From Eaton’s to Sears to Nordstrom

Originally published on Torontoist on January 15, 2014.


Toronto Star, February 8, 1977.

After months of rumours following Sears Canada’s decision to close its Eaton Centre store, Nordstrom announced this morning that it will open at the corner of Yonge and Dundas. Scheduled to open in the fall of 2016, the high-end American retailer plans a three-floor department store; it’ll take up one-third of the space shoppers enjoyed when Eaton’s opened on the site in 1977.

Unlike Nordstrom, it took Eaton’s much longer than three years to get up and running. They first conceived of their plan—a massive, modernized store in the heart of downtown—in 1958. Early proposals called for tearing down Old City Hall and the Church of the Holy Trinity. They called it “Project Viking.”


Eaton’s in 1919. A Souvenir of Eaton’s Golden Jubilee 1869–1919 (Toronto: T. Eaton Co. Ltd., 1919).

Eatons had been on Queen Street, across from Simpsons (now the Bay) from the end of the Victorian era. Besides the main store, it spread out into a series of buildings—some used as retail space, some as office, some as manufacturing—along James Street, something like a polished version of how Honest Ed’s is stitched together. By the 1950s the old store was getting creaky and management wanted a new facility, or at least the chance to fix up what they had on Queen Street, and build a retail/office development around it.

Eaton’s asked numerous architectural firms to draw up plans for a new modern retail/office complex; those plans included the demolition of several historic buildings. Community opposition to the proposal, by this time renamed Eaton Centre, prompted Eaton’s president John David Eaton to cancel the project in May 1967. (He didn’t take it well: Eaton reportedly told associates that they should tell Mayor William Dennison that he could “shove Old City Hall up his ass.”)

Back at the drawing board, plans picked up steam again following discussions with developer Fairview Corporation (later Cadillac Fairview, which still owns the mall). Fairview placed three conditions on its involvement: Old City Hall had to be preserved; Eaton’s would be the main tenant in the office tower at the north end of the project; and Eaton’s had to move its store from Queen Street to Yonge and Dundas. Since Simpson’s was at the south end, this would provide an anchor store at each end of the mall, in a set-up similar to suburban shopping centres. The Eaton family balked at moving the store; it took a year of negotiation before they agreed.


City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 420, Item 16.

Designed by chief architect E.L. Hankinson, plans for the 1 million square foot store included nine floors of retail space, stretching from teen fashions on 3 Below (now the Urban Eatery food court) to home entertainment and kitchen appliances on the sixth. Food offerings included snack stalls; Sir John’s restaurant, which served liquor (a development which would have horrified the store’s teetotaler founder, Timothy Eaton); and, on the sixth floor, the 1,000-seat Marine Room. The new store also offered an 8,500 square foot event space, though it lacked the grandeur of the College Street store’s Eaton Auditorium and Round Room.

On February 5, 1977, both the Queen Street and College Street Eaton’s closed for the last time. Over the next few days, employees, retirees, and shoppers got to preview the new Yonge-Dundas store. Reviews were favourable. “My God, it’s huge,” retiree Alf Ryan told the Star. “You need a compass to get around. I think I like it.”

The store officially opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on February 10, 1977. Premier William Davis joked that he was anxious for the store to open so that he could start receiving the sales tax. Music was provided by a 70-piece band from Malvern Collegiate and the 48th Highlanders pipe band—selections included patriotic toe-tappers like “Canada” and “A Place to Stand.” Plans for the Fort York Guard fire their muskets were scrapped after rehearsals, when officials decided the noise would upset elderly attendees. The Globe and Mail wrote that the opening day crowd “looked the same as it always does: ladies who answer to ‘duckie’ carting shopping bags, keen-eyed young matrons, youngsters in synthetic down jackets and real jeans, a few men.”

In August 1999, after years of declining sales and bad marketing decisions, Eaton’s filed for bankruptcy. Sears Canada picked up the remnants of Eaton’s two months later and decided to relaunch seven locations, including the Eaton Centre, as an upscale chain. Rechristened eatons (sans capital letter and apostrophe), the new store launched a month behind schedule in November 2000. Despite expensive remodelling and a flashy, aubergine-themed ad campaign, the new chain barely had time to overcome its initial mistakes before Sears threw in the towel in February 2002.

That summer saw the store finish its conversion into a Sears store. There were lingering attempts to carry a more diverse range of products than your average suburban outpost. Floor reduction, which had started in the 1990s, continued. Upper floors were replaced with office space. As Sears Canada’s fortunes declined, rumours ramped up over just how long the Eaton Centre branch would last, a question which was answered last October.

When the eatons brand was retired in 2002, Sears Canada CEO Mark Cohen noted that “The notion that customers see value in a top-drawer, high-priced, somewhat selective assortment is false. [Canadians] value very high levels of presentation and customer service but don’t exhibit any desire to pay for it.” Yet high-end retail has increased in recent years as the gap between upscale and downmarket merchants widens. It remains to be seen if Toronto will support three Nordstrom locations (Eaton Centre, Sherway Gardens, and Yorkdale), or if we’ll be writing about other branding change at Yonge and Dundas a decade from now.

Sources: The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), the February 11, 1977 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the February 7, 1977, February 8, 1977, February 10, 1977, and February 19, 2002 editions of the Toronto Star.


Nordstrom opened its doors as this article predicted, welcoming its first customers in September 2016. But, like lower-case eatons, it did not prove a roaring success over the long run. In March 2023 Nordstrom’s announced it was closing its Canadian division. So yes, less than a decade later we’ll be writing about a branding change if another department store chain decides to occupy some of the store’s space.

One Fine Long Weekend Walk in Toronto (COVID Stage 3 Edition)

The midsummer long weekend began on a beautiful note – sunny skies, comfortable temperatures, life stirring back to a semblance of normal. The perfect day to walk around central Toronto and reacquaint myself with things I haven’t done or been able to do over the past year-and-a-half.

Since Louisa had some business errands to do, we decided to enjoy our first meal together on a patio in eons, brunch at the George Street Diner. The complete Irish breakfast is perfect fuel for a day of walking.

The first pre-COVID habit I was reacquainted with: navigating stairs to reach a basement bathroom.

While Louisa ran her errands, I wandered in and out of the Eaton Centre. The fountains were in full bloom in Yonge-Dundas Square. Nearby, a tour bus waited for passengers, a sign tourism is slowly returning.

Wandering through the Eaton Centre Indigo, I noticed that several bookcases, including these in the history and current affairs sections, were empty toward the bottom. A slow restocking process., or are they carrying less inventory due to the cycle of openings, closings, and restrictions?

(This picture does not endorse books written by Fox News hosts.)

After taking Louisa home, I hopped on the subway and headed to Bloor and Yonge.

If you’ve been to any Hudson’s Bay stores outside of their top locations, you might notice that they look forlorn. The company has been in downsizing mode over the course of the pandemic, though, like many struggling large retailers, its problems predate COVID. From refusal to pay leases and shrinking several of its larger stores, to small locations full of empty space, poor product presentation, and discount racks, the department store giant isn’t looking robust these days.

