Zellers: Where the Lowest Price Was the Law

A merger of two Torontoist posts, one written when Target bought a pile of Zellers leases (published January 13, 2011) and one when Target Canada called it quits (published January 23, 2015), along with a few extras tossed in.

Let’s begin with the expectations some people had when Target announced it was coming to Canada…

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

For several years, local lovers of Target (or, as some preferred, Tar-zhay) drooled at periodic rumours that the American discount retailer would set up shop north of the border. Time and time again they were let down by failed courtship attempts between Target and Zellers — until today’s revelation that Target has agreed to take over the leases of most Zellers locations. To those infatuated with the new arrival’s offerings, this may be equivalent to an early Valentine’s Day gift. While it might not be heartbreaking to some when the eighty-year-old Canadian discounter disappears from the local landscape in 2013, we’ll take a moment to look at its hopeful beginnings.

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1931.

Walter Zeller entered the retail business through the stock room of a Woolworth’s in his native Kitchener in 1912. Over the next two decades he rose steadily in the five-and-dime field on both sides of the border, working at store and corporate management levels for the likes of S.S. Kresge and Metropolitan Stores. In 1928 he launched his own small chain with locations in Fort William, London, and St. Catharines. By the end of that year, the original incarnation of Zellers was purchased by American retailer Schulte-United, who rebranded the stores under their banner. Dreams of opening two hundred stores were quashed by the economic crash, which resulted in Schulte-United’s bankruptcy in January 1931. The bankruptcy trustees called in Zeller, who decided after several months of examination to buy the dozen or so stores left in Canada.

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

Zeller sounded optimistic about the chances for the new Zellers Ltd. when he announced its formation in November 1931. “In building our new company,” he told the press, “one important thought has been borne in mind—that the buying public to-day is more discriminating and thrifty than ever before. It knows and demands style merchandise of good quality. It insists on popular prices.” Among the first stores to carry the new banner was the chain’s sole Toronto location at Yonge and Albert streets (now occupied by the Eaton Centre). Prior to its grand opening on November 11, store manager F.C. Lee told the Star both he and the employees that had been retained were confident about the prospects for Zellers, due to the retail experience, managerial skills, and financial backing of the new corporate overlords. “While Zellers is extending a chain of stores throughout Canada,” Lee noted, “nevertheless the business is founded on the principle that the local success depends on catering to local conditions and preferences—and local managers are empowered to operate on this basis.”

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Globe and Mail, March 8, 1950.

Torontonians didn’t bite, as its first location closed within months. That first store was ignored in the PR for Zellers’ return to the city in March 1950. “Even if many Torontonians hear the news at first with indifference,” Globe and Mailbusiness columnist Wellington Jeffers wrote, “I am convinced that later on they will know it is something of an event that Zeller’s Ltd will this year open a Zeller store on Bloor Street.”

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1950.

The branch at 24 Bloor Street West (now the site of the Holt Renfrew Centre) was hailed by City officials as the beachhead for larger stores moving onto Bloor between Yonge and Bay.

Zellers quickly took advantage of the explosive growth in suburban shopping, placing stores in pioneering shopping centres like Golden Mile Plaza and Lawrence Plaza. The stores gradually evolved into modern discount department stores, though unlike its competition (Kresge’s Kmart and Woolworth’s Woolco chains), Zellers didn’t rebrand its larger locations.

Within two years of Walter Zeller’s death in 1957, a majority interest in the company was held by American discounter W.T. Grant. The Hudson’s Bay Company became sole owner in 1978. Later acquisitions included many Toronto locations of K-Mart and Towers.

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Toronto Star, October 15, 1986.

In August 1986 Zellers launched its Club Z customer loyalty program. Initial press reports depicted it as a computerized version of old “green stamp” schemes, complete with gift catalogue promising decent merchandise for a large number of points—a 28-inch colour TV could be yours for only 1.5 million Club Z points. Targeted consumers were women aged 25 to 55 who frequently shopped at Zellers for basic clothing and other staples for their families.

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Toronto Star, February 24, 1987.

The following year, Zeddy debuted. In his early days, Zeddy taught kids to be safe via colouring books, and lent his assistance in finding missing children. Zeddy later upheld the “law of Toyland,” joining the likes of Batman and Robin in crusading for lower prices on kids’ goods. After being dumped in the woods in a humorous ad campaign in 2012, Zeddy became a mascot for Camp Trillium.

