A recent article in the Guardian headlined “The disappearance of department stores will rob us of a certain kind of magic” took me back on wings of time to the Woodward’s department store at Oakridge in Vancouver. More specifically, it took me back to the food floor of that store, which had a tank of live lobsters in it: a source of endless fascination tinged with a frisson of fear to my six- or seven-year-old self. Those beady eyes! Those massive claws! Those clumsy, cumbersome movements as they lurched around their tank! I imagined them escaping and scuttling around the shiny shop floor, while well-dressed women shrieked like characters in a Loony Tunes cartoon who see a mouse. The potential delights of such a scenario were endless.
Visits to that particular Woodward’s store almost always ended with a descent into the dimly-lit restaurant for lunch with my maternal grandparents; a wondrous treat indeed. It was quite different to another department store restaurant I knew well, at the Bay store on Number 3 Road in Richmond. The ground floor had a pattern of yellow bricks encircling the central escalators, which made me feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz as we made our way to the second floor.
That was where the book department was located, and I would spend many happy minutes there on each visit, deciding which new Nancy Drew novel to purchase with the $1.69 in cold, hard cash I had in hand for the transaction. Then Mom and I would go into the nearby Haida Room restaurant, where meals were selected from a buffet in which sandwiches and salads nestled in cabinets beside pieces of pie and bowls of Jello, and you could order delicacies such as a beef dip.
To my young eyes, department stores contained multitudes: it seemed as if everything you could ever possibly want or need was there. A glance at the directory for the Woodward’s flagship store on Hastings Street in Vancouver gives a taste: jewellery (fine and costume), watches, clocks, handbags, cosmetics, shoes, the somewhat mysterious “notions”, a young men’s shop, cameras, “men’s furnishings”, stationery, and auto accessories all jostled for space, and that was just on the main floor. Six more floors (700,000 square feet in all) awaited the intrepid shopper, offering furniture, paint and wallpaper, toys, appliances, kitchenware, draperies, luggage, sporting goods, clothing and shoes, a food floor and restaurant, and much more, including the wonderfully named “Family Ski Lodge”, which I am now desperate to learn more about.
You could, I suppose, call Amazon the world’s largest department store, and applaud the limitless number of options available there for everything under the sun, but it’s not the same as wandering through a physical space and seeing the possibilities for yourself. It’s definitely not the same when you talk about a grand space like Harrod’s in London, or the more intimate but bewildering Brown’s of Chester, a fixture on Eastgate Street in Chester, England since 1791. Over the ensuing centuries it expanded into neighbouring buildings, resulting in odd little flights of stairs in unexpected places, mysteriously placed doors, rooms within rooms, and a sense that at any moment you might stumble across a forgotten relic from a bygone time, such as the spinning-wheel department or the cobbler’s shop.
Even before they were disappearing relics of a bygone era, department stores were indeed a place of magic, and I’m somewhat sorry for those who will seldom, if ever, know them. Woodward’s and Eaton’s and Sears have vanished; Brown’s of Chester might soon go the same way. As the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
If anyone can tell me more about the Family Ski Lodge, please drop me a line; I’m all ears. Until then, all together now: “Dollar-forty-nine Day, Woodward’s; Dollar-forty-nine Day, Tuesday.” And don’t forget to whistle.