Case in point: its former flagship store at the Hudson’s Bay Centre.

If you’re going to spotlight your house brands, and you’re welcoming back shoppers who are slowly returning to stores, you might want to fill shelves with merchandise.

Unless head office doesn’t give a damn anymore.

I’m voting the latter.

There were portions of the men’s department, especially on the first floor, where you could shoot a cannon and not hit anyone.

These portions are also looking dated, and not in a good way.

The escalators between street level and the 2nd floor, along with those between the 2nd and 3rd floors, have become staircases. Customers paid no attention to the intended direction, leading to two-way traffic in a space too tight to handle it.

The 5th floor’s main concession to the present was this “room of the season” display.

The true attraction of the 5th floor is some fantastic 1970s retail flooring. The earth tones form a nice pairing with nearby Cumberland Terrace.

I know I saw white flooring like this in malls when I was a kid – thinking parts of Devonshire Mall in Windsor looked like this? Or am I thinking of other places?

Overall, this store feels like death warmed over. There have been rumours about its demise for years, including an unrealized plan to convert it into a Saks Fifth Avenue store when the Bay’s sister chain was introduced to Canada.

This time, it feels like the end is imminent. The removal of the classic yellow logo from the top of the adjoining office tower is not a good sign.

Anyone want to place odds on how long this store remains in operation?

If walking around The Bay left me feeling slightly depressed, going into the Toronto Reference Library raised my spirits. With library services gradually reopening, I wanted to check if the newspaper microfilm library in the basement was back in business.

It was.

The porcupines were equally excited to be back, quickly digging into a reel of late-period Telegram.

At Queen’s Park and Bloor, I noticed a wider-than-usual Heritage Toronto plaque commemorating Taddle Creek.

Next up on the things I haven’t done in months bucket list: visiting a museum in the city. The winner was the Gardiner Museum, where artist Jun Kaneko’s giant head welcomes visitors.

While only two exhibition floors are currently open, the Gardiner is offering free admission for the rest of the summer.

In the Delftware section, these plates honouring King William III and Queen Mary II stood out, mainly because I remember seeing similar ones in the History of the English Speaking Peoples partwork series I loved flipping through as a kid.

Qwilly was impressed by this notice on the way into the second floor galleries.

Continuing west along Bloor, the redevelopment of Mirvish Village carries on.

All this wandering builds an appetite, so the porcupines and I settled on a cuisine we hadn’t enjoyed for eons: Korean. Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu had a full patio, and is one of my favourites along Bloor’s Korean strip, so it was an easy choice.

First a trio of banchan (which they’re more than happy to refill)…

…and my usual Korean meal, hot stone pot bibimbap.

I burned off dinner by continuing west along Bloor. Around Dufferin I saw this van spreading disinformation pass by a couple of times. A few blocks on, I noticed it pulled over. The driver wasn’t around.

I briefly fantasized about knocking the sign off its perch or slamming it over its owner’s head to knock some sense into them.

Nah, not worth it. Instead, I walked to Lansdowne station and enjoyed a peaceful ride home.

Remaking St. Lawrence Market During the 1960s and 1970s

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 17, 2009.

Buying fresh meat at the north building of St. Lawrence Market, early 1970s. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 33.

Five o’ clock on a Saturday morning and one small corner of the city is alive with the sound of friendly chatter, the smell of smoked hams and the colo[u]rs of the harvest. A steadily increasing trickle of shoppers emerges from the still-dark morning for the first pick of lettuces so fresh the dew still drips from them and cabbages so clean they shine.

Though the smell is more grilled sausage than ham and some of the lettuce may be shipped in from faraway destinations, the atmosphere evoked by this description of St. Lawrence Market from a 1976 Toronto Star profile still rings true. At the time those words were written, the market neared the end of a decade of rehabilitation that reflected changes in attitude towards historic properties in the city. The north side saw the old knock-it-down attitude at play, while the south was spared a date with a wrecking ball in favour of renovation. Otherwise, you might have enjoyed a Saturday morning mustard sample or peameal bacon sandwich in a building that lacked more than 150 years of history.

Parking lot next to north building of St. Lawrence Market (with St. Lawrence Hall in the background), early 1970s. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 31.

Weak historical architecture regulations and grand plans for a massive arts-related complex (which eventually shrank to today’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts) led one historic building after another to arrange dates with demolition crews around the time the old north building of St. Lawrence Market met its demise in 1968. This was fine by some of its tenants, who felt the building had not stood the test of time as well as its older sibling on the opposite side of Front Street. As the Telegram noted, “gone was the dirt and the dust. Gone was the roof which sometimes leaked. The cold and the gloom, the shabby walls and uneven floors had departed. Instead there is brightness under-floor heating and colo[u]r everywhere. The farmers have never had it so good.”

Cheese vendor at north building of St. Lawrence Market, early 1970s. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 1.

Completed in the fall of 1968, the new north market was officially opened with an evening of square dancing in February 1969. Initial reviews were mixed—regular shoppers like Globe and Mail columnist Bruce West were grateful for the improved amenities, even if “some old hands…will miss the occasional whiff of kerosene heaters which used to drift out from behind the baskets of potatoes or arrays of pigs’ heads.” As time passed, West found the space too sterile—in a column two years after the building was finished, he expressed hope that “some day in the future, no doubt—if there are still farms and still farmers who care to get up hours before dawn to take their produce to town on Saturday mornings—the present St. Lawrence Market may get seedy enough and littered enough to have developed a mellow character of its own.”

Flowers for sale at the north building of St. Lawrence Market, early 1970s. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 11.

Architecture and design critics, like the Star’s Harvey Cowan, were unimpressed. “It is the walls of the market space,” Cowan noted, “that reveal the frustrating lack of empathy for the character of a market place. Most walls are concrete block, painted a ghastly salmon colo[u]r that is reminiscent of basement walls in a speculative apartment building.” Cowan summed up the complex as “mundane” and “a most disappointing building” that lacked a sense of history or the “finesse and organization” offered by supermarkets of the era.

With the north side taken care of, developers and preservationists turned their eyes toward the south market. When city planners suggested in 1971 that the one-time city hall could be demolished and the tenants moved elsewhere in a scheme that also included a plan to build a new Massey Hall next to the north market, a citizens’ committee formed to stand against any hint of demolition. The city backed off and turned to the federal and provincial governments for assistance to renovate the south market.

Nick’s Meat, south building of St. Lawrence Market, sometime between 1971 and 1989. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 42.

For over two years, workers cleaned the exterior and ripped up the ceilings, floors, and walls. At times half of the building was closed off while business carried on in the rest of the facility. The renovations created more space for vendors, who could take advantage of new refrigerated glass display cases and fluorescent lighting. Reaction was favourable when the building officially reopened in June 1977, though some veteran vendors lamented the loss of certain grittier aspects. As butcher Nick Smolka told the Star, the market was “clean and better than ever.”

I think the renovations have been the best thing for the market, the city and the public. You will find that the meat will be protected behind showcases and it will keep longer and look better than when people could handle it all day long. What we have now is a modern market. I don’t know about this cleanliness, though. I think people want to look at the meat closely and they want to handle it. What’s wrong with that? Nobody ever got poisoned from it.

