A Day at the Bay: Surveying Canada’s Department Store

The thought of spending an entire day in a department store might seem absurd to most, but that’s what they were originally designed for. Until the mall came sprawling along, the department store was the ultimate shopping experience — a one-stop destination for all your needs. Once there, you could grab a bottle of wine, take the family photos, book a trip, have an optician test your eyes, get a root canal and finish the day off with a three-course meal before returning to the hearth in your lovely suburban home where, after a day like that, sex by an open fire would surely be imminent.

The best part was that you could do all this under one unified brand. Generations of Canadian families aligned themselves under names such as Eaton’s, Sears, Woodward’s, Holt Renfrew and the Bay.

Lately, however, the department store has suffered. The prestige it once held over a family’s well-being has since been rendered into multi-floored wastelands trying to find middle ground between the budget-conscious shopper and a past of luxury-brand opulence. Eaton’s has been bankrupt since 1999 — its remaining stores purchased by Sears Canada, so Sears could bring its bland offering of affordable fashions, housewares and hardware to even more people. K-Mart closed in Canada and Zellers was absorbed by the Bay. Woolco was converted into a thriving hell called Wal-Mart. Their mono-floored stores, complete with an automotive department, portrait studio, optical section and restaurant — which is McDonald’s — cater to the customer seeking comfortable clothing and processed foods on the cheap.

The Bay is still around, but its multi-storied flagships, built in the early 1900s, have suffered terrible renovations and staffing cuts. If they haven’t been closed yet, most sit half empty. For years the buildings have been painted in tawdry sale signage communicating the next Scratch and Save date and other desperate attempts to bring the public inside. Things got worse when, in 2006, the Hudson’s Bay Company was acquired by an American named Jerry Zucker. That’s 336 years of Canadian history privatized in another country overnight.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012. 1:15pm. Basement Level.

It was hard not to get wrapped up in the romance of the department store’s illustrious history while I sat in the newly renovated bottom floor of Vancouver’s flagship Hudson’s Bay store on Granville Street. The building had just undergone a huge multi-million dollar facelift, which the company hoped would represent a new era in Canadian retail at tomorrow’s reopening. I was there on assignment for another publication to interview the man partially responsible for the clothes hanging on the wall: Gordon Richardson, Creative Director of Topman. Topshop and its male counterpart, Topman — two prominent British retailers that would make their Vancouver debut the following day — were now a part of the Bay brand, and consequently given the entire basement level all to themselves. By next morning, this would be the biggest Topshop store in the world, save for the Piccadilly Circus location in London.

I asked Gordon about the motivation to bring Topshop and Topman to Canada through one of its most historic companies:

“A department store is really where you can go and, in theory, find all that’s right for that department store’s lifestyle. If I have affinity with a department store, I should trust that everything I buy there compliments my lifestyle, if that’s my lifestyle.”

The idea was born in those words. Set for October 18, 2012, this building would reopen at 9:30am with a ribbon cutting event to both welcome Vancouver shoppers back and introduce them to Topshop. Attending would not be enough: I wanted to uncover the lifestyle that the Bay represented in 2012, and see if it was enough to keep the company in business for another 300-odd years. I would spend the next day in its entirety at this Bay location riding its escalators, exploring its restaurant, using its restrooms, observing its customers and walking its aisles. I would see if I could shop myself into the Bay’s lifestyle.

Spring, 1983. Winnipeg, Manitoba.

My grandfather had sold furniture on the sixth floor of the Bay’s flagship store in Vancouver. After retiring and moving to Manitoba, my grandmother and mother would shop at the Bay’s suburban outlets every Saturday. I was in and out of a Bay since birth. Everything we had seemed to come from there, mainly because of a lifetime discount bestowed upon Bay employees and their spouses. Merchandise belonging to the Bay brand permeated my life to such an extent that as a teen I hated it.

The Bay couldn’t be escaped at school, either. Growing up in Winnipeg, I made regular trips onto the deck of a replica Nonsuch — the boat that made the first trading voyage through Hudson Bay — because it’s housed in a museum that was heavily trafficked by the school field trip circuit.

Thursday, October 18, 2012. 8:15am. My Bed.