The influence of Target hovered over the chain from the 1990s onward, via revamped presentation in some stores, stocking common brands like Cherokee and Massimo, and periodic rumours the American discounter was about to take over. Yet model stores, as Canadian Business discovered at an Ajax location in 1996, could not escape complaints about messiness customers grumbled about for years:

Pieces of children’s clothing are strewn about the floor. The cosmetics counter is in hopeless disarray. A snorkel and mask are lying in the stationery section. A bucket of dirty water sits next to a mountain of tinned ham. Empty cardboard boxes and abandoned shopping carts block the aisles.There are rows of empty shelves in almost every department of the store. Some of the goodies bins around the checkout area sit empty—a cardinal sin in the retailing world, where impulse buying accounts for a significant percentage of sales. A female clerk swears loudly as she sets up a display. Another gives a visitor a sour look when he asks for directions to the washroom. Needless to say, this is not the ultimate shopping environment. And yet Zellers is counting on “model” outlets such as this to save it from oblivion.

Facts of Interest to the People of Canada about Zellers

Maclean’s, June 1, 1944. 

To put it mildly, Target Canada didn’t live up to expectations. Its failure will probably be a case study in business textbooks for years to come. One side effect was a wave of nostalgia for Zellers, which left a void in the marketplace that is still being filled.

When Target announced its decision to pull the plug on its Canadian misadventure, it provoked a wave of nostalgia for the discount chain it supplanted. Memories and laments for Zellers made it a trending topic on social media, and the textbook case study of Target’s mistakes led people to forgive past complaints about the home of Club Z and Zeddy.

“Zellers, for most of its history, was quite simply the major discount store in the country,” retail expert Ed Strapagiel noted when Target purchased Zellers’ leases in Janaury 2011. ”It really was quite phenomenal—it didn’t necessarily offer the most fashionable items, but it had a reputation for good and sturdy clothes.”

Anyone with pangs of nostalgia, or wishing to have a last laugh on Target, can still shop at Zellers in Toronto, though the lone remaining store in the city at Kipling and Queensway is effectively a Hudson’s Bay outlet.

Sources: the September 1996 edition of Canadian Business; the October 21, 1939 edition of the Financial Post; the February 2, 1950 and January 14, 2011 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 7, 1931, November 10, 1931. March 9, 1950, and August 10, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

It appears that Zellers will disappear (again) by the beginning of 2020, as its last two locations will be closing. 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Corner of Balmuto St. and Bloor St., looking north

Corner of Balmuto and Bloor, looking north, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 66, Item 21.

From a 1939 Financial Post profile of Walter Zeller:

On the business side of the balance sheet, Mr. Zeller knows as much about the variety store business as any man in the business. On the personal side, he is forthright, hard-hitting and, when asked his opinion, gives it without reserve. What he has accomplished in a relatively short space of time implies a businessman of the “dynamo” type. He is all of that. And to back up his boundless supply of energy, is a knowledge of his own business and capabilities that commands respect.

The profile ended with this odd tidbit: “He has only two hobbies: business and Kiwanis.”

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Globe and Mail, February 2, 1950.

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Canadian Champion, February 9, 1972.

“County Fair” malls and plazas anchored by Zellers dotted the Canadian landscape during the 1970s. I wonder if the one closest to where I grew up (Leamington, now anchored by FreshCo) ever held a “stagnite” like the Georgetown location.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 22, 1903. Click on image for larger version.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 23, 1903.

I considered including a brief history of Target in one of the original articles. These two ads show the birth of Minneapolis-based Dayton’s, out of which Target emerged as its discount division in 1962.

“We don’t want to become a city of moles”

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” online column for The Grid was originally published on May 22, 2012.

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Toronto Star, December 18, 1971.

To some, it provided a welcome respite from braving the elements on their lunch break. For others, especially those working in its retail outlets, it made them feel like a mole. The three kilometres of underground shopping malls and tunnels that 175,000 office workers passed through daily in May 1980 formed the spine from which today’s PATH system grew.

Since the opening of the Toronto-Dominion Centre’s sub-surface shopping complex in 1967, planners and developers envisioned an underground network connecting the core’s major business, shopping, and transportation facilities. One of the first reports commissioned by the city was 1968’s “On Foot Downtown,” which concluded that downtown pedestrians required a space that wasn’t impeded by industrial pollution, noise, traffic congestion, or too many of their fellow human beings. “We had reached the point where sidewalks couldn’t handle all the people,” former Toronto planning commissioner Matthew Lawson told the Star in 1980. “At the same time, all our forecasts said such conditions would only worsen because of the growth of the downtown work force.”