Scouting out vegetables at St. Lawrence Market, sometime between 1971 and 1989. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 38.

Two more years passed before one of the last elements of the renovations was unveiled to the public. The second floor of the old city hall section of the market proved suitable for a proposed gallery to show off the city’s art and archival collections. It was appropriate that the first exhibition at the Market Gallery after it officially opened in March 1979 featured paintings and sketches by John Howard, who had proposed the first set of renovations to the building when it served as Toronto’s city hall in the 1850s. It also seemed appropriate that the opening ceremony was presided over by Mayor John Sewell, who had been one of leaders in the preservation effort at the start of the decade.

The surroundings changed, but one element remained a key part of the St. Lawrence Market experience. As Bruce West described while the new north building was under construction, “nowhere…will you see such an interesting cross-section of the Toronto populace. Observing the patrons of the market is almost as interesting as examining the ware and I hope this institution continues for a long time because it has a lot of soul in it.”

Sources: the June 14, 1968, February 17, 1969, November 23, 1970 and September 15, 1971 editions of the Globe and Mail, the February 1, 1969 edition of the Telegram; and the February 15, 1969, January 18, 1971, October 11, 1976, June 3, 1977, and March 3, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.


St. Lawrence Market, sometime between 1971 and 1989. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 27.

There are 116 photos of St. Lawrence Market taken by Ellis Wiley during the 1970s and 1980s for your viewing pleasure on the City of Toronto Archives website. They provide a great snapshot of the market and food marketing techniques of that era, such as the practice of making cheese vendors wear Central European style clothing.

St. Lawrence Market, sometime between 1971 and 1989. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 13.

I have a feeling more images have been uploaded over the years, as I know I would have used this shot of a pig’s head tying to be Mr. Smooth.

St. Lawrence Market, sometime between 1971 and 1989. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 58.

This also would have been a contender. Do you think this vendor ever tried to practice ventriloquism with the crabs?

St. Lawrence Market, sometime between 1971 and 1989. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 97.

A description of the early 1970s incarnation of the market, from Toronto Guidebook (edited by Alexander Ross, Toronto: Key Publishers, 1974):

This low, uninspired building directly south of St. Lawrence Market is the latest version of a public market place that has occupied the corner of Front and Jarvis Streets for more than 170 years. This new building, opened in 1969, is only open as a market on Saturdays; other days it is leased for dances, bazaars, etc. The imposing old building across the street on the south side of Front is where you’ll find most of the action…By the time you read this it should be under renovation. The market is filled with stalls of fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, and home-made candy and pastries. If you want variety, get there first thing in the morning. But if you’re looking for a bargain, go after 2 p.m., when the merchants start slashing prices.

Globe and Mail, June 14, 1968.

Finally, a trio of columns by the Globe and Mail‘s Bruce West, including the two mentioned in the original article.

Globe and Mail, June 14, 1968.

Globe and Mail, February 17, 1969.

Globe and Mail, August 13, 1970.

A Walking Tour of Toronto, 1983

Canadian Living, May 1983.

The best way to fall in love with a city is to see it with someone who has already decided it’s the only place in the world to live. If you can go for a walk with someone who knows the inside story on the people as well as the buildings, you’ll remember the city forever.

These words of wisdom opened Sally Armstrong’s article in the May 1983 Canadian Living on touring Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg with locals. I know I’ve learned a lot on such strolls, whether it’s been with friends or as part of an organized walk through organizations like Jane’s Walk or Heritage Toronto.

While present circumstances making walking with strangers or in groups a questionable idea, maybe this piece will inspire you to seek advice from friends and experts on where to go on a solo/household walk this winter that you haven’t been before, or can enjoy from a different perspective.

Let’s dive into the article for a sense of what sort of advice was given to anyone interested in exploring Toronto in 1983…

Canadian Living, May 1983.

“Toronto’s Soho” remained an unofficial name for an area everybody else called “Queen West.” As for standard tours, flipping through the 1984 edition of Fodor’s Toronto notes that Gray Line offered a 2-1/2 hour bus trip which took visitors to the Eaton Centre, Old and New City Hall, Ontario Place, U of T, Queen’s Park, Yorkville, and an hour at Casa Loma, while City Tours offered 90 minute sightseeing trips covering the CN Tower, Casa Loma, the Ontario Science Centre, and the Metro Zoo.

Speaking of People City…

Canadian Living, May 1983.

This tour essentially covers the Toronto of my childhood visits, where my Dad took me along Queen West and sometimes dipsy-doodled along neighbouring side streets (though, other than Edwards, none of the bookstores we frequented are mentioned).

Queen West feels like an obvious choice for a walk from this era, as it was always touted as where things were hip and happening. Other neighbourhoods I could envision this type of walking tour from this period include Yorkville (where the lingering traces of 1960s bohemia mixed with its evolution into today’s high-end district), The Annex/Mirvish Village, Cabbagetown, and The Beaches.

Canadian Living, May 1983.

Also included with the article was a series of federal ads promoting springtime in Canada, though none of them identified where the idyllic scenes were photographed.

Yorkdale: The Instant Downtown Uptown

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on November 28, 2009.

Yorkdale, circa 1965. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 196.

Christmas shopping is upon us, which means it’s time for the claustrophobic to avoid approaching most of Toronto’s shopping malls. Yorkdale will be one of the busiest spots, as drivers try their best to avoid getting into a fender-bender with the twenty-seven other drivers fighting for a precious parking spot. The same scene probably played itself out when the mall opened as an attempt to bring the diversity of downtown shopping to the suburbs, complete with modern conveniences, even if the mall no longer contains tenants like five-and-dime chains, display space for bathroom fixture manufacturers, or grocery stores.

Once upon a time, a millionaire from British Columbia decided that he would like to buy some land north of Toronto to run a sleepy farm. Barrett Montfort purchased most of the property where Yorkdale sits in 1942 and claimed he never saw a development boom coming. “It just never occurred to me that something like Highway 401 would ever be built there. It was just an old farm when I bought it. It had been a good farm for many years.” By the mid-1950s, Eaton’s rented his property with an option to buy as the department store eyed potential sites for a suburban development. Corporate officials saw that Montfort’s land sat at a future transportation crossroads, thanks to a proposed extension of Spadina Road on the east side.

Exterior of Eaton’s Yorkdale, circa 1965. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 199, Item 1.

After four years of planning, Yorkdale was unveiled to the public at a press conference held at the Granite Club on October 16, 1958. Officials from Eaton’s and rival department store Simpson’s announced that the two companies were ready to open locations in the same shopping complex for the first time, in order to provide consumers “with the best suburban shopping facilities to be found anywhere in Canada.” Besides land acquired from Montfort, the development team also purchased property held for future use by General Motors to assemble enough space to build a twenty-five-million-dollar, sixty-two-store plaza.