At 9:20am sharp, Bonnie Brooks, President and CEO of the Bay, was set to cut the ribbon and welcome customers back into the Vancouver flagship store on the corner of Granville and Georgia, where it has sat since 1913.

I wanted to begin my day at the Bay admiring Bonnie Brooks’s lovely blonde bob as she welcomed the crowds with her sexy, gravelly voice and cut the luscious red chiffon ribbon while looking into my eyes. But this fantasy was in peril. With the ceremony set to take place in less than an hour, I was still in bed. So, instead of rushing to Bonnie’s opening scissors, I turned to look out the window at the raging morning traffic and rain with defeat. It all seemed futile. What seemed like the best idea ever had been rendered idiotic by the harsh reality of this dark fall morning and my late rise. If I couldn’t be there for the ribbon cutting, what was the point of going at all?

Monday, October 11, 1669. London, England.

The London Gazette reported that England’s Nonsuch had returned from Rupert’s Land. It was the first boat to return with furs from a newly discovered world ripe with resource. Soon after, on May 2, 1670, King Charles II granted a charter to form a company that would continue to monopolize lucrative trade in the Hudson Bay area. The company was called The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay — but today it’s mostly known as the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Thursday, October 18, 2012. 9:31am. Intersection of Granville and Georgia.

I made Granville Street just as Bonnie cut the ribbon to the cheers of people gathered about her. There were hundreds of people near the Topshop entrance of the Bay, where the queue of waiting shoppers continued down Granville Street as though it were the train of Bonnie’s gown.

All traffic had been rerouted, which allowed me to take stock of the changes done to this iconic building. Gone were all references to the brown and yellow ribbon logo developed in 1964 to rebrand the company as “The Bay.” Previously opaque, the second floor exterior was now floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which displayed the latest seasonal fashions. Returned to the marquee entrances were the building’s original iron awnings and historic coats of arms, which include the phrase Pro Pelle Cutem or “a skin for a skin.” Another big change was a new entrance burrowed into the Granville Street side of the building that allowed visitors to pass underneath a Topshop sign and into the basement. This was where the waiting crowd began to funnel once the doors opened.

“Congratulations to the first customers of Topshop Vancouver!” a woman on the PA announced to the group of shoppers whom, on a rain-slicked Thursday morning, could be described only as resilient. In an attempt to keep the momentum going as the crowd dispersed into the building, the women took the microphone again to add, “Yay shopping!”

Sometime in 1912.

During its first 240 years of existence, the Hudson’s Bay Company had such a profound influence on the formation of Canada, its First Nations Peoples and the fur trade, that it would be near impossible to sum it up it one sentence. Rather than try, let’s just skip ahead to the first major shift in the company’s business methodology.

Recognizing the need to capitalize on the growing urbanization of the west, the Hudson’s Bay Company split into three areas of focus: fur, land and stores. By this time, the heyday of the department store concept was already in full swing. Shopping meccas such as France’s Le Bon Marché, London’s Harrods and Canada’s Eaton’s were taking full advantage of a growing industrialized population too busy to produce its own clothes and household needs. By this comparison, the Hudson’s Bay Company was a bit late to the game. In 1912, however, an aggressive modernization program was put into play that would bring a total of six original HBC department stores to Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Along with locations in major eastern cities, these stores would be the Bay’s flagships, and would decorate the western landscape with some of the most beautiful monuments to the department store golden age.

Thursday, October 18, 2012. 9:40am. Cosmetics.

Since most of those in attendance were now lined up to browse the Topshop and Topman goods located on the basement level, I skipped all the commotion and easily entered the Bay through its regular 1st-floor entrance as one of the lone weirdos mainly interested in department store architecture.

Once inside, familiarity overtook the oddity of the scene outside. The Bay’s cosmetics, apparel and Signature Shop all sat in a grand room with a ceiling over 30-feet high. Everything was white, and the stone floor shined with a thick, high gloss finish. Despite the renovations, the main floor had changed little. It rendered the same feelings of excitement and finery that I’ve become accustomed to after having entered this and other Hudson’s Bay stores in Canada for most of my life. Mixed with the jovial, smiling associates and suited upper-management types who congratulated one another, my day at the Bay had begun in regalia.

