Articles

EIGHTEEN-ACRE CORNER STORE

MAC REYNOLDS April 1 1952
Articles

EIGHTEEN-ACRE CORNER STORE

MAC REYNOLDS April 1 1952

EIGHTEEN-ACRE CORNER STORE

Pioneer Vancouver said Charlie Woodward was crazy when he built his store in a frog swamp. But his clairvoyance paid off in the forty-million-dollar mammoth that boasts the world’s largest grocery floor and is happily battling an invasion from the east

MAC REYNOLDS

WHEN Eaton’s bought into Vancouver’s family compact of department stores three years ago, eighteen men, stirred by the snapping of fingers, filed out of a brick-fronted eight-story building on the fringe of the city’s skid row. Like pallbearers going to mourn the passing of an old friend they walked up the street into the higher-rent district until they reached another big building. Workmen already were prying copper name plates that said Da vid Spencer Limited from the marble panels separating the store’s plate-glass windows.

Inside, the eighteen wandered from remnants to jewelry and from staples to paints. They listened to young men in Eatonia worsteds give instructions to old men in Spencer tweeds. They watched worxmen chisel the Spencer “S” symbols from the walls and cover the scars with signs that said Eaton’s.

When they had paid their last respects to the store David Spencer had established in Vancouver in 1906 the eighteen returned to their own store, established 1892. There they shed their nostalgia with their topcoats and quietly set out to prove that, under their country merchant’s cotton bib, thev packed enough big-city know-how to cope with the powerful newcomer from the exotic east.

The visiting delegates were the directors of Woodward Stores Limited, a forty-million-dollar home-owned British Columbia department-store chain, built around what nobody had ever disputed to be “the biggest food floor under one roof in the world.”

They were old hands at tilting against eastern windmills.

From 1895 to 1938 Woodward’s had staged a running fight with eastern wholesale drug houses over price fixing. The store refused to yield to demands of the drug combine that it sell drugs at the fixed prices set by the industry. The dispute was waged through the Press and through the courts. Then one day, the drug houses refused to supply Woodward’s with any more drugs. The store blanketed the city with shoppers, bought the missing drugs from corner drugstores at the fixed high prices, sold them over its counters at lower prices and broke the boycott.

So when Eaton’s plunged twenty-five million dollars into British Columbia by buying and renovating the moribund Spencer chain, Vancouver, which always has let sentiment guide its purchases of brose meal and buggy whips more than most Canadian cities, held its breath. It didn’t have to hold it for long.

“Gosh,” a Woodward’s director said recently, “they didn’t give us ulcers. They gave us their customers. We’re thinking of moving into Toronto if it’s this easy.”

It was more a boast than a threat, but Eaton’s didn’t think it very funny. “We are very pleased with our operations on the coast,” was the curt reply from Eaton’s.

The Eaton chain, with eight stores in British Columbia, admittedly is top dog in the provincial field. Woodward’s has only four stores in the province, one in Alberta. It’s in the city of Vancouver, however, that the major contest for sales supremacy ws taking place. And as one newspaper financial editor put it: “For the first time in its

march across Canada, Eaton’s is being set back on its heels by a local department store.” Neither store will release sales figures but Woodward’s does claim that its sales have jumped about eighteen percent since Eaton’s entered the B. C. department-store field.

It was no mean jump for a store built on a frog marsh by a horny-handed down-easter so frugal that, even after banking his first million, he continued to sleep in his own display beds and have his daily shave at a barber college.

When Charles Woodward founded the store in 1892, six years after Vancouver’s great fire, he could wash the floor without halting sales of bustles,

asafetida sachets and high-wheeled bikes. Today, sixty-five clean-up men work around the clock scouring the eighteen acres of terrazzo and linoleum-covered floor space.

Among Vancouver department stores, Woodward’s is a plain sister. It is situated on narrow noisy Hastings Street, in an unfashionable section. Its neighbors are credit jewelers, beer parlors that, in a more golden day were storied bars, bookmaking hangouts, the Central City Mission (271 beds at 30-35 cents a night). The store’s windows are less lavish than its competitors’; managers’ offices are dowdy. Yet on a good day Woodward’s cash registers bell up one hundred and fifty thousand sales, with two dollars an average sale. Its oneand-a-half-acre food floor claims the largest percustomer sale of dry groceries and the biggest turnover of meat on the continent and has its own street signs and traffic cops. It ships forty thousand pounds of freight a day to mail-order customers in far-flung canyons and coves and uses packhorse, parachute, dog team and dugout to get its goods through. It writes an annual pay cheque of seven and a half million dollars for its four thousand employees, who also get thirty-five percent of the company earnings under an employee shareholding plan. It functions as mother store to Woodward’s branches in Edmonton, West Vancouver, Victoria and Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island.