Local officials and residents were giddy about the news—as long as property values rose and more businesses decided to settle in North York Township, why complain? “Every community should have one,” said Bert Egan, president of the Blackwater-Ranee Ratepayers’ Association. “I think this is the greatest thing in the world for any community. It’s a wonderful thing for North York’s commercial assessment, and it’ll make things a lot easier for the residential taxpayers.” Egan did not forsee any NIMBY-style reaction from those he represented, as long as the plaza was nicely landscaped. North York Reeve Vernon Singer felt Yorkdale was “the break-through we’ve been hoping for to open the door to further commercial and industrial development. It will prove what we’ve always claimed, that North York is at the centre of the Toronto area. Yorkdale will almost move the corner of Yonge and Queen to Dufferin and Highway 401.”

Simpson’s Court, circa 1965. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 198, Item 1.

North York officials hoped that Yorkdale would speed up the arrival of the Spadina Expressway, though the controversial road briefly proved an obstacle. Just as the preliminary architectural and engineering studies wound down in 1960, an offhand conversation with an official from the Ontario Department of Highways revealed that expansion plans for Highway 401 coupled with a massive interchange with Spadina would not include any direct access to the plaza. To add insult, the developers would also have to sacrifice a few acres for the good of Metro drivers. After negotiation, access was secured and the site studies were renewed.

Simpson’s Court, Yorkdale, date unknown. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0014666f.

Once the Lawrence Avenue to Highway 401 stretch of the Spadina Expressway was approved by Metro Council, shovels went into the ground at the end of May 1962. Eaton’s and Simpson’s unveiled their store designs with promises of bringing shoppers the services they had grown accustomed to downtown with a modern flair. Each store’s restaurant would act as eye candy—the Vista at Eaton’s would provide diners with a view of the mall from a series of mushroom-shaped balconies, while the Court at Simpson’s would be accessed by a curving staircase. Simpson’s brought in pioneering mall designers Victor Gruen and John C. Parkin to work on their store and bring the excitement they had generated south of the border. “My purpose,” said Parkin, “has been to make a visit to Simpson’s a pleasant, almost European shopping experience rather than a visit to the clinical type of store.”

The opportunity for classy shopping couldn’t come fast enough for nearby residents during the excavation phase. Complaints were made to the township in July 1962 about dust clouds that forced residents to close their windows on hot summer days and thwarted attempts to hang laundry. Contractors were charged with anti-noise bylaw violations for operating trucks at all hours. Construction company representatives tried to assure residents that if work was allowed to continue twenty-four hours a day, the pain would be over in a month. This plea must have worked, as we found no evidence of a “Stop Yorkdale” campaign in the papers.

The Telegram, February 25, 1964.

The imminent arrival of Yorkdale and construction of the Spadina Expressway left the TTC in a tizzy. As the 1960s began, transit officials were always assured that the Spadina and its accompanying subway line down the middle were fifteen to twenty years away from reality. The TTC was unprepared to lay track along Spadina anytime soon and proposed to run an express bus service until demand warranted the subway. A 1963 plan called for the future subway platforms between Lawrence Avenue and Highway 401 to be built initially as bus depots, but this failed to materialize by the time Yorkdale was ready to welcome customers. Opening-day patrons without cars would find themselves crammed onto the Dufferin bus, which stopped in the parking lot every fifteen minutes.

During the first year of construction, other anchors were announced. Dominion announced plans for a “jet-age” supermarket located where Holt Renfrew now sits. Shoppers wouldn’t have to worry about lugging groceries around the rest of the mall thanks to an underground pickup station where orders sent down via conveyor belt could sit for several hours. Other services included an in-store deluxe microwave oven to cook roasts and other large slabs of meat on demand and a fish counter with “such delicacies as freshly caught West Coast salmon, oysters, Alaska crab and Arctic char flown to Toronto by jet aircraft.” Other food vendors were encourage to set up kiosks in a “food bazaar” in front of the store that planners insisted would bring a touch of the Middle Eastern shopping experience to North York, even if the products were as exotic as meat from local delis.

The Telegram, February 25, 1964.

Soon after Dominion’s announcement, Famous Players and Twentieth Century Theatres joined together to provide shoppers with a twin cinema—one screen for Hollywood blockbusters, the other for artier flicks. Filmgoers were promised a reversible escalator that would speed up their entry or exit (no need to linger around the concession stand when there’s shopping to do!). Among the other early tenants, one that caught our eye was a food stand operated by a familiar name. According to the Telegram, “the most unusual eating place is Mac’s, run by the owners of Mac’s Milk…Mac’s will serve just one main dish—roast beef, which a chef will cut to order from a 20 or 30 pound roast and put on the customer’s selection of seven varieties of hot bread and rolls.”
As opening day neared, Eaton’s added the final touches to its store, including one of the first automated entrances in Toronto, which was billed as an “air curtain.” Ontario College of Art student Suzan Fawcett was commissioned to create two “think pieces” out of metal to place in the foyer. As architect Elmore Hankinson noted, “We wanted to express our faith in our young, local artists. Canadian artists need encouragement but too often it comes after they have gained a reputation.” One of Fawcett’s works, Aurora Borealis Opus No. 1, was quickly dubbed “the harp” by construction workers for its arrangement of metal rods.

Toronto Star, February 26, 1964.

The Telegram sent two shoppers on a preview of Yorkdale. They were awestruck. “I’ve never seen so many stores in my life. It’s just like a city in itself,” said Marion Clancy. “It’s just as bright as being outdoors, but it’s far nicer. You don’t get your hair blown around.” The rest of the public had their first opportunity to check out the mall at 9:30 a.m. on February 26, 1964. Over one hundred thousand shoppers were estimated to have passed through that day, which created a scene that compared to the CNE midway. Barber John Folino later recalled that many of those wandering through “were all dressed up like they were going to church.” The official ribbon cutting took place at noon, followed by a lobster and cocktail lunch for VIPs. Plebeians made do with freebies from banks and stores, along with reduced prices on meals like the roast turkey special at Kresge’s one-hundredth Canadian location—for the princely sum of sixty cents diners received “savoury dressing, cranberry sauce, cream whipped potatoes, giblet gravy, buttered green peas, roll and butter” with their fowl.

The parade of people heading into “the instant downtown uptown” for opening day required fourteen police officers to direct traffic, though the traffic jam was nowhere near as bad as Yorkdale’s first Saturday of business a few days later. Maybe it had something to do with falling on Leap Day, as drivers found themselves in a jam running three miles on either side of Dufferin Street. All 6,500 parking spots were filled by 11 a.m. and police took two hours just to find an appropriate overflow location. Poorly marked underpasses didn’t help the situation.

A sampling of stores at Yorkdale, circa 1965. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 197, Item 1.

Architectural critics soon weighed in with their opinions. If the two critiques published in Canadian Architect magazine were any indication, they weren’t pleased. Ron Thom found the complex “sadly lacking,” with unimpressive entrances that didn’t stake out their significance, a parking lot that felt like it was designed by a computer and a lack of unified design. “Only the Simpson’s store…stands as a coherent statement of what it is. The remainder resembles a group of separate parts, each designed by an angry individualist, determined not only to outdo, but to undo all the other parts around—a sort of architectural salad.” He did like the court outside Simpson’s, where the impressiveness of the spiral staircase and fountain made it an ideal place for children to play and their parents to rest. Fellow critic Donovan Pinker felt that Yorkdale symbolized the fragmentation of the city, the sterility of the suburbs, and was generally too segregated from the “spice of urban life.”

