Shaping Toronto: Christmas Window Displays

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2015.

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View of Christmas window display at Queen and Yonge Street, December 26, 1958, Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 101, Item 23.

90 years ago, the Globe illustrated the annual pilgrimage of shoppers to the Christmas display windows of downtown’s consumer temples with prose as colourful as holiday lights:

There is a peculiar fascination in Christmas window-shopping, and for the lucky beggar whose purse is at once portly and elastic there is a stimulus in a leisurely stroll along main thoroughfares gazing upon the wonder display flaunted through polished glass plate. On a pre-Christmas afternoon—the purple twilight shattered with shafts of rosy light gleaming from a thousand meteor-lights illuminating the shopping district of the city—men and women, boys and girls loitered in the glare, finding appeal in the magnificence of the Yuletide exhibit.

For decades, Christmas wasn’t complete without viewing the holiday window displays of the rival department store giants at Queen and Yonge: Eaton’s (which also decorated its College Street store) and Simpsons. At their peak during the 1950s and 1960s, crowds jostled for the best view as children and adults stood transfixed by each year’s animated presentation of nativity scenes and Santa’s workshop, and families drove for hours to view the spectacular scenes.

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Globe and Mail, November 30, 1953.

In her book Eatonians, Patricia Phenix described the craft and creativity presented in these via one created for Eaton’s College Street store (now College Park) by Merchandise Display Manager Ted Konkle and his wife Eleanor:

In one illuminated window, movable figures skated figure eights on a Teflon rink; in another, a baby Jesus figure lay in his crèche, surrounded by the figures of three wise men, their velvet costumes designed to Italian Renaissance exactitude. The figures, modelled in Styrofoam, were moved electronically after heated brass rods were inserted in their bases.

The Konkles prepared much of the installation at home, where their clothesline was loaded with papier-mâché figures. “We remember our son sitting in a high chair pounding Styrofoam with something or other,” Ted Konkle recalled. “We were weirdos, let me tell you.”

Weird perhaps, but such efforts worked, pleasing the public and corporate accountants. But something was lost when Eaton’s replaced its downtown stores with its Eaton Centre flagship in 1977—with only three windows along Yonge Street to work with, executives decided there wasn’t room for a holiday display. When the decision was passed off an experiment to gauge public reaction, the Globe and Mailhad a simple reaction: “boo.” It’s tempting to treat this as foreshadowing for the retailer’s unpopular decision to drop the Santa Claus Parade in 1982.

Meanwhile, high-end retailers like Creeds on Bloor Street utilized holiday displays inspired by fashionable New York windows, where the icy creepiness of mannequins was used for dark comedic effect. The shock value of designs which skirted the boundaries of good taste made good headline fodder.

For Holt Renfrew, as fashion director Barbara Atkin told the Star in 2001, a good store window is like good sex: it’s all about the fantasy and allure. She noted that any retailer who just filled the window with merchandise didn’t appreciate, in the Star’s words, “the gentle teasing, the fervent anticipation and the climax of landing the sale.” Since the late 1990s, Holt Renfrew has drawn gazes for themes ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Moulin Rouge.

Beyond consumerism, holiday window displays can serve as a forum for social issues. This year’s scene at Untitled & Co on Queen West looks like a stereotypical nuclear family enjoying Christmas dinner…until the husband slaps the wife. The Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses (OAITH) hopes it will raise awareness of the spike in domestic violence the stresses of the season create. “We wanted to bring awareness to the public and we wanted women to know and understand that they weren’t alone during this period,” OAITH chair Charlene Catchpole told the Globe and Mail. “That isolation when everybody around you is happy, excited, looking forward to Santa coming and having this big holiday meal, when you can’t afford those things and you’re waiting for that other shoe to drop—we really wanted to let women know that they weren’t alone.”

The traditional department store holiday display is still available at Simpsons’ successor, Hudson’s Bay. Comparing its display to Holt Renfrew’s in 2008, the National Post observed that “kids don’t care about couture. They care about Santa Claus and elves.” We’ll see how both sides mix in the neighbourhood next year when Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue make their downtown debuts.

Additional material from Eatonians by Patricia Phenix (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002); the December 14, 1926 edition of the Globe; the November 25, 1977, April 5 1980, and December 14, 2015 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 1, 2008 edition of the National Post; and the December 20, 2001 edition of the Toronto Star.