Woodward’s early years were, as current president William Culham (Billy) Woodward has said, ones of “blood, sweat and toil.” Everyone toiled, everyone sweated, but it was Charles, “the old governor,” who gave the blood.

Born on a backwoods farm near Hamilton, Ont., in 1852, he started a log-cabin general store on Manitoulin Island when he was eighteen, traded with Indians and settlers there for twenty years, generally one step ahead of his creditors.

When he migrated to Vancouver in 1892 and opened a store on what is now the corner of Georgia and Main, the population was twelve thousand.

Well, You Can’t Eat Flowers

Salmon were being speared in the creeks. Chinese peddlers shuffled muddy streets with weighing scales and baskets of vegetables hung from shoulder yokes. The grandiose old Hotel Vancouver, one day to have five hundred baths and then be swing-balled down by Eaton’s to clear space for a parking lot, had just got running water an aged bellhop who scuttled with buckets of it from a well in the cellar to guests’ bathrooms. Men were wearing mutton-chop whiskers and Prince Alberts and women wore red flannel petticoats and bustle skirts that took thirty yards of Charles’ cloth. Scotch whisky cost a dollar a bottle and underwear fifty cents a suit and Charles Woodward, a prohibitionist who considered owning more than one suit of underwear sheer extravagance, kept going broke.

During closing-out sales he would sprinkle the vegetables that he grew in a long box in front of his store (he said you couldn’t eat flowers) and pretend to be busy. And he would fuss over invoices and file them on headless nails hammered into his desk and barter sticks of licorice for old medicine bottles he had trained children to salvage from the town dump. He always got the best in these deals.

But it was not until 1904 that the deals that counted began to pay off. In that year he gathered around him a small assortment of other merchants. There were a jeweler and a butcher and a druggist and with this nucleus of a department store, Charles Woodward took a long look into the future and a longer step uptown. He sank foundations for his new store at the corner of Hastings and Abbott Streets. He was told he was crazy. Vancouver’s business heart then was beating closer to the waterfront. The new Woodward’s site was a swamp raucous with frogs,

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dubbed the Nightingale Band. Skaters waltzed on the frozen swamp in the wintertime. But Woodward went ahead and built a small three-story Store and the city grew to his doorstep, (and, many years later, passed it). He hitched his merchandising to the land booms that followed and, from then on, Charles Woodward coidd do no wrong.

Through fire, bankruptcy and boom, his golden rule remained the same. “You can’t get away with anything,’’ he used to say, emphasizing the respect for the customer which at the same time was making great department stores out of Eaton’s, Simpson’s, and the Hudson’s Bay. He struck the policy the firm continues today: con-

servatism, not too cheap, not too expensive, no come-ons with comparative prices (claiming an article for sale formerly cost more). There were to be no sub-standards unless declared as such and they were to be segregated from standard merchandise. The hand of the old governor still is evident in ads for Woodward’s $1.49 day (before the war it was 95-cent day). As many as three hundred items will be crammed on a newspaper page, no big words, no white space.

Coldly nepotic, Charles picked over the nine children he had had from his two wives until he found exactly what he wanted. His son Billy should he the financial expert; son Percy (Percival Archibald« Woodward, now vicepresident, should handle the merchandising end. His son Don had his place in the scheme of things too but Don clashed with the old governor, donned a sombrero and retreated to an avocado farm in southern California. A fourth son, John, a graduate druggist who founded the store’s drug department (today the oldest operating pharmacy and the largest individual drug outlet in Vancouver) died before the First World War.

In 1908 the store was increased to five floors. In 1914 a five-story wing was added. And following almost year by year wen; more extensions, a garage, pedestrian tunnels built under the streets, a suburban warehouse, branch stores.

Mounties would order six months’ supplies on one day’s notice before leaving for the Arctic and usually find Woodward’s had the supplies loaded on the boat before it sailed. Homesteaders would ask Woodward’s mailorder department to buy headstones for them and place the headstones on graves for them and Woodward’s would. And then one morning the mail order manager would open his mail and find a gift of venison from a satisfied customer, or perhaps a steelhead wrapped in ferns.