Eaton’s Court, 1960s. Yorkdale Archives.

None of these views deterred shoppers, with more stores open and sales looking rosy as the 1964 Christmas season approached. Nearby shopping centres definitely felt an impact, with Lawrence Plaza reporting a 25% drop in sales since Yorkdale opened. Shoppers enjoyed the wide walkways of what for a short time was the world’s largest shopping centre until the expansion of Honolulu’s Ala Moana in 1966.

Sources: the June 1964 issue of Canadian Architect; the October 17, 1958, May 31, 1962, December 15, 1964, and February 21, 2004 editions of the Globe and Mail; the February 25, 1964 and February 26, 1964 editions of the Telegram; and the October 17, 1958, June 3, 1960, May 31, 1962, July 10, 1962, November 24, 1962, April 3, 1963, February 21, 1964, February 25, 1964, February 27, 1964, and March 2, 1964 editions of the Toronto Star.


Let’s follow this fashionable explorer into the Globe and Mail‘s special advertising section published the day before Yorkdale’s grand opening…

Globe and Mail, February 25, 1964.

Globe and Mail, February 25, 1964.

The opening day map of the mall. As of November 2020, only Birks, Peoples and Scotiabank remain (though CIBC is represented by a bank machine, and the movie theatre evolved into the present-day Cineplex).

Globe and Mail, February 25, 1964.

The preview for Simpson’s. The chain’s first suburban Toronto store, located at Scarborough’s Cedarbrae Plaza, opened two years earlier.

Globe and Mail, February 25, 1964.

Growing to nearly 80 stores at its peak, Calderone Shoes was bought by Aldo in the late 1990s and phased out the brand in the mid-2000s.

Globe and Mail, February 25, 1964.

According to the Star, Birks was “rich in mahogany panelling and opulent carpeting and draperies.” Perhaps shoppers could pick up some fancy jewels at Birks…

Globe and Mail, February 25, 1964.

…and show them off while shopping for groceries.

Globe and Mail, February 25, 1964.

Somehow, wandering around Yorkdale in night attire never caught on.

Globe and Mail, February 25, 1964.

Toronto Star, February 25, 1964.

The Star‘s preview coverage included this guide on how to get to Yorkdale, and plenty of ads…

Toronto Star, February 25, 1964.

Toronto Star, February 25, 1964.

Toronto Star, February 25, 1964.

Toronto Star, February 25, 1964.

Toronto Star, February 25, 1964.

A much more detailed version of the Dominion ad. Let’s take a closeup at the innovations.

Toronto Star, February 25, 1964.

Given the choice between the two opening attractions, first ticket buyer Ralph Carveth chose To Bed or Not to Bed, which the Globe and Mail described as “a very silly title for a very clean little film about frank amorality.”

As for the main attraction, Seven Days in May is worth a watch in light of the post-election shenanigans south of the border.

Toronto Star, February 27, 1964.

Free boutonnieres from a well-established tailoring firm were among the giveaways and festivities surrounding the opening. Other highlights included a performance by vibraphonist Peter Appleyard at the Bank of Nova Scotia branch.

(Aside: check out A Tailored History of Toronto, Pedro Mendes’ book about the history of Walter Beauchamp, which I contributed research to.)

Globe and Mail, February 27, 1964.

In his biography A Store of Memories, G. Allan Burton reflected on how the Sinpsons-Eaton’s relationship had evolved by this point:

The successful conclusion of the Yorkdale deal only increased the mutual respect in which the age-old competitors…held each other. There was a time when Eaton’s, being considerably larger than Simpsons for many of the early years, regarded us with amused tolerance. Now we could, and did, deal as equals. Both of us were faintly amused at the backwardness of the Hudson Bay Company generally, and in particular their reluctance to go into shopping centres. Yet Eaton’s tried to dictate a maximum size for our store in Yorkdale, but I refused, saying I would build the size we wanted and if Eaton’s wanted to build more or less that was their prerogative!

Toronto Star, February 27, 1964.

‘Tis the Season for Christmas Windows at the Queen Street Hudson’s Bay

With Toronto going into COVID lockdown for the foreseeable future, the Christmas season will be different this year. As I’m writing this, the city is a day-and-a-half away from the latest restrictions going into effect, prompting a wave of panic buying and shoppers scurrying to suburban malls to stock up.

(Aside: while running some errands last night, I was amused that in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown announcement, people ran to their nearest liquor store, even though LCBO outlets and grocery stores will remain open. From the Beaches to Fairview Mall, lines snaked out the front doors, lines absent from every other business. Were they worried that the provincial booze supply would eventually be cut off? Were they trying to make up for poor home bar stocking practices? Did they need more drinks for their ongoing Doug Ford drinking game? Were they planning to ride out the lockdown by drinking away the pain? Were they just long line fetishists embracing an opportunity?)

Amid cancellations of public holiday gatherings and festivals, one tradition is still with us: Christmas windows at Hudson Bay’s Queen Street flagship. Concessions are being made to COVID, so rituals such as kids sticking their nose against the window are out this year.

You can take comfort that the toy soldiers are following protocols, and don’t endorse anti-maskers.

The main Hudson’s Bay display consists of five animated windows. If you start at the west end, the first window up is a computer analyzing children’s requests.

Next, a Christmas decoration production line…

…followed by gift wrapping.

Also on the production line: candy canes in HBC colours.

Finally, snowmen having fun making snow angels.

Over on Bay Street, Hudson’s Bay is going with “all the colours of the holiday.”

The windows on the Saks Fifth Avenue side of the building were less whimsical, more standard fashion ensembles not too different from the rest of the year. The exception was a nautical-themed Louis Vuitton display along Yonge Street.

Pictures taken by Jamie Bradburn on November 6 and November 13, 2020.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Tip Top Man of the Class

Originally published on Torontoist on June 15, 2010.


Goblin, January 1924.

While all of the other attendees resemble grotesques from the funny pages, the Tip Top customer is dripping with 1920s sophistication. With his pencil-thin moustache, slicked hair, stylish tuxedo, and elegant cigarette holder, this fellow could have stepped out of a Noël Coward play.

Cartoonist Lou Skuce (1886–1951) was one of Toronto’s busiest artists during the first half of the twentieth century. His work, often sports-related, graced the pages of many local newspapers and publications. Skuce also toured theatres with a contraption called the Cartoonagraph, which he used to project drawings as he worked on them. Among the achievements singled out in obituaries for Skuce was a series of murals he produced for the Toronto Men’s Press Club that humorously depicted the organization’s activities and the evolution of the printed word from the Stone Age onward.

Refined elegance had long departed 245 Yonge Street by the 1970s. The address gained infamy during the summer of 1977 when the body of Emanuel Jaques was found on the roof of the Charlie’s Angels “body rub parlour.” The gruesome murder of the twelve-year-old shoeshine boy led local officials to crack down on the adult businesses that occupied the storefronts once inhabited by more respectable retailers like Tip Top.