It was hoped that a climate-controlled underground route would avert these problems and provide protection from Mother Nature—as Toronto development commissioner Graham Emslie told the Star in 1971, “let’s face it, there are a hell of a lot of days you’d just as soon not walk outside.” The first major connection in the primordial PATH, which linked Nathan Phillips Square to the Richmond-Adelaide Centre, opened in January 1973. By May 1980, apart from a gap at Adelaide Street that became a haven for jaywalkers, one could wander underground from City Hall to Union Station.

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Toronto Star, November 17, 1973. Click on image for larger version.

While many users extolled the network’s conveniences, some urban planners and consultants were alarmed by the potential effects on surface life. An adviser to a planned revitalization of Yonge Street found it “worrisome” that in the future, people would take the subway downtown, shop at the Eaton Centre and other underground shopping complexes, then head home without ever setting foot outdoors. “We don’t want to become a city of moles,” noted Toronto planning and development commissioner Steve McLaughlin. To mitigate such a fate, a recently written central plan for the city encouraged developers to place higher priority on street-level retail in future buildings. According to McLaughlin, “we don’t want the downtown streets to contain nothing more than block after block of office lobbies.”

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Toronto Star, May 3, 1980. Click on image for larger version.

Back underground, Downtown Business Council president David Arscott provided the Star with a shopping list of improvements. Filling the gap under Adelaide Street was critical, as was a proper orientation system to give users a sense of which surface landmarks they were wandering under. Complaints Arscott received that required addressing included narrow walkways, poor lighting, low ceilings, and boring street entrances. “We are still in a primitive stage of the art,” said Arscott. “We have a lot to learn from experience.”

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Downtown Toronto underground pedestrian mall system, 1981. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 408, Item 5.

Within the next decade, some of those issues were resolved. The Adelaide gap was fixed in 1984, while a tunnel opened under Bay Street in 1990 that properly connected the Eaton Centre and Simpsons (now The Bay) to the rest of the PATH. Signage would long remain a problem, one caught between city politicians who wanted clear wayfinding versus landlords who didn’t want to create the impression that the network was a truly public space.

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“People bound for jobs in the financial district pour out of Union station into the underground mall section of the Royal Bank Plaza. It’s been described as an ‘environmental vaccuum’ by some due to the poor artificial lighting and the mechanically recirculated stale air.” Photo by Erin Combs, 1985. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.

While a few people may have mutated into moles over the years, the surface streets remain filled with those seeking a breath of unfiltered air during the workday.

Additional material from the December 18, 1971, January 11, 1973, and May 3, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

Holiday Dispatches from the Toronto Daily Mail, 1888

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 22, 1888.

For no particular reason other than it’s the holiday season (and the scanned pages of historical newspaper microfilm on Google News are working properly again), here are a few seasonal stories taken from the Toronto Daily Mail 130 years ago.

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Editorial, Toronto Daily Mail, December 22, 1888.

The pre-Christmas edition of the Woman’s Kingdom page had several holiday-related items, starting with general thoughts about the occasion.

(Aside: the following year, Woman’s Kingdom was taken over by pioneering female journalist Kit Coleman)

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 22, 1888.

There were suggestions on what to have for Christmas dinner:

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There was also a poem about mince pies:

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The strangest item on the page was this story about women’s toes:

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On Christmas Eve, the Mail published the tale of a lonely boarder, residing by themselves in the city far away from loved ones, who decided to take in a vagrant for some holiday cheer. The result, if it had happened in 2018, would be a headline on the 11 o’clock news.

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 24, 1888.

Finally, a few stories published in the Christmas Day edition of the paper. It seems odd that the man who was taken in for a crime he was immediately cleared of still had to pay bail. Also note the hordes of last-minute Christmas shoppers in downtown Toronto.

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 25, 1888.

Vintage Toronto Ads: 2007’s Christmas Sampler

A batch of holiday-themed Vintage Toronto Ads columns from 2007.

Part One: Leaping into the Holiday Espirit

Originally published on Torontoist on December 4, 2007.

Vintage Ad #412: The Esprit of Simpsons

Toronto Life, December 1984. Click on image for larger version.

The holiday shopping season has descended upon the city, along with an early blast of winter. This combination may lead shoppers to unconsciously purchase items to cure their winter blues, even if the calendar shows that fall has a few more weeks to go.

Today’s ad offers a prescription from Simpsons and Esprit to keep free-spirited souls in an ecstatic mood come February. A trip down to the historic Queen Street department store promised relief, with a checkout line standing in for a waiting room.

This cure for the midwinter blahs appears to have worked for our models, who discovered that the colourful zig-zag sweater patterns unlocked a yearning for childhood games. They called up the rest of the gang, found an empty studio, and played leapfrog, jump rope and dodgeball for several hours.

