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There’s no magic for children in online shopping

by Cheryl Pink

I clearly remember the Saturday night ritual of rural families going to town, more specifically, to the Yarmouth Royal Store. Sometimes, I was invited to go with my best friend’s family. Her sister, her brothers and I scrambled into the back seat of a slightly outdated car. Our excitement was palpable.

We waited patiently as the starter button was pushed and the gears engaged. We travelled a gravel road to reach Main Street. It seemed to take forever, but eventually the car was parked and we were permitted an unaccompanied dash to the Yarmouth Royal Store.

The mirrored glass at the back of the soda-fountain caught us first. We sat high on red leatherette and chrome stools, spinning, all the time watching our reflections. We gave over all our spending money there in a split second when we ordered ice-cream floats. It did not deter us from then roaming the main floor to locate the candy counter. Glass sided bins brimmed and slow roasting cashews circled in a lighted cabinet. Next, it would be on to children’s vinyl records (green or yellow shellac, 35 rpm). The cobalt blue bottles of “Evening in Paris” caught our eyes, as did nylons and peppermint lipstick.

The main floorboards creaked. The sound was welcoming. Clerks were young, attractive, and courteous. They tolerated boisterous children, too. Sometimes we overhead them reply, “that’s not my department,” at the query of a paying customer. The manual brass cash registers rang up sales assuredly.

The double-wide staircase at the back of the main floor with its squeaky treads and midway landing led to the second-floor. There, ready-to-wear, yard goods, furniture, better fashions and toys were offered for sale. The main business office was located on the second floor and as long-time department manager Lyman Jackson (now 90) tells me, “On payday the second-floor office was like a bank. Employees could cash their paycheques there.”

 A family experience

There was a hominess to this department store experience. It was especially true at Easter and Christmas. Employees often worked nine to nine on these occasions. The entire staff, livened with the spirit, came together. They looked forward to the short reprieve of Wednesday afternoon closings. Then they took their families on a picnic or to a movie.

Easter was a special occasion. Ladies’ hats were ordered in by the dozen and as Lyman says, “it always rained or snowed then.” Regardless, a breath-taking selection of straw and plumes displayed on special stands at the sit-to counter. There were hand-held mirrors for “all-sides” admiring. This was an integral part of the fashion department. Hughena McFadgeon worked in hats and she indulged young girls to “try on” just for fun.

Lyman recounts, “Mrs. McFadgeon and I went by plane to Montreal to buy goods. A snowstorm occurred and we could only get as far as Halifax on our return. I had to hire a car there for the drive to Yarmouth. The car broke down in Meteghan and we rode the rest of the way in the cab of a Thompson’s Transfer truck. Mrs. McFadgeon was a real trooper.”

The Easter chicks, live and dyed rainbow hues for effect, were held for sale under the stairwell in a pen heated by a lightbulb. (Animal welfare activists complained and the endeavour was readily quashed). Colourful, cellophane-wrapped baskets lined the upper display cabinets. They were full of chocolate rabbits, candy eggs and a skipping rope or a water pistol.

Loyal employee Eddie Deveau set up a Lionel train set to run the perimeter of the department and a large, red mailbox lettered “North Pole” stood ready for innocent yet patronizing letters; “Dear Santa, I have been a good girl…”

istock/ Roman Tiraspolsky

“Toy Land” at Christmas was enchanting. It seemed to me as large and noise-filled as I imagined Santa’s workshop to be. The entire space which ordinarily displayed dry goods and small furnishings was transformed at Christmas. Loyal employee Eddie Deveau set up a Lionel train set to run the perimeter of the department and a large, red mailbox lettered “North Pole” stood ready for innocent yet patronizing letters; “Dear Santa, I have been a good girl…”

The local radio station aired Santa, reading our letters each weeknight at 6pm. We lingered in “Toy Land” dreaming of the goodies on holiday-papered shelves and under a tinseled, fir tree—to be magically brought to us by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. It was pure whimsey.

Lyman Jackson tells of one typical customer service example: “One Christmas Eve I got a phone call after hours from a woman upset because she bought the wrong doll for her daughter. She asked me to go down and open the store so she could get the right one. I did. It made her happy.”

The history

The Yarmouth Royal Store was situated on the southwest corner of Main and Central Streets in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia for nearly half a century. During its most prosperous years, it grew in size, annexing several smaller buildings to the south.