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Goblin, March 1924.

Flipping through the pages of Goblin over the rest of 1924, Lou Skuce’s art appeared in a series of ads for General Motors.

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Goblin, April 1924.

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Goblin, May 1924.

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Goblin, June 1924.

Golden Mile Plaza

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on February 26, 2013.

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The Telegram, April 7, 1954.

Following World War II, Scarborough Township was in dire financial straits. “We didn’t have enough money to meet our weekly payroll,” reeve Oliver Crockford recalled years later. Crockford placed his hopes on a 255 acre parcel of federal land along Eglinton Avenue east of Pharmacy Avenue that the township purchased in 1949. Industrial development quickly ensued, with major companies like Frigidaire and Inglis opening along what was soon dubbed the “Golden Mile.”

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Toronto Star, October 16, 1952. Click on image for larger version.

Developers saw potential in turning nearby farms into commercial and residential properties. Among them was Robert McClintock, who purchased a 150-acre farm at the northeast corner of Eglinton and Victoria Park in 1950. After building apartments and homes, he realized he wasn’t equipped to handle a major commercial development, so he sold a chunk of land to Principal Investments in 1952.

The new owners proceeded to build one of the new “one-stop shopping” plazas that were starting to define suburban North America. Retail chains saw such developments as key to their future. “The rate at which Toronto is growing internally and on its fringes,” Fairweather treasurer Benjamin Fish told the Telegram, “makes it imperative that the merchants give it the room and facilities it deserves.”

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The Telegram, April 7, 1954. Click on image for larger version.

Fairweather was among the tenants who welcomed shoppers when the first phase of Golden Mile Plaza opened on April 8, 1954. Visitors who filled the 2,000 free parking spots were treated to a circus-like atmosphere complete with acrobats, clowns, high divers, and pipe bands. The largest Loblaws in Canada gave away 2,000 pounds of Pride of Arabia coffee. A draw offered a top prize of a 1954 Ford Skyliner, followed by appliances built on the Golden Mile by Frigidaire. By the time the plaza was fully opened in late 1954, its tenants included Bata, Hunt’s Bakery, Tamblyn Drugs, Woolworth’s, and Zellers.

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Toronto Star, June 27, 1959. Click on image for larger version.

The plaza reached its pinnacle on June 30, 1959. Following a tour of Sunnybrook Hospital, Queen Elizabeth II stopped by Golden Mile for a 10-minute visit. She surprised her RCMP handler and municipal officials by making a quick stop at Loblaws. It was not reported if she purchased any of the week’s specials.

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Toronto Star, September 22, 1983. Click on image for larger version.

Like the rest of the Golden Mile, the plaza lost its shine during the 1970s and 1980s. The factories that spurred the area’s development closed. New enclosed malls like Fairview and Scarborough Town Centre stole business. Plaza owners failed to properly maintain the property. A flea market became a major tenant. Scarborough officials viewed it as an eyesore and began dreaming of the property’s potential for mixed commercial, office, and residential use. Amid the calls for a classier redevelopment, pictures in newspaper articles depict stores that would fit the multi-ethnic plazas that are now part of the Scarborough landscape.

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Toronto Star, April 16, 1986. Click on image for larger version.

Reactions among Scarborough city councillors were mixed when Loblaws proposed one of its new Super Centre hypermarkets for the plaza site in 1986. While some were happy to see any replacement, others thought a giant supermarket was an inappropriate gateway to the city. “This may be what Scarborough has grown up on,” councillor Joyce Trimmer noted, “but it’s not good enough today. The first thing people will see on coming into Scarborough will be a big parking lot.” The development was approved. The plaza’s demolition was marred by a fire on December 15, 1986 that forced the closure of a few lingering stores which had hoped to remain open through Christmas Eve. The plaza would be memorialized via a photo gallery inside its replacement.

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Toronto Star, March 17, 1988.

For a time, the Super Centre revived old retail traditions like a fleet of floor employees equipped with roller skates to retrieve merchandise. When Loblaws phased out the Super Centre concept, they reduced the size of the store and converted it to a No Frills. A spokesperson told the Star in 1999 that Loblaws was happy with the site, as “the Golden Mile name has a certain cachet.” The remaining Super Centre space was initially a Zellers then further split into the present combination of a dollar store, discount gym, and Joe Fresh.

Sources: the September 22, 1983, April 16, 1986, August 29. 1986, and July 12, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star, and the April 7, 1954 edition of the Telegram.


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Toronto Star, April 20, 1953. Click on image for larger version.

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Toronto Star, April 20, 1953.

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The Telegram, April 7, 1954. Click on image for larger version.

Christmas in Toronto, 1869

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Harper’s Weekly, December 25, 1869.

Saturday being Christmas Day business was suspended in the city; that is to say, all places of business, except such as oyster depots, candy shops and saloons were closed. The streetcars ran as usual, and certainly did a paying business, as they were crowded with passengers nearly every trip. The weather was delightful, reminding one more of a day in spring than in winter; and, as a natural consequence, the streets were crowded with pedestrians, chiefly of the male sex, however. Divine service was held in several of the numerous places of religious worship in the city, and sermons appropriate to the occasion preached. – The Leader, December 27, 1869.

Torontonians gathering ingredients for their Christmas dinner 150 years ago had plenty of options from local butchers. “The St. Lawrence Market,” the Globe reported, “is peculiarly well adorned with meat of the most tempting character, while all over the city the butchers show that though they are not in the market they are quite prepared to meet the wants of the citizens, as respects Christmas cheer.”

The Leader was particularly taken with James Britton’s stall. “Mr. Jas. Britton, everybody in Toronto knows, and every Toronto epicure and gourmand blesses, or ought to, for he has certainly on this occasion pandered to their luxurious tastes most extensively and deserves for his splendid display of meats, to stand foremost on the list.”

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The Globe, December 23, 1869.

Among the advertisers that season was the Wesleyan Methodist Church, who invited the public to view the Christmas tree in the basement of their Richmond Street home. Visitors stopping in on December 23 could browse a “sale of useful and fancy articles” which raised funds for the congregation’s future home in McGill Square (the lot on the northwest side of Queen and Church). “Attendance was very fair during the afternoon,” the Telegraph reported, “swelling to a positive crowd in the evening.” The proceeds helped build the new church, which evolved into today’s Metropolitan United Church.

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The Leader, December 24, 1869.

Browsing the ads for the city’s dry goods merchants, one new name had entered the holiday shopping sweepstakes. Earlier that month, Timothy Eaton opened his first Toronto store at 178 Yonge Street, which offered the radical merchandising method of selling goods for cash only (the store’s “goods satisfactory or money refunded” motto debuted the following year). The store was snug: measuring 24 feet across and 60 feet deep, it only employed four people. Popular items early on included buttons, gloves, and underwear.


Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, circa 1867-1868. Photo by Octavius Thompson. Toronto Public Library, Z 3-7.