Part Two: Saturdays with Santa at Woolco

Originally published on Torontoist on December 11, 2007.

Vintage Ad #431: Breakfast with Santa at Woolco

Toronto Star, December 8, 1977.

A longtime staple of the holiday season is a special visit from jolly old St. Nick to the nearest shopping mall or department store. Kids relish the opportunity to tell Santa that they want the latest hot toy, peace on Earth or an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model air rifle, while retailers hope these gift lists translate into sales. If the establishment has hired their Santa carefully, kids will not need to purchase Santi-Wrap before sitting on the big elf’s lap.

The F.W. Woolworth Company entered the discount department store battlefield in 1962, the same year rival five-and-dimer S.S. Kresge launched K-Mart. As Woolworth’s had long operated traditional outlets in Canada, it wasn’t long before the new format was launched in Toronto. Known for promotions such as “$1.44 Days,” Woolco proved to have a longer life here than stateside, where all locations were shuttered by 1983. The chain had 160 locations by the time it was sold to Wal-Mart in 1994.

The Red Grille was Woolworth’s cafeteria concept, found in Woolco and larger Woolworth’s stores on both sides of the border. Torontoist remembers that many had wobbly, flip-down red seats kids loved to play with, usually while sipping a drink in a red-striped cup. The smell was distinct, fried food mixed with an undefined element. We’re not sure how Santa or store management would have handled children who were bad all year––maybe they weren’t allowed to grab a package of Peak Freen cookies at the cashier.

These cafeterias were the descendants of the lunch counters that occupied Woolworth’s and many of its competitors. Toronto’s last surviving example of a five-and-dime counter, located in a former Kresge at Coxwell and Gerrard, closed earlier this year.

Of the locations listed in today’s ad, four continue to operate as Wal-Mart stores (Agincourt Mall, Dufferin Mall, North Park Plaza and Square One), while the others have been converted to other retailers or demolished.

As for Woolworth’s, the last of its North American five-and-dime stores closed in 1997 when the company decided to concentrate on its mall-based specialty chains. Several name changes later, the company continues to operate under the corporate name of its largest subsidiary, Foot Locker.
Part Three: Give the Gift of Baseball

Originally published on Torontoist on December 18, 2007.

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1977.

‘Tis the season for gift certificates. Whether you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what to give to an impossible recipient or selecting your loved one’s favourite store or service, the selection of certificates, cards and vouchers seems unlimited. More than a few local sports woke up on Christmas morning three decades ago to find one of today’s passes for the Blue Jays’ second campaign as a stocking stuffer.

The Jays finished their debut season in a familiar spot for expansion teams, last place in the American League East. Despite a record of 54 wins and 107 losses, over 1.7 million fans cheered for the team at Exhibition Stadium. Orioles castoff Bob Bailor led hitters with a .310 average, while Dave Lemanczyk led the pitching staff with 13 victories. Of the players who took the field that year, only pitcher Jim Clancy and catcher Ernie Whitt were still in Toronto uniforms when the Jays made their first trip to the playoffs in 1985.

That the team had a store in Commerce Court wasn’t a great surprise, as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce was one of the original owners of the franchise, along with Labatt’s Breweries and Imperial Trust. The bank retained an ownership share until it sold its last interests when Rogers Communications bought the team in 2000.

Part Four: Seasons Greetings from CBC Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on December 25, 2007.

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Toronto Life, December 1975.

A short but sweet season’s greeting for you from some of CBC Toronto’s mid-1970s personalities. Dig those frames on young Hana Gartner! The passage of time has made it hard to determine if the “oh yeah” was part of the original ad or a sarcastic comment by a previous reader.

Halloween in Toronto, 1978

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Toronto Star, October 31, 1978.

Malabar’s, the costume people, have never been busier than they have during the past couple of weeks, and the reason may provide a dandy little summary of the times we’re in. These times, inarguably, are rotten. The dollar, the family, the nation, the Argos…everything’s falling apart. Hallowe’en, if we’ll let it, gives us a chance to get away from all that. To hide. Fantasize. Escape from reality. Turn into someone—or something—else. – Peter Gzowski, Toronto Star, October 31, 1978.

Talking to staff at Malabar, Gzowski discovered one of 1978’s most popular costumes was one that would be frowned upon for numerous reasons 40 years on: an Arab. “They want to rich,” noted Malabar’s Michael Schilders. “They could just put on a tea-towel, a rope and a tablecloth, but if they come to us they can have gold and silver cords and really looks as if they owned oil wells.”