By 1950 it had become the modern department store. It bore little resemblance to its Victorian predecessors, the purveyor of dry goods and haberdashery. It was even less a palace of consumption modelled after Eaton’s or Simpsons-Sears.

Comprising eight departments and the Marketeria grocery, it was the provider of necessities for all in a carefully laid out single-store arrangement. The Main Street storefront, metal and plate-glass, supported by poured grey concrete, could have been the reconstructed scraps of a Fairey Albacore bomber from World War II.

Things were like that in post-war towns. A generation was getting back on its feet.

The circa 1856 “Baker and Young” building, the first, brick, mercantile building in southwest Nova Scotia, housed the Yarmouth Royal Store. “Cook and Stoneman” had been established there earlier by Michael Pickles Cook but in 1937, prominent businessmen Killam, Guest, Williamson, Kenney and O’Brien formed a partnership. They hired Wilmot Dean from Saint John, NB to be the first manager of the Yarmouth Royal Store: then proceeded with renovations “in a proper and workman-like manner.” Modest displays behind plate-glass windows and two main entrances invited customers into an atmosphere reminiscent of earlier times with an original hardwood floor, imposing staircase and heavy sales counters. Interior brick posts were replaced by steel beams to hold the weight of the second floor. Gradually, a sort of urban sprawl occurred so that buildings to the south became an appendage to the original Red Brick Building (as it was known) Blocks of buildings with names of Lyndsart and Victoria closed down, then resurfaced as departments of the Yarmouth Royal Store; men’s wear, shoes and a Marketeria. The full wall of the Gardner building was opened up for the grocery.

The Marketeria employed a full staff of workers; storeroom and counter clerks, a butcher and cashiers. They were dressed uniformly in white work-coats and aprons. The women wore wide-brimmed bonnets to cover their hair. There were grocery boys for carry-out. Orders could be placed by a phone line connected to a receiver hung on the side wall. A Ford delivery truck emblazened “Royal Store” double-parked to load groceries and other parcels for delivery. There was no extra charge for the service. Fresh fish was always available on Friday mornings and during times of ration, supplies were apportioned with fairness. The “Guess the Turkey’s Weight” contest at Christmas drew a huge response and the Kraft company frequently gave away free cookbooks.

Sentimental longings?

Now, 60 years later, with my mind’s eye I see farmers and fishermen congregated on the sidewalk in front of the Yarmouth Royal Store. Clean-shaven and dressed in “town clothes”, they yarned for hours. The gossip mill only ran down at the 11pm store-closing.

Foot traffic was shoulder to shoulder. Shoppers came in droves, sometimes riding open-air on a bench in the back of a pickup truck. Young men with slicked hair and white socks held hands with pretty girls. In the diner down the street, Blue Moon played on the juke box. The aroma of tobacco permeated the air we breathed but honestly, these memories are comforting nostalgia.

Here though, I digress, because my sentimental longing for the past must be given perspective. 

Dickens used the phrase “brick and mortar” to render a physical strength but also to assault the stodgy upper classes of 19th century London. Why am I inclined toward a real brick and mortar sensibility? Why wish for an old-fashioned department store to lure the coming generation?

Millennials and baby-boomers embrace a convoluted view of bricks and mortar. It is the virtual click and brick that concerns me—the notion that a click on a computer is optimal in delivery of goods and services. The web application meets bricks and mortar model is touted as best entry into a shopping experience. I worry. I want that real and simpler past.

There was intimacy and good fun
in my bricks and mortar childhood.
No one questioned the why or wherefore inherent in daily living when I
was a child.

In my rural Nova Scotia neighbourhood, families interacted richly and personally. Nourished by a sense of belonging, they felt each other’s joys and sorrows. Children felt secure in just being; they were not bound by time and place or burdened by trappings of technology. It was the age of modern, department store shopping. The very real experience reflected in every aspect of our young lives.


Postscript—A live parrot was kept on a perch near the soda fountain in Russell Judge’s pharmacy just south of the “Yarmouth Royal Store.” Further south, Annie McKinlay’s bookstore boasted a resident dog. “Rex” is reported to have ambled to the Yarmouth Royal Store on an errand for Annie. He carried her note in his mouth.   

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