For three consecutive indelible summers of my youth, I was engaged by the prestigious T. Eaton Company at its venerable and vintage edifice on St. Catherine Street West in downtown Montreal. At the time of the first of these three stints, I was a scant youth of sixteen years of age and it was for me the first money-earning position I had ever held – other than delivering newspapers, of course! The year was 1963 and, perhaps surprisingly, all these years later, I still remember it as yesterday.
We lived at the time in the northern, off-island suburbs and my daily jaunt into the city centre was an adventure in itself in those pre-Métro days. One local bus coupled with a CN commuter run through the eerily black 1912 tunnel under prestigious Mount Royal accomplished the task in about one hour. Another ten minutes of walking took me to the distinctive University Street store entrance, the only one available to employees before conventional shopping hours.
Once in the celebrated building, I would quickly glance at the huge central-aisle pendulous timepiece before descending to the lower ground floor which was well-known at the time for its bargain-basement products and prices. There, I beavered away as a stock boy in Women’s Sports Wear which was tucked away in the southeast corner of the level in question. I attentively arranged the boxes and stacks in the storage room, later bringing the much sought after wearing apparel out to the department itself and carefully classifying it there as well. The pinnacle of the season was, of course, the popular Record-breaking Day Sale which in that specific year took place on July 4. I retain to this day the striking memory of the shopping madness that the bargains engendered. I also recall my salary.
Renumeration for my youthful labour was a $1.00 an hour; the meagre stipend discreetly presented to us, on a weekly basis, in cash within a petite brown pay envelope by the floor manager. Everyday, by that same soul, we were also slipped a dollar bill which was given to us to help cover the expense incurred for our lunch in the rather non – descript employee cafeteria.
My reminiscences of Eaton’s pre-date, however, my experiences as a jobholder in that illustrious Montreal establishment. Indeed, my first recollections are from my early childhood when I would become briefly separated from my mother amidst all the display counters and other fitments both so intriguing yet intimidating to a young toddler. Virtually unable to see above the untold number of store movables, I would inevitably lose sight of her from time to time in the diverse corridors and passageways of the stately main floor. After a few unsettling moments, I would habitually find her still at the same display stand from which we had become separated when I had unwisely wandered off in search of momentary adventure.
Certainly one of the most vivid remembrances I have of the Eaton’s emporium is Christmas and the firm’s traditionally sponsored Santa Clause Parade along time-honoured St. Catherine Street. Living down the hill in a nearby working class neighbourhood, this festive display was only a tram ride away so my sister and I were taken faithfully to it each November. To this day, I still hold a robust impression of the colourful spectacle, and of shivering in the late autumn dampness while all along tightly clutching my father’s hand.
Once the never to be forgotten annual procession was over, we were quickly shepherded by our parents to the department store’s magical and mystical Toyland located on its picturesque fifth floor. For a young boy in his very early years, a pause at this mecca of varied trinkets and whatnots was indeed a dream come true, as was the requisite visit with the Grand Old man himself. As yesterday !
It should be noted that other than regular newspaper advertising, the Eaton Company was rarely, of itself, in the news. An exception to this truth, however, occurred on January 30, 1982 when Quebec’s parliamentary house leader and deputy premier of the time, Claude Charron, was detained by store detectives for having left the premises with an expensive tweed jacket hidden under his winter coat. For subsequently pressing charges, Eaton’s quickly became a kind of pariah for Quebec nationalists.
Nevertheless, to be sure, a business enterprise in the mold of Montreal’s T. Eaton’s could not help but leave a positive and abiding impact on all those who passed through its familiar revolving doors, even though it was not the first dry goods shop to stand on that particular corner of one of Canada’s most famous intersections. For nearly half a century, the Brouillet’s, Scroggie’s, Carsley’s, Rea’s, and Goodwin’s all had their occasion but it was the Eaton family of Toronto who, upon taking over the site in 1924, developed it like it had never been developed before. From that greatly anticipated Record-breaking Sale in early July to its tastefully and temperately arranged store windows, the Montreal outlet eclipsed the competition and endured a remarkable seventy-five years in the heart and mind of this city until its closing in 1999.
As for me, whenever I enter the now-recycled premises, I still look instinctively for that hanging clock that I regarded regularly all those years ago. While it is now gone, my personal musings and memories are not – they linger on about this giant of Canadian commerce and the delight it brought to me in my life, both in 1963 and time and again.