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Vintage Toronto Ads: Black’s

Originally published on Torontoist on June 10, 2015.

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Globe and Mail, November 28, 1966.

“Black’s is Photography.” Or at least it was until yesterday, when Telus announced that it will shut the chain’s 59 remaining stores by August 8. A spokesperson blamed the 85-year-old brand’s demise on changing technology and the costs associated with making its recent revamp succeed.

Perhaps Telus, who has owned the chain since 2009, heeded advice Eddie Black gave his sons: “Don’t hang in too long.”

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One of the earliest ads to mention Eddie Black’s. The Globe, October 19, 1931.

Black’s traced its origins to 1930, when Eddie Black used a $500 loan from his parents (who owned a grocery store at Spadina and Lonsdale in Forest Hill) to open a radio and appliance shop at 1440 Yonge Street. Nine years later, sensing public interest in photography on the eve of the royal visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, he began carrying a small selection of cameras. The first batch sold out quickly.

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Globe and Mail, October 22, 1949.

When Eddie decided to open a larger store several doors north at 1424 Yonge, his eldest sons Bill and Bob proposed selling fishing gear, guns, and photographic equipment out of the old location. Eddie agreed, setting them up with a loan to launch those lines under his name in 1948. Within a year, the store dropped its outdoors goods. Besides retailing, the brothers offered lectures in their basement and ran equipment shows.

Sixty years later, Bob Black described the environment in which he began selling photographic equipment:

When we first started our store, the cameras were almost painful to use because they were so complicated. You had to focus, cock the shutter, set the lens opening and speed, set your flash, and figure out the proper distance. Photography often required a tripod. If you had slides, you needed slide trays, a projector, and a screen. Movies needed splicers, reels, and cans. Picture taking was a lot more than just the push of a button as it is today. Our timing, however, was perfect. In less than a decade, the camera went from being a specialty item to a common family purchase.

From the beginning, Black’s made good use of advertising. It sponsored a show on CFRB, “Black’s Camera Club of the Air,” which dispensed advice and previewed new products. Pitchmen included humourist Henry Morgan and Front Page Challengehost Fred Davis. The “Black’s is Photography” campaign developed by Saffer Advertising in the early 1980s used Martin Short to get that point across. Many of the ads featuring Short were improvised and sometimes mistakes made it into the final product, such as the time a spooked St. Bernard dragged the comedian across the set. It wasn’t the only time Black’s dealt with animal shenanigans; during an ad shoot at Bayview Village in the late 1970s, an elephant was depicted twirling a roll of film with its trunk before dropping it off with a clerk. “The elephant crapped all over the floor,” Bill Black later remembered.

Expansion into a chain began during the 1950s. Its fourth store, opened at Eglinton Square in 1954, launched its association with malls and plazas. There were hiccups along the way—the company was targeted by the federal government in 1962 over the definition of “regular” price under the recently passed Combines Investigation Act.

One of Black’s innovations was enlarging the standard size of photo prints. Up through the mid-1970s, customers usually picked up 3.5×5 prints. Sensing competition from instant cameras, management decided it needed something to set them apart. The answer was a larger 4×6 photo. When Black’s contacted Kodak to build a custom printer, they were told such machines would only be able to produce the new size. Introduced in 1977, the larger prints took off, eventually becoming the industry norm.

By the mid-1980s, a dozen members of the Black family worked for the company. They sensed the time was right to sell due to record profits, no debts, and private fears about how digital technology would affect the business. The 105-store chain was sold for $100 million to Scott’s Hospitality, which owned franchises for Kentucky Fried Chicken (“Scott’s Chicken Villa”) and Holiday Inn. The new owners doubled the number of stores to 210, and launched a short-lived foray into the United States. Subsequent owners included Fuji Film (1993-2007) and private equity firm ReichmannHauer (2007-2009).

When Telus picked up Black’s, by then reduced to 113 locations, for $28 million in 2009, it was to boost its shopping-mall presence in the wake of rival Bell’s purchase of The Source. “There’s a convergence going on between wireless and photography and Black’s is particularly well suited to take advantage of that,” Telus executive Robert McFarlane told the Globe and Mail. But adapting to the rapid changes in digital technology and how people display and store images proved too much of a challenge. A recent revamp, which included ditching the apostrophe from the chain’s name, increased profitability, but was deemed too pricey an initiative to succeed.

