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Another stroll through yesteryear: Take a tour through the old Sudbury Zellers Store with Bruce Bell

Downtown Sudbury was a hopping place back in the day and few remember it better than former Sudburian Bruce Bell 

One of the mainstays of downtown Sudbury in the 1960s was the Zellers store on the north east corner of Elm and Elgin.

Zellers, founded in 1931, was a Canadian discount chain based in Brampton that was acquired by Hudson's Bay Company in 1978.

The Sudbury Zellers was part of the so-called “trifecta” of stores that I used to visit every Saturday as a teenager in the ’60s, the others being Kresges and Woolworths.

The Zellers store replaced the iconic Balmoral Hotel built in 1887 that at one time stood on that corner.

In the late 1950s, my family lived on Ethelbert Street in the West End and our neighbour's son got the job of manager of the brand new Zellers store, opening in 1958.

It was the time of the hula-hoop craze and because of his position as manager, we were the first kids in Sudbury to actually play with this 1950s toy phenom.

On my Saturday jaunts downtown as a teenager, Zellers was the first store I would visit. I remember I would enter the store on the Elgin Street side, and because the staircase was right there, I would make a beeline downstairs on what I remember as being a very wide staircase.

Downstairs at Zellers had a great pet store that took up a quarter of the space of what was a substantial lower lever.

That pet store had the most exotic fish, mice, rats, puppies, kittens and birds of all kinds.

What made the pet store at Zellers even more exciting to a youngster at that time was that it shared the space with the toy department.

From what I recall, Zellers’ toy department took up most of the northwest section of the downstairs with the boys’ stuff like cars and model airplanes along the western wall, and the girls’ toys, including the must have new Barbie doll, in the middle aisles.

The downstairs seemed to have all the fun stuff: the pet store, toys and kids clothes. In hindsight, all very smart marketing. 

As you made your way through the bottom level, you would head up the escalator, which unlike Kresge and Woolworths where their escalators were positioned in the centre of their stores, Zellers had theirs placed against the eastern wall.

The main floor was the men's and ladies departments, and the record store, which was located at the back.

The record department would move about the store as the years went by, but I do have a memory of the record department at one time being downstairs next to the toys and pet store.

What I also remember most about the main floor of Zellers was the light.

Huge floor to ceiling glass windows brought a lot of natural light into the store.

I like to believe that Sudbury entered the modern age of mercantile architecture with the building of the Zellers Store.

It was one of the first buildings in the Nickel City to be constructed in the Modern Post War International Style of architecture (Toronto's TD Centre and New York City's Seagram's Building are of the same style) where less is more and where interior open space is light and airy.

This was a vast departure from Silverman's, an older and much higher end department store across the street.

Silverman's was never on my regular visits for it didn't have a restaurant or if it did, it didn't cater to a younger crowd and from what I can remember, it didn't have a record department either — the two things teenagers like myself  looked for when going out.

Silverman's also catered to a more mature crowd. On the few visits I would make, especially with my mom who loved shopping there, i remember it being very dimly lit, with lots of dark wood giving it an almost gloomy appearance.

In retrospect, this design was to give Silverman's a somewhat stately appearance that appealed to a more upscale shopper.

Zellers was the complete opposite: bright, airy and lots of light. Also completely different from Silverman’s was the exterior with its yellow brick facade and black buffed marble that perfectly offset the signage spelling out ‘ZELLERS’ in a greenish tint.

Interestingly with all this natural light, sometimes in the summer huge awnings would be installed on the windows, I assume to keep the store cool.

The other exterior architectural feature on this contemporary brick box was the chimney that rose above the roof at the north end, flush with the wall creating a very modern outline.

All of it very fashionable for its time.  

Luckily, that modernistic chimney survived when the building went through a massive overhaul in the early 1990s, becoming Place Balmoral, its name an homage to the previous Balmoral Hotel. 

Sudbury had a rush of Post War Modernist architecture, including the impressive TD Bank that used to stand next to the Woolworth Building on Durham Street.

The three-storey TD Bank with its curved glass facade leading to a Carrara marble staircase up to the main second floor banking area was without a doubt the finest example of Post War Modernist architecture in Sudbury.

Zellers, like Kresge and Woolworths, is no longer with us, but will live forever in the minds of those of us who knew Saturday afternoons in downtown Sudbury as an unequaled time in our lives.

Bruce Bell is a former Sudburian, now living in Toronto. He shared his memories of Christmas in downtown Sudbury back in the 1960s and 1970s back in December 2020. You can read that story here. Last month, he reminisced about SS Kresge’s, which you can read here. Last month, Bell took a stroll through the old Sudbury Woolworth's location.