It was during one of the times Charles had retired from the business — he always was retiring and always coming hack to fuss some more that Wood wart, ’s food floor was born.

The year was 1919 and the old governor was in California. Son P. A. was the man of the hour. He ripped out the grocery counters, trucked in kitchen tables, loaded them with groceries, cut prices fifteen percent and ran for cover. The first day was such a success the butcher got drunk and there was no meat the second day. But on the third day and the days thereafter the food floor was like a three-ring circus. It. occupied only twenty-five hundred square feet then. Today, on the eve of the store’s sixtieth birthday, it occupies more than sixty thousand

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square feet with another twenty thousand square feet of basement under; neath for storage.

Woodward’s agrees there are U. S. supermarkets which are bigger, says, however, these are really small department stores, selling everything from radios to small cars. The Woodward’s food floor is all food.

More than two thousand food items are displayed on its fixtures. Sixty cashiers ring up one million sales a month and bring in one third of the entire store’s revenue. Food-floor customers buy in a year two million tins of canned milk, three hundred and fifty tons of sliced bacon and a quarter of a million gallons of fruit juice. Woodward’s store bakery bakes ten thousand loaves of bread a day in almost thirty varieties. Woodward’s coffee roaster roasts four tons of coffee I a day.

Woodward’s displays the largest selection of English biscuits outside of England, one hundred and ten varieties of imported and domestic cheese and ninety-one varieties of fish and sea i food. City visitors get lost in the food floor’s labyrinth of corridors, but so do local shoppers. Recently a distraught husband appealed to store detectives for help; he had lost his wife on the food floor. Employees found her by quartering the floor and scanning every aisle.

The cheese counter is a world of its own. There are cheeses in glossy red rinds and golden rinds and shaped like cartwheels and gourds, and wound with j cord and strung together like South I American bolos. There are Pecorino Sardo and Pecorino Romano and Pecorino Albania and Sapsago and Noekkelost and Gammelost and Muenster and Steppe. And there are even Kraft Cream Cheese spreads (in Swankyswig glasses).

Oolichans and Rattlesnake

At the fish counter there are Roll Mops and Icelandic spiced herring and barbecued Oolichans and filleted I Dutchies and Aberdeen bloaters, and there are all the shell fish and all the roes, and for bibbers, herring in wine sauce.

Woodward’s shoppers can load up with pickled mushrooms and Quebec eels and brandied dates and turtle meat and tree-ripened olives from Greece and sauces made from rum and curaçao. There are artichoke bottoms from France too and smoked mussels and sprats in mustard-seed oil and canned rattlesnake. There are imported Burgundy snails with empty shells attached to the tin in a cord bag, and if there are no puppy dogs’ tails, foodfloor manager Thomas Farrell, who looms over his acreage from a height of six feet three-and-a-half inches, will try to get them for his customers.

Even inured food-floor patrons sometimes get the urge to run somewhere ! and hide until the human tide has I ebbed, and recently, Farrell felt the urge himself. This was the case of the five thousand frozen turkeys. The awkward-to-handle birds were hung on racks in the boiler room overnight to thaw out. The boiler room also is the end of the line for the three tons of rubbish that goes down the refuse chutes in a Woodward’s day.

The following morning shopgirls shivered at their counters and department managers invaded the boiler room demanding an explanation for the lack of heat. “Heat!” the outraged janitor said. “How the devil do you expect me to have heat? It’s taken me all night to burn up these blasted turkeys.”

To many mail-order customers in isolated parts of the province Wood-

ward’s is their sole source of food. Letters arrive from prospectors saying; “I am going on a prospecting trip. Here’s $100. Send me supplies.” Woodward’s does. Mail - order manager Charles Flanders also has dispatched a three-hundred-pound wedding cake to an Indian tribe at the northern coastal port of Bella Bella, a queen bee to a Fraser Valley apiarist, and advice to an indignant spinster customer on one of the Gulf Islands on what to do about the postmaster poisoning her cat.

A Fridge in Darkest Africa

Flanders too sometimes feels the urge to run and hide. One occasion was when a north-country plumber placed an urgent order for a pipe-fitting part known as a two-inch nipple. When he opened his parcel he found a rubber attachment for a baby bottle and a cheery little note saying: “We regret

. . . this is the longest nipple we carry.”

Nobody seems to stay annoyed at Woodward’s long. “We are part of the history of this province,” Billy Woodward says contentedly. “It’s like getting annoyed at themselves.”