1838. Paris, France.

While it wasn’t the first department store, it was probably the most innovative. Founded in 1838, and translated as “the good deal” or “the good market,” Le Bon Marché was largely responsible for many of the concepts and features we find in modern department stores today. It’s founder, Aristide Boucicaut, invented such concepts as browsing merchandise, fixed prices and a catalog. By 1870, after eight years of construction, the newly built Paris flagship had the most modern of materials, ventilation and heating systems, lighting techniques and decor available. The building pushed 53,000 square metres of floor space, which boasted glass skylights, gallery-style merchandise departments, balconies along the upper floors and curving staircases throughout.

Thursday, October 18, 2012. 9:45am. Basement Level.

Wildly curious as to what $40 million on retail renovation gets you in 2012, I decided to walk down an escalator that had been turned off to direct the public toward the entrance near Topshop on Granville Street. The basement level was barely recognizable from its former dark-paneled men’s department days. Now, the space was black and silver with clothes for both men and women in prints, tweeds and patterns. DJ’s kept the music loud and constant as people filtered through the racks and mannequin banks with piles of clothes on their arms. A 20-something greeter and I shared a moment of staring at the throngs of shoppers. An older woman unfazed by any sort of excitement that this event had created interrupted us: “Excuse me, but I just want an umbrella.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012. 11:45am. The Restaurant.

From lingerie to bedding, housewares to cosmetics, women’s and men’s and back again, most of the morning was spent riding the Bay’s vintage-looking escalators. Doing so allowed me to traverse the presentation of each department, like a soft dissolve from one floor to the next instead of the disorienting transition caused by elevators. After reaching the mall level for the third time that morning, I decided it was time to check out one of my favourite department store features: the restaurant.

I was slightly disappointed at the highly utilitarian nature of the oddly titled Foodwares Market. The name hardly conjured the grandeur of something like the Seymour Room — the former HBC Vancouver restaurant. Located on the Bay’s top floor, the Seymour Room was a disappointment in its own right, too. By the time it had closed for good, the restaurant had suffered innumerable renovations and concept changes that left it a haphazard expanse of laminated tables and empty chairs. Even worse were the images hoisted up on the walls reminding people in search of such things that it once was a destination for fine dining.

The first Canadian in-store restaurant was built in 1887 by Eaton’s. The type of customer it catered to seemed, on this morning, largely lost to the past. The department store heyday restaurants that still exist — such as Eaton’s The Carlu in Toronto, Eaton’s The Ninth Floor in Montreal and the HBC-owned Arcadian Court in Toronto — were built with so much more than simple refueling in mind. They were such fantastic examples of meeting spaces created in unison by artists, architects and designers that they are currently protected from renovation by law. The Paddlewheel in Winnipeg’s flagship HBC does not enjoy this secured future, and lives under the constant threat of being updated.

Still, there were a few things Foordwares Market got right. The decor was pleasing, and at least the restaurant attempted a seamless visual connection with the Bay across the mall aisle. Grabbing a tray to make your way through the various stations where sushi, beverages, soups, pastries and sandwiches are made available has been at the core of the Hudson’s Bay Company dining experience since I can remember.

I decided to go heavy on sugars and double up with a chocolate croissant and cinnamon bun. I wanted to keep my energy high and hunger to a minimum. I sipped my coffee while thinking about my sixth-floor adventure thus far.

The seating area at Foodwares Market was filled with name-tagged HBC employees happily chatting about the opening-ceremony excitement. A group of photographers sat in the booth in front of mine. As they bounced back and forth between French and English discussing lighting techniques, I got drawn into the romantic sound of the two languages reverberating throughout the din of the restaurant. It all mixed together so well with the northern decor and sugar high I was dosing on. At that moment, the Bay did feel distinctly Canadian — but the momentary nationalism was lost on three elderly ladies in the booth behind me, whose main topic of conversation was the 40 cents it cost for hot water to revive their teabags.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012. Canada.

While I sat in the Bay chatting with Topman’s Gordon Richardson, the fate of the Hudson’s Bay Company continued to evolve. Printed on newspapers throughout the country was an article announcing that the Bay would return to public offering, allowing Canadians a chance to buy back a part of their history. After purchasing HBC in 2008 from the Zucker estate, Richard Baker was looking to financially prepare himself for the arrival of Nordstroms and other American competitors with eyes on the Bay’s customer base, despite the uncertain economic climate.