Among the Christmas Day festivities across the city was a dinner held at the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide for over 220 children living in charitable institutions such as the Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Boys’ Home, and the Girls’ Home (along with, as the Globe dubbed them, “20 inmates of the News Boys’ Home). Organized annually by businessman John Hallam, it featured a hymn sing where the kids’ performances were praised community dignitaries. “The Christmas tree was then disburdened and each child having received from its branches a toy or picture book,” the Globe reported, “and also been handed a paper bag containing cakes, raisins, apples, and sweetmeats, the children started for their respective homes, four happy little bands, rendered so by the liberality of those who will be amply paid for their kindness to these poor little orphans when they shall have addressed to them the words ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’”

(Journalists in 1869 were a wordy bunch)

Years later, as a city councillor, Hallam’s support of free public libraries played a role in the transformation of the Mechanics’ Institute’s collection into the Toronto Public Library. Hallam Street is named in his honour.

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Christmas menu for guests of the Queen’s Hotel. The Telegraph, December 27, 1869.

Some of the city’s wealthier, politically-connected citizens gathered for a Christmas dinner at the Queen’s Hotel (the present site of the Royal York). Toasts were made to Queen Victoria, various branches of the military, and Americans. The Telegraph printed the extensive menu.

The Globe reported on Christmas Day at the Don Jail:

Even without the heavy walls of the prison the genial spirit of Christmas penetrated, and brought a thrill of pleasure and a softening influence to many a hardened heard among the 154 incarcerated there. No relaxation of the prison discipline was admitted, except to allow friends to visit the inmates and bring with them some of the Christmas cheer which prevailed without. In more than one cell, tears came to eyes unused to weep, at the thought of former Christmas Days—when innocence made it a happy anniversary. Many a heart that knew not the crucified Saviour had reason to feel thankful for the natal day of Him who pardoned the thief on the cross.


Francis Henry Medcalf. Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the holidays saw the start of nominations for city council candidates in the upcoming municipal election. Putting his name back into the fray was former mayor Francis Henry Medcalf, who had resigned from council on November 1 to protest a proposal to extend the term of office from one to three years. He decided to switch wards, moving from St. Lawrence’s (which covered the area south of Queen Street east of Yonge) to St. John’s (later known simply as “The Ward”). At a Christmas Eve nomination meeting, Medcalf claimed that when he was asked to run, he did so because, the Leader reported, “he owed the people of that ward a deep debt of gratitude for the hearty way in which they had always supported them, and he hoped he would be able to pay that debt before he paid the debt of nature.” Medcalf would represent the ward for two years, then returned to the mayor’s chair for a final two-year run in 1874.

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Canadian Illustrated News, December 25, 1869.

We’ll end with the parting thoughts from the Globe’s Christmas day editorial:

Let us hope, in any case, that the event may be happy, and that we, like the rest of the world, may find that, after of dread of turbulence and conflict, we are, as we should be, in peace and good will with all men.

Sources: the December 23, 1869, December 25, 1869, and December 27, 1869 editions of the Globe; the December 25, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Leader; and the December 24, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Telegraph.

the short, aubergine-coloured, lower-cased life of eatons

Viewers tuning into CTV’s airing of Tomorrow Never Dies on October 22, 2000 might have scratched their heads during the commercial breaks. Of the 29 minutes of ad time during that evening’s Bond thriller, 24 were dedicated to promoting a shade of purple which shared the French name for eggplant. The longest spot, running four-and-a-half minutes, was a stylish ode to classic Hollywood musicals.

Aubergine: the colour and driving spirit of the new incarnation of Eaton’s. Or, as it would now be known, eatons.

The ad campaign, created by the Ammirati Puris agency and anchor by director Floria Sigismondi’s TV spot, created a lot of buzz. But the expectations it created among consumers, and the disappointment they experienced when faced with reality, led to the quick demise of the eatons experiment.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

In Fall 1999, Sears Canada picked up the remains of the T. Eaton Company for, depending on the source, either $50 million or $80 million. Of the 19 locations acquired, 12 were converted to Sears stores. The remaining seven—two in Toronto (Eaton Centre and Yorkdale), along with locations in Calgary, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg—would form a new, upscale chain. It would be a change of pace for Sears, whose base was mid-market suburbia.

Retaining the “circle e” logo Eaton’s had introduced during a last-ditch “Times Have Changed” revamp in 1997, the new branding was introduced in April 2000. Sears Canada executive VP of marketing Rick Sorby explained the decision to use a lower-case name:

The design of the name, which features a small “e” and no apostrophe before the “s,” reflects the evolution from a family name to a true brand name. The execution of the identification utilizes easy-to-read lower-case typography and a powerful icon—the circled e—to give us a branding device that works on all applications from TV commercials to store signing…The lower-case letters are more contemporary, cleaner and more reflective of the style of the new Internet age.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

During focus group sessions with upper middle-class female shoppers, Sorby envisioned a store they would shop in if they had only three hours to live. “It’s not going to be, it’s going to be sophisticated. But not to the point of scary.”

Initial plans called for reviving lines dumped by Eaton’s during its final years, including furniture and appliances. Also resurrected was the catalogue, whose discontinuation in 1976 had caused a national uproar. If all went well, the seven eatons stores would see $1 billion in annual sales by 2003.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

All promotional material dripped with aubergine, a colour executives hoped the public would associate with eatons as they did orange with Home Depot or green with TD. “Aubergine,” Ammirati Puris creative director Doug Robinson explained to Marketing Magazine, “has been associated with royalty. We simply struck on the ideas of taking that forward, of taking it into some sort of musical, very high-fashion, very entertaining positioning-without getting too sophisticated with it.”

The aubergine jokes began as soon as the first ads aired in October. “Don’t think purple, which only comes close to aubergine,” Peter Goddard observed in the Toronto Star. “Purple is for the suburbs. Aubergine is so very downtown, so very sophisto, so very the new eatons.” Eaton chronicler Rod McQueen wondered if the brand had found a new path to bankruptcy (“Aubergine? Doesn’t that rhyme with might have been?”).

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

Checking out the renovations to the Eaton Centre flagship for Saturday Night, writer Jennifer Wells smelled “the scent of fabulousness.”

Perforated metal drop-panel ceilings. Steel floor inlays under archways. Chrome yellow tile with flecks of faux Inca gold. Three sets of escalators have been opened so that shoppers on these floors will no longer feel they are being fed up and down cattle chutes. Shoppers on floor five (fine china, drapery, flooring) will be able to peer down to four, where visiting chefs in the Great Kitchen will be preparing something sensational. There will be restaurants in all the stores featuring a variety of food stations. Alas, they are self-serve and bear the un-hip name Cuisine Scene. And you won’t be able to take home a box of petits fours or those twee pinwheel tea sandwiches. (Does anyone else remember the divine Charlotte Russe?) Those days are forever dead. Still, Sorby likens the hoped-for consumer experience on these top floors to a sensory journey. All sights, sounds, smells.

