Leafs (1895-1967), who played in the Eastern and International Leagues. Under media mogul Jack Kent Cooke’s ownership in the 1950s, the team led the IL in attendance, winning four championships that decade. A Boston Red Sox farm team for its final three seasons, the team moved to Louisville after the 1967 season. Among the Maple Leafs’ home fields were Hanlan’s Point Stadium (several incarnations from 1897 to 1925) and Maple Leaf Stadium (built in 1926 at the southwest corner of Bathurst and Lakeshore, demolished 1968).

Major league baseball nearly made its TO debut in 1976, when the San Francisco Giants announced that January that a deal had reached to sell the team to a group primarily financed by Labatt’s, who intended to transfer the team here. A court injunction brought on by San Francisco mayor George Moscone delayed the deal long enough that buyers were found to keep the team in the Bay area. Within a month, the American League voted to expand to Toronto and Seattle for the following season.

Toronto was not the first major league team to carry the name “Blue Jays.” The Philadelphia Phillies officially changed their name to the Blue Jays in 1943, when new owner William Cox tried to shake up a team that had finished in last place six out of the seven previous seasons. The name never caught on with fans or sportswriters and was dropped after the 1944 season. Cox was gone before that, having been thrown out of baseball after the 1943 season when he admitted he placed “sentimental” bets on Philadelphia games.

The debut scorebook this ad appeared includes articles on previous major league expansions, the first American League game in 1901, the Baseball Hall of Fame, etc. Oddball feature: a guide on how to dine out in Toronto by longtime Globe and Mail restaurant reviewer Joanne Kates. Top ticket price in 1977? $6.50.

Source: Toronto Blue Jays Scorebook Magazine, Vol 1 No 17, 1977