Black’s will soon be a memory, like those it long boasted of preserving among its customers.

Additional material from Picture Perfect: The Story of Black’s Photography by Robert Black with Marnie Maguire (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2009) and the April 24, 2009 and September 9, 2009 editions of the Globe and Mail.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Hudson’s Bay Centre

Originally published on Torontoist on January 28, 2015.

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Toronto Star, November 5, 1975.

“A kind of urban Rip Van Winkle” was how the Star assessed the state of Yonge and Bloor in 1970. “We let it fall asleep in the early decades of this century, then tiptoed all around it during the ensuing years building the modern face of Toronto. While glittering towers of glass and concrete and stainless steel shot up everywhere else, mid-town retained a sleepy two-storey profile.”

In terms of large-scale development, the neighbourhood was waking up. Headlines transitioned from the complaints about youth in Yorkville to announcements of new office towers and shopping complexes. By the end of 1970, over 200 storeys of new space were expected to be built within the next four years. While buildings like the Manulife Centre and 2 Bloor West materialized, other ideas, like a pedestrian walkway above Bloor Street into the Colonnade, remained on the drawing board.

Among the first projects announced was a reshaping of the northeast corner of Bloor and Yonge. Backed by affiliates of Swiss-owned developer Fidinam, Toronto architectural firm Crang and Boake revealed plans for the as-yet unnamed complex in June 1969. They called for an office tower, an apartment/hotel tower, two levels of shopping, and an 800-vehicle garage, among other features. Sitting atop a major commuter hub, the complex linked into a series of underground shopping centres stretching westward, whose foot traffic would allow landlords to charge hefty rents. The project soon secured interest from Famous Players cinemas and, vacating its old building on the corner, Royal Bank.

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Toronto Sun, August 7, 1974.

Two major tenants were announced in December 1971: the Workmen’s Compensation Board (WCB), which planned to rent up to 13 floors of office space, and Hudson’s Bay Company. The Bay was familiar with the neighbourhood, having operated a branch of its Morgan’s chain at the present site of Holt Renfrew. The new store would serve as the flagship for the Bay’s rapid expansion in Eastern Canada. It also lent its name to the project: the Hudson’s Bay Centre.

Political controversy soon arose at Queen’s Park. It emerged that Fidinam, which received a $15-million loan from the WCB toward construction, donated $50,000 to the ruling provincial Progressive Conservatives following the decision to move the WCB into the building. A probe by attorney-general Dalton Bales found no wrongdoing under existing laws.

Not everyone was happy with the changes the rising towers brought to the neighbourhood. “Due to the rapid expansion of Bloor from Spadina to Church in the past five years no one paid any attention to amenities, sunlight, wind current, the general environment and the general esthetics,” alderman Ying Hope lamented to the Globe and Mail. “As a result it is rapidly becoming just another canyon with little uniformity and ‘toothgaps’ everywhere. Without some control the whole environment could be killed.”

When The Bay opened on August 7, 1974, district general manager Al Guglielmin promised it would give Eaton’s and Simpsons “a good run for their money.” The 260,000-square-foot store was touted as the first major department store to open in the core since Eaton’s College Street (now College Park) welcomed its first customers in 1931. A fifth-floor exhibition hall showcased displays from community groups. Of its three restaurants, the highlight may have been “The Edibles,” a buffet-style restaurant with English cuisine (roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips) decorated with cartoons by Ronald Searle illustrating the company’s colorful history.

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Toronto Sun, January 12, 1977.

A parade on the Bay’s opening morning ran from Varsity Stadium to the store. A year later, on November 6, 1975, the rest of the complex officially opened. To celebrate, high-wire performer Jay Cochrane walked the 287 feet between the two towers at a height of 439 feet above ground, sans safety devices.

One of the Hudson Bay Centre’s persistent detractors has been Star architecture critic Christopher Hume. He has frequently noted its failings, especially the cold concrete face it displays at street level. In a 1987 article on the best and worst buildings in the city, Hume considered it a lowlight:

An object lesson in how to take one of the two most important intersections in Toronto—Bloor and Yonge—and wreck it. Without windows or doors to break up its solid concrete facade, this Crang & Boake monstrosity looks more like a bunker than a department store. The only way life has returned to the corner is through the itinerant vendors who set up their wares around the centre.