The “Historical Rooms of Distinction,” wood-panelled rooms partly preserved from the College Street store closed in 1976, were installed. The wall along Yonge Street was replaced with fashion boutiques for Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Polo, Kenneth Cole, and BCBG Max Azria with doors open to outside foot traffic. Aisles were two feet wider than a standard Sears store. Greeters would be dressed in aubergine jackets. Granite and marble was used to create a sense that the new eatons was here for the long run.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

“From the outset,” Sears CEO Paul Walters told the Globe and Mail, “our objective has been to offer exceptional stores that meet all of the needs and wants of our primary customer—the time-pressed urban customer who enjoys shopping, wants the latest styles and trends, demands service expertise and wants an exciting entertaining environment to shop in.”

There were troubling signs. Grand openings originally projected for October 2000 were delayed a month partly due to construction strikes, missing up to $40 million in sales during the early part of the holiday shopping season. Renovations went over budget. Overall consumer confidence was sinking, with fears of a recession around the corner. Some of those who attended sneak previews felt too much space was given to brands available everywhere else.

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Globe and Mail, November 24, 2000.

As for the target market, did the brand itself retain any resonance? “Can it draw crowds who are prepared to spend?” McQueen observed in the National Post. “Maybe among the 60-year-old women who grew up going to the Georgian Room in Toronto or the Grill Room in Winnipeg. But the target market of tomorrow is not women of a certain age. Eatons badly needs the 18-to-49-year old who may find switching difficult because her buying habits are already well established elsewhere.”

“These days, mimicry is mediocrity.”

The competition barely flinched. “People talk about eatons reopening as if it was Eaton’s reopening,” HBC CEO George Heller told Maclean’s. “It’s not. We’re talking about a totally different animal here.”

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Toronto Star, November 25, 2000.

When the stores opened on November 25, reviews were positive about the look and customer service, mixed about the merchandise. “I love it,” shopper Theresa Macas told the Star. “They have very luxurious clothes and good lighting. I thought it was going to be like Sears, but it’s not.”

The wheels fell off quickly. After 13 straight quarters of record earnings, Sears Canada’s stock price fell and earnings dipped into the red. Customers expecting merchandise lining up with the adventurous advertising were disappointing. The 100-page catalogue delivered to 4.2 million homes was uninspiring. It didn’t help that it was sent via Sears’ traditional mailing list, which skewed older, lower-income, and in smaller communities than the audience eatons wanted to attract. It looked and felt nothing like the legendary Eaton’s catalogue of yore. Some industry observers also noted how much Canadians hated paying for shipping. The eatons website looked impressive, but was slow-loading and difficult to click on. Though aubergine was retained as a theme, a second television ad campaign featuring the mini-musical’s characters with a funky 1970s soundtrack failed to capture the public’s imagination. Retail consultants experienced déjà vu, seeing similar mistakes the old Eaton’s made in creating a new marketing image that wasn’t delivered in store.

Shorter version of the Floria Sigismondi aubergine ad.

“I think that we thought that these stores would open and be perfect,” Sears executive VP of marketing Bill Turner told the National Post. “In truth, it’s been a lot of work.”

By the end of January 2001 Walters, the architect of the eatons revival plan, was gone. Sears stock fell 16% over the following weeks. The catalogue and online sales were killed in early April. New CEO Mark Cohen spoke to the media in mid-June. He admitted that because of $175 million in tax write-offs acquired with Eaton’s, the new stores had to open within a year. He also admitted that “there aren’t enough truly upscale customers in Canada for half-a-million square feet of upscale goods.” Advertising would be reduced, as “it’s never going to make sense speaking to large levels of customers who geographically are never going to visit these seven stores.” Cohen expected that, as consumer spending dropped, it would be several years before Sears would pour significantly more money into eatons, and that it would take several seasons to settle on the contemporary style the chain stood for. Private labels shared by the two chains, such as Nevada men’s clothing, would be phased out of eatons.

Cohen dismissed speculation that the chain would be sold or converted into Sears stores. “I’m not going to give you a categoric no, but it’s highly unlikely that’s going to happen.”

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Globe and Mail, December 15, 2001.

Christmas 2001 stood in stark contrast to the previous year. No TV ads ran, while newspaper ads simply showcasing products with the trademarked tagline “eatons magic.” No pizazz, no excitement.

On February 18, 2002, the axe fell. “We did not do well last year,” Cohen told the press. While partly blaming the recession and effects of 9/11, “at the end of the day, we lost a lot more money than we had originally planned when this investment was first made.” Except for the Winnipeg and Yorkdale locations, the stores would be converted to Sears. A few high-performing brands would be sold at a select number of Sears locations. Cadillac Fairview indicated that the Eaton Centre name would remain on its malls in Toronto and Victoria (though the latter has since been renamed).

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Globe and Mail, February 19, 2002.

Retail consultants were harsh in their final assessments of eatons, blaming its end on everything from too few stores spread too far apart to over-emphasis on the aubergine ad campaign to overall poor execution. Among the comments:

“Those eatons stores were like stores without a soul.” – Wendy Evans.

“I don’t think the strategy was wrong, I think just the execution was wrong…Instead of calling it aubergine, if they’d called it eggplant it would have been closer to the truth. You can’t call an eggplant aubergine.” – Richard Talbot.

“They just went back to the easiest, simplest tool to drive business, which is price. Everybody else is doing the same thing. In the end, what really made eatons different? – Sam Geist.

“Disappointment is too kind a work for when you got there.” – Gary Prouk.

“Those really are winner locations. It’s just amazing they managed to screw them up.” – John Williams.

Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick summed up the chain’s demise:

What put an end to eatons’ brief resurrection was the smell of shopping death….We’ve all noticed it: it’s actually an odour of embarrassment rather than expiry. It fills the main floor when you, the shopper, find yourself empathically alone with 400 red-white-and-blue thingies by Tommy Hilfiger, 12,000 bottles of unguents and six salespeople who try too hard because they have been trained to try too hard. You know it’s not working, they know it’s not working, but you both do the time. They greet, aid, chat and wrap in such a false un-Canadian manner that you are wrenched with sympathy and impatience.

Even members of the Eaton family were critical. “When Sears started up the ‘new Eatons’ with the ‘aubergine’ campaign, I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s the wrong way to open a store,’” observed Fredrik Eaton, who ran Eaton’s during the late 1970s and early 1980s, told Canadian Business in 2005. “I had always been advised by buyers to be careful when someone offered anything in aubergine.”

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Toronto Star, August 21, 2002.

The conversions were finished by summer. The Toronto Eaton Centre Sears operated until February 2014, and would be replaced by one of the chains eatons aspired to provide the same wow factor as, Nordstrom. A recent walk through the store revealed little aubergine.

Sources: the December 11, 2000 and June 20, 2005 editions of Canadian Business; the October 27, 2000, November 25, 2000, December 14, 2001, February 19, 2002, and February 23, 2002 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 20, 2000 edition of Maclean’s; the November 6, 2000 edition of Marketing Magazine; the April 17, 2000, November 15, 2000, November 22, 2000, April 4, 2001, April 9, 2001, June 14, 2001, and February 19, 2002 editions of the National Post; the November 11, 2000 edition of Saturday Night; and the October 29, 2000, November 26, 2000, and June 14, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.