Thursday, October 18, 2012. 3:00pm. Women’s Department.

A renovation to the HBC Vancouver women’s department in 2011 resulted in a 23,000 square foot mecca to fashion, which also included The Room, a high-end upgrade that’s been associated with the Bay since 1937. Museum-like in its presentation of women’s luxury fashions, I decided to spend some time in the department and take an elevator to get there.

A mistake. While waiting for the car to arrive, a group of American tourists with an elderly walker-using woman in tow joined me. The group kept asking the older woman if she was tired, but each time she responded with a buoyant “nope.” It was clear, however, that everyone else was. Openly groaning about how exhausted they all were, they began describing in detail the burgers they were going to eat back at the hotel. Even worse, they discussed the merits of the hotel hot tub, which lead me to abort the wait.

I arrived in the women’s department just after 3:00pm by escalator. It looked great, but was largely empty, which seemed odd given the big day. Every floor I’d been to so far had a DJ playing a steady stream of music to keep things festive, and this floor was no different.

“Welcome to us DJ’ing to nobody,” one of the two men behind the turntables said to me as as I stopped to say hello.

“What the Bay really needs is a bar,” the other one added. “The restaurant in Toronto’s Holt’s is a total destination.”

His partner queued up the next record, took off his headphones and looked around: “It’s huge though — so many nooks and crannies. This place, it’s got bowels.”

Only a moment later, after making a request for anything from This Mortal Coil’s album It Will End in Tears, I found myself in the bowels of the Bay. On my way to the re-envisioned men’s department, I recalled one of my favourite features of this particular store: its service stairwell.

Opening the service stairwell door was like pulling back the curtain of a grand performance and stepping backstage. The stairwell itself, with its impressive banister that stitched together six floors of beautifully worn wood, was unchanged from when it was first built. As Bay employees moved up and down the steps, a group of girls in pencil skirts and heels streamed past me like a chorus line making its way from dank dressing rooms to the floodlights of the stage. Then it struck me: the floor was littered with droplets of blood. Blood! All over the floor. What I had interpreted as happy commotion was quickly re-interpreted as confusion and panic. I had walked into a workplace accident and was quickly shooed out of the stairwell, back to the soothing sounds of Beyonce and the comfort of the bedding department.

Thursday, October 18, 2012. 6:20pm. Men’s Department.

Evening fell. I stood in the cosmetics department and surveyed the darkness outside. I hadn’t left the Bay since I stepped into it almost nine hours prior. I decided to take one last run through its six floors, starting in the basement.

The Topshop greeter was still greeting customers. He looked fresh, but sounded exhausted. When I asked him when he was off, he said, “Oh, I’m off at six.” He stopped to look at his watch: “Which is now! Wow, is it really six?!”

If the newly renovated basement was the opening act of the Bay’s new look, its top floor men’s department was the climactic ending. The floor was wide open with little obstruction, and it was huge. The aforementioned Seymour Room and furniture department once located here were gone, replaced with a decor that made subtle transitions as one passed through its sub-sections. It was all man up here: Suits were paired with dark woods reminiscent of the backroom scenes in The Godfather; accessories were matched with the pre-war aesthetic of utilitarian masculinity; and fashions for a younger demographic were displayed within range of canoe oars and cabin walls, lanterns and natural woods. There was also a seating area that looked like a bar that would be ideal for scotch tastings and cravat-tying workshops.

Thursday, October 18, 2012. 8:00pm. The Railway Club.

The rain was coming down in sheets so thick it looked fake, but I could still make out the Bay’s lights up the street from where I was perched over a pint of beer at Vancouver’s historic Railway Club — an ideal place to end my shift at the Bay.

If you spend enough time in a place, even somewhere as seemingly redundant as a department store, a story will reveal itself. My idea was to get to the root of the 21st-century lifestyle that the Hudson’s Bay Company and its flagship stores throughout Canada represented. What became apparent was how deeply that lifestyle was entrenched in my own sense of personal history, and how my day spent there was, in part, an attempt to connect with it. When things become unobtainable, we often make desperate attempts to try to find them again, in strange ways.

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David Look writes about cities and everything in them, including himself. He could use more friends. Find him at: davidlook.net