A decade later, Hume declared “it sums up everything that shouldn’t happen in a city.”

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Left: Globe and Mail, November 17, 1975. Right: Toronto Star, October 28, 1975.

In recent years, the shopping complex underwent years of renovations. The Bay gradually lost its flagship status after Simpsons on Queen Street changed branding. It appeared the space would be transformed into the Canadian flagship for Saks Fifth Avenue, until Hudson’s Bay management decided to convert part of the Queen store. Height-wise, the complex looks tiny compared to new neighbours like One Bloor East. Amid the current developments in the neighbourhood, some might say the site feels like the Rip Van Winkles it displaced.

Additional material from the June 18, 1969, December 7, 1971, March 17, 1972, October 1, 1973, and November 7, 1975 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 14,1970, November 2, 1972, January 5, 1973, July 17, 1974, August 1, 1974, May 9, 1987, and September 19, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.

The Rise and Fall of Stollerys

Originally published on Torontoist on January 21, 2015. Additional archival images have been included.

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A policeman in fur busby directs traffic at Bloor and Yonge in front of Stollery’s men’s and boys clothing, with Humphrey gas arc lamps extending from the windows, circa 1922. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1034, Item 816.

There’s a good chance Frank Stollery wouldn’t have been impressed by what happened to his building this past weekend.

During his 70-plus years in the garment trade, Stollery made it a point not to cut corners. As a young foreman cutter in Montreal, he questioned management’s insistence on using inferior materials when the cloth he required for a necktie order was unavailable. That experience helped motivate Stollery to launch his own menswear business in 1901. Over time, he developed a reputation for quality work, refusing to trust the advice of salesmen and carefully examining the cut and strength of cloth with a large magnifying glass.

But the cutting of corners, or at least the exploiting of existing laws, was on display at the southwest corner of Bloor and Yonge this past Saturday. Workmen armed with crowbars chipped away at the façade of Stollerys. Art Deco stone carvings dating from a 1920s expansion vanished from the streetscape. Work was completed so hastily that little to no sidewalk protection was erected.

The building’s swift demise—which occurred one day after Mizrahi Developments received its demolition permit from the City—raises a number of issues regarding Toronto’s handling of heritage preservation.

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Toronto Star, January 23, 1919.

Even if you have doubts about the building’s historical merits, it’s hard to deny that the undertaking involved a certain amount of arrogance. As Star architecture critic Christopher Hume observed, “To send in the wrecking crews on a weekend—before the hoardings are even up—is as succinct a way as possible to give the city the middle finger.”

“We don’t feel there is any heritage value to it and neither did anyone else for the last 100 years,” developer Sam Mizrahi told the Star over the weekend. Yet Stollerys was one of the first businesses to make a name for itself in Yorkville. When Stollerys opened its doors in what was then considered a semi-suburban area, pessimists believed its proprietor would starve to death within a year. But the business prospered, as did Stollery, who was active in the local business association and served a one-year term as a city councillor. After renting the property for years, Stollery purchased the site in 1928 for $400,000 and transformed his store into the building currently fading away.

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Globe and Mail, December 16, 1963.

The store was praised by Advertising Age magazine during the 1950s for its straightforward sales pitches. “The copy doesn’t do much of a job of whetting desire, but it does an excellent job of carrying conviction,” columnist Clyde Bedell observed. “The advertising is successful because it fully, sincerely, honestly, warmly, effectively served the public in connection with what it offers.”

Frank Stollery sold the business in 1968, but continued to work there full time until his death three years later at the age of 91. The ensuing years saw renovations, a third-floor addition, family feuds, and a growing sense that time was passing the store by. While it carried high-end English labels, the presentation grew tired. “The windows look a lot like those of Honest Ed’s,” Karen von Hahn wrote in the Star in 2014, “except that Honest Ed’s sells jackets for $14.99, not two-ply cashmeres for hundreds of dollars.”

Like Honest Ed’s, Stollerys sat on prime real estate. Mizrahi, who bought the property in October 2014, is promising to build a retail and residential complex—complete with underground TTC access—that will complement the intersection’s other towers. British architect Norman Foster (whose work includes U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, Berlin’s Reichstag, and London’s City Hall) is reportedly attached to the project, currently called “The One.”

