I think the first department store I remember is Stedman’s.
I grew up in Deep River, a little town on the banks of the Ottawa River, halfway between North Bay and Ottawa. (Many of you might be familiar with the Laurentian View Dairy on Highway 17; sadly, it, too, is gone.) Though small, Stedman’s offered something like big city convenience in tiny little Deep River.
If we happened to be in Pembroke, a small, old city about 40 minutes east of Deep River (and also on the banks of the Ottawa), the sky was the limit. Sure, they had a Stedman’s, but they also had a Bi-Way, which, if you remember it, was basically a Stedman’s with different branding.
I believe it was either at this Bi-Way, or at KMart, that my mother bought me a coveted three-quarter-length sleeve Michael Jackson shirt from the singer’s Beat It era. Oh, how cool I felt the first day I wore that bad boy to school.
Of course, if you really wanted to experience big city shopping in Pembroke decades ago, you went downtown to the Woolworth’s.
For a small-town kid like me, Woolworth’s was a cathedral to consumerism. It had everything: books, toys, jewelry and perfume, clothes for all ages, a restaurant (that we never ate at). And it had an escalator, possibly the first I ever rode (and the first to cause my heart to jump into my throat when the lip of the step would grab at the toe of my shoe, and I would fear being dragged into the mechanism hidden below).
I remember being of an age when my parents would let me loose in the store, old enough to wander freely from department to department. I hadn’t a cent to my name, but I felt nearly grown up (or maybe a teenager, which was far cooler), being allowed to browse at my leisure even if I couldn’t buy anything.
Over the years, I’ve wandered in Woolco, Eatons and Zellers; I’ve browsed The Bay, kicked around Kmart and surveilled a Simpsons or two.
When we would visit Nonna in Windsor, sometimes I’d get a little money and my dad would take me and my cousin, Michael, to Consumers Distributing.
We’d flip through the catalogue, fill out the little form and take it to the window. The clerk would take our orders into the back and a few minutes later, out would come our purchase. I always wondered what was back there, and would conjure up Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions fetching thousands of products from the shelves of a mysterious cavernous warehouse.
And, of course, there was Sears.
There weren’t Sears stores near us, so I don’t remember the first time I visited a physical store, but the Sears catalogue was a huge part of my youth. My younger sister and I would lay claim to the Wishbook every fall, combing through the toy section and marveling at the elaborate product photo layouts.
Seasonal clothes often came from the Sears catalogue, but it was also my conduit to the heights of “fashion.” I recall, when Miami Vice was big, receiving a cream-coloured linen summer suit. With the sleeves rolled up on the jacket, worn over a pastel T-shirt, and sockless feet slipped into off-white deck shoes, I would strut into church like Crockett into a crime scene.
With news Sears is soon to be no more, I find myself weirdly nostalgic for the department stores and retailers of my youth.
They seem now a quaint reminder of a simpler time, a time when convenience meant having everything you might need in one place, to look at, heft, try on and flip through. It was a time before convenience meant shopping from a device no matter where you are.
It was a time when kids learned a bit of self-reliance and responsibility by being untethered in the store, trusted to behave and not get dragged to the customer service desk by a harried employee.
There was a kind of magic in coming across that amazing toy or hard to find book, and actually being able to hold it in your hand. It was like finding treasure. For me, online shopping, for all its perks — ease of access, selection, price — just doesn’t provide the same experience.
Yes, it will be cool when you place your Amazon order and minutes later a drone drops your purchase off outside your door. But online shopping is clerical, too clean, too easy. There’s no moving stacks of items or rifling through racks of clothes; there’s no digging to the bottom of the pile. There’s no sport to it. No romance. You just type in what you want and click “purchase.” I’m sorry, but that’s just not nearly as satisfying.
To me, the death of Sears and other major retailers of the 20th century, marks a sea change. They were touchstones of a different time, a different way of life. Their passing marks the end of an era and calls to mind a time that seems kind of quaint by today’s standards, a time when consumerism wasn’t so pervasive and convenience wasn’t so convenient.
Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Sudbury.com and Northern Life.