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1978.

Also popular that year: masks of Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, anything Vatican related (the year had gone through three popes) and nun’s habits, especially among pregnant customers. Store staff noted that interest in costumes went up when the economy tumbled (the Great Depression had been especially good for rentals).

Best costume suggestion in the column: “the Blob Who Ate Etobicoke.”

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Toronto Star, October 25, 1978.

Over in the Globe and Mail, columnist Bruce West felt Halloween was going downhill, partly because nobody had the chance to tip over outhouses:

It is my personal theory that Hallowe’en started its downhill trend not long after the advent of inside plumbing brought about the demise of the outdoor privy. There was a time, I’ll have you know, when—particularly in the more rural areas—the humble outhouse was almost as import a symbol of Hallowe’en as the ghastly smile of a flickering pumpkin or even a witch flying by on a broom.

No one was really considered to have really won his spurs as a graduate Hallowe’en prankster until he had at least assisted in the overturning of one outhouse. The owners of these conveniences usually took this annual ordeal in fairly good humour—with the notable exception of one deceitful rascal in my home town who gained the undying hostility of a group of privy-tippers by craftily shifting back his outhouse a few feet, in the early hours of Hallowe’en, in such away that the raiding party, while later approaching their target in the deep darkness, suddenly encountered some mighty poor footing.

The scariest element of modern-day Halloween, according to West, came “when you are confronted by the horrible giant prices of a dwarf bag of hand-out chocolate bars or trick-or-treat apples.”

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Globe and Mail, November 1, 1978.

One candy kids wouldn’t get their hands on was Clikkers tobacco-flavoured gum. The Consumers Association of Canada (CAC) successfully lobbied Zellers to remove the product, which was offered as a seasonal special at some locations. Though it didn’t actually contain tobacco or nicotine, the CAC wondered what the chances were that “children who acquire a taste for tobacco-flavoured gum will be encouraged to try tobacco itself?” An official from Zellers’ head office in Montreal admitted that “based on the calls we’ve had, it just isn’t worth it.” Aspiring smokers had to settle for Popeye candy cigs.

Two Toronto-based animators, John Leach (later known as Jonathan Rogers) and Jean Rankin, created one of the season’s hottest new animated specials. Here’s how The Canadian magazine introduced Witch’s Night Out:

Winnifred, bless her black lace bloomers, is not your average witch. A grande dame with the Seventies style of a stand-up comic, a funky fairy godmother temporarily fallen on hard times, she worries because work isn’t coming in the way it used to; nobody seems to believe in magic anymore. But she still has class, wears expensive underwear, and puts on her makeup every morning. And she can make wishes come true.

Winnifred was named after Leach’s mother, who remarked “Fame at last!” The character was partly inspired by Gilda Radner, who provided her voice (other voices included Catherine O’Hara and Fiona Reid). The cartoon was originally intended for CBC, who sat on it for nearly a year before finally rejecting it. It ended up on NBC, where Radner was starring on Saturday Night Live.

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If you were running dry on costume ideas, you could always check the Star’s “Starship” page for inspiration via its ongoing “Costumes of the World” series. Who knows how many little fishermen from Flanders ran around the streets of Toronto! October 28, 1978.

Halloween night the Toronto tradition of egging drag performers attending balls on Yonge Street continued, which resulted in 90 arrests. “Most of the arrests,” the Star reported, “were for causing a disturbance, drunkenness and breach of the peace.” It was also noted that “one marijuana charge was laid.” Two years later, a crackdown by police and the community began winding down the hate-tinged mayhem.

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Art Eggleton would top the polls in Ward 4, which covered Trinity-Bellwoods and Little Italy. Two years later, he was mayor. Toronto Star, November 1, 1978.

Halloween 1978 also coincided with the municipal election campaign, resulting in some election sign pranks. A Globe and Mail editorial observed that householders were placed “in the position of being promised goodies as they hand goodies over. The trick is to tell the real hobgoblins from those in disguise and to beware of brochures with pins in them.”

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Toronto Star, October 26, 1978.

Fashion then, costumes now: the image above offers a sampling of the outfits one could put together from goods available at the 1978 edition of a long-running Toronto tradition, the Hadassah-WIZO Bazaar, which was promoted throughout the week of Halloween. Held on November 1 at the CNE’s Automotive Building, it was expected to draw 60,000 people looking to buy everything from high fashion to cantaloupe preserves.

Additional material from the October 28, 1978 edition of the Canadian; the October 27, 1978, October 30, 1978, October 31, 1978, and November 1, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the October 31, 1978 and November 1, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

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.

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.