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Stollerys, between 1966 and 1972. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 109.

Details about Mizrahi’s plans have yet to be divulged, and a building application has yet to be submitted. This concerns Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre – Rosedale), whose ward has already witnessed heritage demolition fiascos such as the one involving 81 Wellesley Street East. Wong-Tam made a motion for the building’s heritage designation at the January 13 session of the Toronto and East York Community Council, less than a week after Mizrahi applied for a demolition permit. While residential developers must submit replacement building plans before a permit is issued, commercial developers are under no such obligation. “One hundred and ten percent, I want to see that done for commercial properties,” Wong-Tam said Monday. “We want to prevent properties from being randomly demolished across the city.”

A key issue affecting Stollerys, and sites like it, is that the City’s building department is required to grant a demolition permit if all requirements have been met. Provincial stop orders can be issued to prevent hasty action when it comes to potential heritage sites, but that hasn’t happened since 2009, when 7 Austin Terrace was saved.

The fact that the process of identifying potential heritage buildings is such a slow one concerns advocates like Catherine Nasmith, president of the Toronto branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. “It takes the city ages to put any of this stuff into place,” she told the CBC. “Once [a building] is damaged and torn down, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nasmith also observed that developers dislike heritage designations because of the limits they place on reshaping properties. This sentiment was echoed by the City’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, who tweeted earlier this week that Mizrahi had “acted rashly” because he worried the building would indeed be deemed to have heritage value.

So what could Toronto do to avoid more hasty demolitions such as the one that took down Stollerys? In general, it needs to put in place more people (paid or volunteer), who could improve the flow of designations by identifying potential heritage sites. Building a heritage impact assessment into the demolition permit process could also have a real impact—and encourage the City and developers to arrive at constructive solutions. Adding extra time to the process might also provide more opportunities to come up with imaginative ways to readapt heritage properties or to integrate them into new structures. And if it’s ultimately determined that a building can be demolished, it’s possible that elements deemed to be of historic merit could be archived, saved for future museum display, or even given to the descendants of those who worked on its construction.

It’s probably too late to salvage pieces of Stollery’s. Of concern now is whether the site will become a lingering eyesore. If Mizrahi’s construction plans end up being delayed, he could, of course, build goodwill by allowing temporary public use of the site via a park or plaza. “All we can hope for now,” Christopher Hume concludes, “is that city hall suddenly lurches back to life and does what it can to ensure that what replaces Stollerys isn’t as tacky as its builder’s behaviour.”

Additional material from the May 1, 1951, June 18, 1954, May 14, 1957, and January 4, 1971 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 21, 1928, January 4, 1971, January 5, 1971, April 23, 2014, January 18, 2015, and January 19, 2015 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Fabulous Cloverdale Mall

Originally published on Torontoist on November 19, 2014.

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Globe and Mail, November 15, 1956.

In many ways, Cloverdale Mall fulfils the visions of early shopping-centre designers: a convenient, one-stop destination at the heart of a suburban community. As a 2013 profile of the mall in The Grid observed, “its very ordinariness and prosaic mix of shops is precisely what makes it so valuable to its customers.”

What Cloverdale lacks in flashiness it makes up for by serving its neighbourhood. Initiatives such as offering free temporary space for non-profit organizations and a “Heartwalkers” program for health-conscious shoppers demonstrate an awareness of the community’s needs.

The mall’s efforts have been rewarded, too: in 2007, Cloverdale won the inaugural Social Responsibility Award from the Canadian branch of the International Council of Shopping Centres for its fundraising campaign to build the city’s first free-standing residential hospice, the Dorothy Lea Hospice Palliative Care Centre.

There was a tinge of glitz to Cloverdale’s opening on November 15, 1956. The original 34-store section of the open-air plaza consisted of two rows of businesses separated by a 30-foot wide walkway. Tile mosaics designed by Joseph Iliu provided storefront decoration—the largest was a seven-by-19-foot panel on the west wall of the Dominion supermarket depicting fish, produce, and a cocktail glass.

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Globe and Mail, November 22, 1956.

Near Dominion stood the plaza’s major art installation, a 25-foot high sculpture by Montreal artist Robert Roussil known, depending on the source, as “Figures in Movement” or “Galaxie Humaine.” The work was made of British Columbia fir and covered in lead. “I think I have a normal Canadian viewpoint and this sculpture is designed for everybody,” Roussil told the Globe and Mail. “Like anything new it won’t take long for people to become interested. Whether they accept it or not is another matter.”