Billy Woodward is sixty-seven, round but compact, and similar in appearance to the old governor, with the same thick but close-cropped mustache, the same poker-player’s eyes. He was born at Gore Bay, Manitoulin Island, and came west with his father. He was executive assistant to Munitions Minister C. D. Howe from 1939 to 1940 and survived the torpedoing of a freighter on which he was traveling to Britain with Howe and Toronto financier E. P. Taylor to arrange munitions shipment. He was lieutenant-governor of British Columbia from 1941 to 1946. He was an artillery subaltern in World War I and likes to be called by his postwar rank of colonel.

But. the similarity between William and his father Charles doesn’t extend far beyond appearance.

Billy likes to take luxury cruises on the Caronia and safaris through darkest Africa with a radio and a refrigerator and a personal servant in his tent. He frequents hotels like Claridge’s in London and eats in restaurants like Lucho w’s in New York. He displays a respectful attitude toward good Scotch and golfs on Sundays. He doesn’t chain himself to the store. He spends half his week at his five-hundred-acre farm on Vancouver Island and gets around town in a chauffeur-driven Buick.

Charles, even after he had become a multimillionaire (and he had made his first million by 1912), never owned

a car and walked blocks to catch a trolley. He never tij 'd more than a nickel or bought a meal that cost more than thirty-five cents. He ate like a Spartan and said you couldn’t beat brown bread. His one extravagance was going to run-down movie houses. They cost only a dime. Charles seemed to have only one suit and only one club bag, and no porter ever carried it. When he wasn’t in a position to sleep in his own store beds he chose the shabbiest hotel. He was the first to arrive in the store and the last to leave.

But he had his charitable side. Every Christmas Elve he would visit the city’s old-folks’ homes carrying a satchel and out of the satchel he would pull envelopes and he gave each inmate an envelope. Each envelope contained two dollars. This practice is carried on by W. C. today.

Three Thousand Handshakes

The old governor died clutching his purse strings. He collapsed in his department-store office in 1937 at eighty-four protesting that he would not go to hospital—it was too expensive. His personal wealth at the time of his death was hard to judge, because of the employee shareholding system he had inaugurated, but even in the depression year of 1937 the store grossed nine million dollars, and Charles Woodward was a dying merchant prince.

He would never have approved of the way things went then. They put him in a coffin as big as a grand piano and smothered it with six hundred wreaths and rolled it into a mausoleum almost as big as Charles’ first store. His clerks draped two thousand white cotton dust covers over the store’s two thousand counters and locked up the store and they were sorry the old governor had passed away. Because, hard trader though he was, he was an honest man; so honest, some said, that during a fling at politics in the Twenties as member for Vancouver in the provincial legislature, he almost wrecked a government.

Neither would Charles, the blueSunday prohibitionist, have approved of son Billy’s extravagance in the provincial capital four years later. As lieutenant-governor, W. C. Woodward received a salary of nine thousand a year, on which he paid taxes, and spent thirty thousand. The injustice was softened somewhat by the fact that, as representative of the crown, a bottle of whisky cost him only a dollar; he didn’t have to pay the tax.

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Like Charles, Billy Woodward was commended for the way he handled his job in Victoria. Newspaper editorials said he was democratic and I popular. And when he, and his chatelaine, Mrs. Ruth Wynn Johnson Woodward, vacated Government House, more than three thousand persons lined up for two hours on the street outside so they could shake his hand.

When W. C. Woodward returned to the store an era of expansion began. Additions made to the store increased the floor space to eighteen acres, the size of a small farm, putting Woodward’s in the same size-bracket as Macy’sand Gimbels of New York, and Harrods and Selfridge’s of London.

In 1949 Billy Woodward turned the first sod, in what had been West Vancouver bushland, to make way for a modern drive-in department store four miles from downtown Vancouver. (Charles singlehanded had shoveled out the basement for his first Vancouver store.) There, in West Vancouver’s glittering Park Royal shopping centre, Woodward’s gave their customers a fifteen-hundred-dollar magic-eye door, electric turntables at the check-out counters, and, as a measure of the community’s elegance, more dog food than baby food, according to manager Charles Nameby Wynn (Chunky) Woodward, W. C.’s twenty-seven-yearold son.

