Sears’ roots trace back to Strat­ford

Sears first Cana­dian store opened in Strat­ford in 1953

The Beacon Herald - - FRONT PAGE - TERRY BRIDGE STAFF RE­PORTER

Thirty-five dol­lars per week. That’s what depart­ment man­ager Hal Bor­den made while work­ing at the first Sears in Canada, which was lo­cated in Strat­ford.

Sears Canada Inc. is seek­ing court ap­proval Fri­day to liq­ui­date its re­main­ing stores in the coun­try, which would mark the end of an era – one that started in the Fes­ti­val City. Ini­tially es­tab­lished as Simp­sons-Sears – a part­ner­ship between a Cana­dian and Amer­i­can com­pany, re­spec­tively – its first cat­a­logue store opened in Septem­ber 1953.

It was lo­cated at 40 On­tario St.

“The mayor cut the rib­bon and the store opened with ma­jor ap­pli­ances, tele­vi­sions, ra­dios, plumb­ing and heat­ing, and a cat­a­logue desk on the main floor,” Sears Canada spokesman Vin­cent Power read notes from the grand open­ing. “The top floor had fur­ni­ture, floor cov­er­ings, rugs, sewing ma­chines, vac­u­ums, as well as gen­eral of­fices, and the base­ment level sold hard­ware, sport­ing goods and auto ac­ces­sories.”

Why was Strat­ford cho­sen as the pi­lot site? One the­ory, Power ex­plained, is there was an agree­ment between Simp­sons and Simp­sons-Sears – the newly formed com­pany was treated as a sep­a­rate en­tity – to not open a lo­ca­tion within a 25-mile ra­dius of ex­ist­ing stores. Power said there were Simp­sons in Toronto and Lon­don at the time.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the new com­pany’s tar­get cus­tomers were ru­ral and sub­ur­ban res­i­dents.

“It’s pos­si­ble they felt that Strat­ford was a good mar­ket,” Power said. “Maybe be­ing in between Lon­don and Toronto might have helped with dis­tri­bu­tion.”

Roy Edgar was the first store man­ager while Bor­den, cash­ing his $35 weekly pay­cheques, was a di­vi­sion man­ager of sport­ing goods and au­to­mo­tive.

The build­ing is now home to The Green Room. Owner He­len Mathe­son said they pur­chased it from Gorsline Fur­ni­ture in 1979. “It wasn’t Sears at that time,” she said Thurs­day. “I don’t know how long he was here.”

Nancy Skillings said she’s been shop­ping at Sears in Strat­ford for 17 years, but fondly re­called its roots.

“I also ap­pre­ci­ated the cat­a­logue Sears,” she said.

In 1989, it moved to Fes­ti­val Mar­ket­place. It had two homes in the Strat­ford mall: a 35,000-square­foot space where Sport Chek now op­er­ates and an 83,000-square­foot spot va­cated by a for­mer Zellers clear­ance store in 2004. For the last 13 years, Sears has been the build­ing’s largest ten­ant.

That streak will end between mid-De­cem­ber and late Jan­uary, if liq­ui­da­tion plans are ap­proved in court, leav­ing 50 em­ploy­ees out of work. Job losses could reach 12,000 if all 130-plus Cana­dian stores are shut­tered. Other south­west­ern On­tario lo­ca­tions in­clude Sar­nia, Wind­sor, Chatham, and in Lon­don’s Westmount Mall.

Its fi­nal rest­ing spot in Strat­ford was an his­toric move at the time.

“It was the first store where we tried to have a one-floor model,” Power said. “Usu­ally we had two floors and you’d have fash­ion on the main floor and you’d have home goods and linens and all that on the other floor.”

The goal was to of­fer a full se­lec­tion to smaller com­mu­ni­ties in a sin­gle struc­ture.

“This was our pro­to­type at the time,” he said. “It was kind of cool when it opened. We hadn’t re­ally done that be­fore.”

The model was also im­ple­mented in Char­lot­te­town, P.E.I. one year later but, due to de­vel­op­ers not build­ing malls in Canada and the 2008 re­ces­sion, man­age­ment fo­cused on up­dat­ing cur­rent stores as op­posed to open­ing new ones.

“We didn’t have a lot of new stores af­ter that, but it def­i­nitely was the model we were go­ing to use go­ing for­ward,” Power said.

Power re­called ac­com­pa­ny­ing man­age­ment to both of Sears’ of­fi­cial open­ings in Fes­ti­val Mar­ket­place.

“The staff there have al­ways been top notch,” he said. “They were al­ways high per­form­ers and we’ll miss hav­ing them part of our fam­ily.”

Power said there may have been an­other Strat­ford lo­ca­tion prior to the mall, but couldn’t con­firm that. tbridge@post­media.com

TERRY BRIDGE/THE BEA­CON HER­ALD

A shop­per ex­its Sears on Wed­nes­day in Strat­ford. Its likely clo­sure marks the end of the com­pany’s Cana­dian era, which started in Strat­ford.

TERRY BRIDGE/THE BEA­CON HER­ALD

The Green Room is seen here on Thurs­day in Strat­ford. Canada’s first Sears, known then as a Simp­sons-Sears cat­a­logue store, opened here in 1953.

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