Businesses at Cloverdale quickly found ways to draw in customers. Major retailers such as Dominion benefitted from Etobicoke’s relaxed evening-shopping bylaws. Record store owner Wilf Sayer capitalized on the growing power of teen consumers. He began inviting them to his shop on Tuesday nights for listening sessions and dancing, offering pop on the house.

As the events became more popular, Sayer stopped subsidizing the drinks and moved the dances into the plaza. After 600 people showed up for the July 2, 1957 starlight dance, he turned the event into a biweekly affair. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Sayer encouraged parents to chaperone so they could “see for themselves that it is a wholesome evening of entertainment.” While the playlist included Elvis Presley and other early rockers, squares were pleased by the strains of Pat Boone and Andy Williams.

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Globe and Mail, July 17, 1960.

The mall gained a major anchor when Montreal-based department store Morgan’s opened a branch in August 1960. Globe and Mail advertorial columnist Mary Walpole wrote that the store “has an air of big town sophistication and which we think is a compliment to the people who go a-shopping there … whether it is mother and the carriage crowd in sun dresses and slims or smart suburbanites who might have stepped off the cover of Harper’s [Bazaar].” The Morgan’s space would later house The Bay, Zellers (which relocated from elsewhere in the mall), and Target.

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Etobicoke Gazette, August 5, 1976.

The mall, which was enclosed in 1976, has seen its ups and downs. But local retailers such as Hot Oven Bakery and Taylor Somers clothiers have stayed for decades, enhancing Cloverdale’s community-oriented feel and offering the mall some stability. Several other current tenants either have been around since the beginning (LCBO, Scotiabank) or are descended from early businesses (Coles, Metro).

Major retail announcements in Toronto increasingly tend to focus on high-end “prestige” outlets or cheap chic, so it’s reassuring that a pretension-free mall such as Cloverdale manages to survive, and to continue serving its community.

Additional material from the November 16, 1956, November 17, 1956, August 3, 1957 and August 19, 1960 editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 29, 2013 edition of The Grid; and the September 26, 2007 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, November 16, 1956.

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Globe and Mail, November 17, 1956.

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Etobicoke Gazette, August 12, 1975.

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Etobicoke Gazette, August 19, 1975.

President’s Choice Memories of Dave Nichol

Originally published on Torontoist on September 26, 2013.

Before Dave Nichol, store brands lacked cachet. You tossed them in your shopping cart if your budget was tight, or if they were the only product available. They didn’t inspire visions of culinary creativity. Packaging design was often an afterthought.

To lessen their stigma, private labels needed the enthusiasm of an executive like Nichol, the force behind No Name and President’s Choicewho passed away over the weekend at the age of 73.

Nichol made Loblaws’ store brands fashionable, marketing them with a combination of sophistication and folksy pitching. Reminiscing about his advertising presence in 2007, Canadian Business observed that he “looked like a guy who loved to eat—someone who might as well have had ‘foodie’ tattooed on his forehead, who you might actually believe spent his time scouring the globe for exotic foods.” You might not be able to afford a dinner at a five-star restaurant, but Nichol created the impression that you could, with the right “Memories of” sauce or other accompaniments, elevate your meal to similar heights. Clever branding raised the profile of everyday items, so that packaged chocolate-chip cookies became “decadent” and outsold competitors. Though competing Canadian chains launched their own higher-quality private labels, few earned the respect of Loblaws’ lines.

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Vintage Ad #2,293: Loblaws save signs Toronto Star, September 14, 1977. 

It began when Galen Weston Sr. became Loblaws’ CEO in 1972. He assembled a team, including Nichol, executive Richard Currie, and designer Don Watt. Together, they transformed the dowdy grocer into an industry innovator. Soon after becoming president of the chain’s Ontario and Quebec operations in 1976, Nichol replaced William Shatner as Loblaws’ pitchman, portraying himself as an executive passionate about product quality and affordable prices. (You can see some clips of his TV work embedded in this post, and also in this memorial video released by Loblaws earlier today.)