Under W. C. the company’s shareowning system expanded too until today dividends paid to employees amount to more money than Charles paid in wages when he started the plan in the Twenties. Nine hundred employees hold stock in the company. General manager John William Butterfield, a Yorkshireman who started in Woodward’s staples twenty-two years ago, says an employee gets a dividend of about ten cents a year on every dollar he invests in the firm.

Wedding Present for a Queen

Critics of the store don’t see the share system as unblemished philanthropy. They say it’s a sound way for the Woodward family to avoid crippling inheritance taxes.

Labor circles in Vancouver admit Woodward’s employee relations are good even though the store is not organized. For the department-store field, wages are high. An experienced single male clerk starts at $48 a week, a driver at $65; married men get more. Shopgirls start at $28 a week, go up to $60, and average $38. Far past is the day in 1919, recalled by Vancouver archivist Major J. S. Matthews, when a hot-headed Billy Woodward helped break a teamsters’ strike by driving his company wagons through picket lines with a brandished whip. Now Woodward’s provides all the socialized innovations of modern business and even pays pensions out of its own pocket to sixty-five-year-old employees with ten years’ service. The store is not reluctant to hire employees who are middle-aged and two hundred fulltime employees in the Vancouver store are more than fifty years of age.

Yet it is fundamentally a young man’s firm. Most of the directors are around forty and most started clerking ! in the store in their teens. There is ; the spirit of youth too in Woodward’s promotion stunts. Woodward’s beacon was one example. From 1929 to 1938 it sent a night-splitting beam far up the Fraser Valley and across Georgia Strait to Vancouver Island. Ship captains used it as a navigation light. Today the ten-million-candle-power beam is filtered through a ruby prism. Airport authorities feared an airliner would put down on Woodward’s roof.

Still an eye-catcher though is the 278 - foot scale model of the Eiffel Tower, atop the store, on which the beacon rotates. It was brought from London in the Twenties to hide the store’s elevator machinery and water tanks. The store sends buyers each year to cull the bazaars of the world. One buyer brought back a $110,000 eighteen-carat gold tea set from Birmingham, displayed it at the store and then throughout the United States. It was finally sold to Egypt’s King Farouk, who gave it to Narriman Sadek as a wedding present.

To attract sidewalk trade Woodward’s once displayed nylon stockings from England with the initial E woven into the tops, announcing with pride that the hose were duplicates of those worn by Princess Elizabeth. A live mouse was put in one of the store’s forty window compartments once but soon removed: some people thought

the store was selling mice.

The store backs up its advertising boners. Recently a Woodward’s ad for hind-quarter roast at 89 cents a pound appeared in the newspapers as 59 cents a pound. The store took a straight loss and sold three thousand pounds of hind-quarter at the advertised price.

Toes in the Escalators

Woodward’s frowns on sex in advertising—displays lingerie on torsos only and crops heads and legs off pictures of frilly models in its catalogues—but it makes up for the shortage of sex by a surfeit of shoplifters. It’s patronized by fifty percent more shoplifters than other Vancouver department stores, probably largely because of its location near skid row. Five women store detectives are kept ho -ping by shoplifters who sometimes write nasty letters about them and drop the letters in the customer suggestion box.

“Woodward’s,” said head store nurse Mary Clarke recently, “is like the British Empire.”

In an empire, nothing the subjects do really surprises the crown. So Miss Clarke’s six-bed hospital is prepared to administer to shopgirls with sore backs, customers whose toes have been caught in the escalators, children who have cut their fingers testing the edges of knives. And, once in a while, a newborn baby is found wailing red-faced in the “mother’s room” and the baby is brought to the store hospital; and, once in a while, a customer dies in the store and is brought to the hospital too.

And sometimes it’s not the crisply efficient Miss Clarke but mail-order manager Charles Flanders, for twentynine years father confessor by correspondence to lonely up-country customers, who administers at the end.

Not long ago an old woman collapsed of a heart attack on the street outside the store. She asked to be taken inside; she wanted to see Mr. Flanders. The mail-order manager was summoned. He had never seen the woman before but knew her well from his department correspondence; she had been one of his lonely up-country customers.

She gave him a purse containing three thousand dollars. “Please divide this among my three children,” she said, and she told him where he could find her three children. “And don’t let them spend it recklessly, Mr. Flanders.”

Flanders said yes, he would see that the money was divided among the three children and no, he wouldn’t let them spend it recklessly, and even as he said this the old woman died.

She had got what she had taken for granted she would get at the big store in the big city—Woodward’s service, if