Nichol had a knack for building on ideas introduced elsewhere. Noticing French grocer Carrefour had a successful generic product line, he introduced the No Name brand during a March 1978 price war. The line’s bright, simple, yellow-and-black packaging stood out on store shelves. He touted No Name as an alternative to the ad noise generated by name-brand items, and consumers responded. Within three weeks of launching, the line sold as much as Loblaws expected to sell in a year. The generic concept was expanded in July 1978 when the first No Frills store opened at St. Clair and Victoria Park.

In the early 1980s, Nichol noticed an irreverent grocery flyer used by Trader Joe’s in California. Figuring its mix of product pitches, silly cartoons, and enthusiasm about food would work in Canada, he launched the Insider’s Report in November 1983. Written by Toronto Star food writer and Loblaws product developer Jim White, the Insider’s Report generated enough buzz to empty store shelves and excite foodies whenever a new edition appeared. It helped launch lines like President’s Choice, Too Good to be True, and G.R.E.E.N., using a light-hearted tone its current incarnation lacks.

Nichol became the embodiment of President’s Choice, touting products ranging from beer to the oddly-named Oreo imitation “Lucullan Delights.”

“People could relate to me,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2007. “They really trusted me.” Behind the genial demeanour was a perfectionist whose demanding nature earned him a spot on the Report on Business list of Canada’s toughest bosses in 1987. This manifested in his deep involvement in testing new products in a kitchen built next to his office. “Dave would work his way down the counter with a steely intensity—sniffing, licking, sipping, swallowing, appraising, critiquing,” noted Nichol biographer Anne Kingston. “On the rare times a product met Nichol’s approval, the tension in the kitchen would break. ‘This is fantastic,’ he would roar. Occasionally, after he ingested something that gave him pleasure, a look of rapture would flicker across his face. ‘I can hear the angels singing,’ he would say.”

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Published in 1993, The Dave Nichol Cookbook sold over 200,000 copies. Your local thrift shop or used-book sale should have a copy.

After Nichol left Loblaws in 1993, he worked as an industry consultant. The public continued to associate him with Loblaws, as both No Name and President’s Choice remained the grocer’s backbone. Those lines allowed people to serve store brand products to others without shame.

Additional material from The Edible Man by Anne Kingston (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1994), the July 1993 and October 22, 2007 editions of Canadian Business, the December 1987 edition of Report on Business Magazine, the June 23, 2007 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 21, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, September 22, 1972.

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Toronto Star, December 10, 1983. Click on image for larger versions. 

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Globe and Mail, September 14, 1982. As of 2018, this store operates as a Loblaws.

Vintage Toronto Ads: What Does He Want from Mr. Mort?

Originally published on Torontoist on February 26, 2013.

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Don Mills Mirror, December 16, 1970.

Did the boys at Mr. Mort’s succeed in their quest to make heroines out of girlfriends/partners/wives determined to give their man the most stylish winter threads 1970 had to offer? Or did those men stumble upon this ad and shake their heads in disbelief at what this groovy clothier had to offer?

The main figure in the ad is decked out in a finely tailored suit, apparently named after a brand of house paint. The description doesn’t indicate if customers can use paint chips to select the perfect colour combinations to weave into the smart, checked pattern.

Model B–C shows off Mr. Mort’s casual combination. This outfit is ideal for swinging get-togethers with other couples, hitting the party scene, or, with sunglasses on, driving down the highway with the radio at full blast. But be careful—the police might ticket you for driving under the influence of fine fashion!

Model D—the “leathers are in” gent—is definitely a man on the move. His ensemble is ideal for a mod mob enforcer, a primped-up pimp, a sharp-dressed bank robber, or a small-time radical terrorist. It’s an outfit any man would wear with pride on the day they suddenly decide to hijack a plane to Cuba.

Don’t forget the finishing touches! The vest scarf is a fantastic item for keeping any neck warm, but proper sizing is important. Mr. Mort does not take any responsibility for customers who accidentally choke themselves by buttoning up too tightly. Your heroine will thank you for continuing to breathe.

BEHIND THE SCENES

And so, after six years, the first run of “Vintage Toronto Ads” ended. Perhaps it was appropriate the last subject was named “Mort.”

The series wasn’t as popular as other material Torontoist published, thus not making it worth the premium rate (relatively speaking) I received as a staff writer. As for why there’s no indication that this was the end, there was talk of occasionally reviving it for gallery-style posts. A revival lasted from November 2014 to August 2015.