The incomparable emporium of the brothers Dupuis
What other department store ■ reserves a dining room for priests and nuns? ■ sells 2,000 pairs of Rocket Richard skates in a day? ■ supplies bishops’ rings and strippers’ sequins? ■ is sometimes run by the boss’s wife? MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 13, 196 0
A CLUSTER OF FOUR major department stores, Eaton’s, Simpson’s, Morgan’s and Ogilvy’s, anchors the English-speaking west end of Montreal's long narrow downtown shopping district, a teeming two-mile stretch of St. Catherine Street. All that these four names mean to the English is wrapped in one name for French Canadians — Dupuis Frères, Limitée, a fifth giant store a mile and a half away on St. Catherine Street East. It’s unmistakably their store, in their part of town, speaking their language and reflecting their way of life.
Dupuis Frères — or Dupuis Brothers as it’s never called — is the only store where pea soup, beer and wine are served every day in a public restaurant and in a dining room reserved for priests and nuns; where you can always buy the traditional tourtières. or FrenchCanadian meat pies; and where, for three thousand dollars, a new Catholic bishop can be completely outfitted. The store makes an annual literary award and rents a theatre twice a year to show Paris fashions. In winter, selling five hundred pairs of “Rocket Richard” or “Jean Belivcau” hockey skates is Dupuis Frères’ idea of a slack day; it’s been known to sell two thousand a day. probably a record for a single store.
Except for Eaton’s, Simpson's and Morgan's, it does more business than any general retailer in Quebec province, grossing “much more than twenty million dollars" last year, although it lets the whole English market go by default. It advertises in French-language newspapers almost exclusively and prints its one million mail-order catalogues in French only. With a clientele that's ninety-five percent conservative, thrifty French-Catholic, Dupuis Frères believes it does a greater fraction of its business in cash sales emdash; more than sixty percentemdash;than any other department store. Dealing with French Canada, which averages nearly one extra child per family compared to English Canada, the store also receives two million dollars emdash; nearly ten percent of sales emdash; in family allowance cheques.
Compared, for instance, to the Eaton chain's hundreds of millions of dollars, Dupuis Frères’ volume isn’t high. But it's all done from one mail-order building in the southwest end, and one main store, a six-storey city block of Indiana limestone, black granite and vitrified brick with half a million square feet of floor space emdash; a little more than Simpson’s Montreal store, not as much as Eaton’s. Unlike the four giants competing fiercely in the theatrehotel - night - club - and - tourist district in the
west. Dupuis Frères dominates the east-central shopping area, where eighty thousand customers have crowded through its high bronze doors in one day. The oldest store in town, it’s been in the same area for ninety-two years and in the same spot for seventy-eight.
Outside, the sidewalks are usually as crowded as theatre aisles at intermission. Inside the store, chocolate poissons d’avril (traditional French-Canadian April Fool’s Day candy), chairs and couches of fire-engine red and lime green shot with gold thread, plastic statues of Christ with lights inside, lingerie from France, altar boys’ outfits and the long-knitted snowshoeing caps called tuques are examined, sniffed, pinched or poked by hordes of FrenchCanadian housewives. Dupuis Frères will do anything to make them at home, including a three-day women’s sale during which, according to the ads. Mme. Raymond Dupuis, the president's wife, runs the store.
Under Quebec’s civil code, the stern FrenchCanadian father may technically have all the economic rights, but a Dupuis Frères survey has indicated that maman spends eighty-five percent of his disposable income. Estimates of the national average say that only seventy to seventy-five percent of Canada's total spending is controlled by wives.
While the four west-end department stores publish ads in the newspapers of both languages and post all signs in English and French. Dupuis Frères has few' departments or services identified in English. The hi-fi section is uncompromisingly "haut fidelité.” The elevator operator booms distinctly. "Troisième étape emdash; en has.” If he remembers to add. "Third floor emdash; going down,” he drops the line like a comedian unsure of his writers. All the sales personnel are supposed to speak English but few get any practice. Most of the five percent of customers w ho are "English" arc really New' Canadians,unfamiliar with either tongue, Irish Catholics who want religious articles like rosaries and holy-water fonts, or. for contrast, well-heeled young bucks whose girl friends are addicted to Dupuis Frères’ Paris lingerie.
All but a few of the sixteen hundred employees are French Catholics. Working there is something like being in a religious order. Once a year the staff makes a pilgrimage to St. Joseph’s Oratory, a famous Montreal shrine; on the six annual Catholic holy days, nearly half of them hear mass together; most of them pay into a fund that keeps fresh flowers daily before a statue of the Blessed
Virgin in their cloak room. Though the store
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9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.. all arc on hand at 9 20 a.m. for a ten-minute "morning message" over the public address system. The general manager, J. Emile Boucher, congratulates every employee whose birthday it is before he talks about the day's special sales. The Dupuis staff went along cheerfully with three quarters of a century of benevolent paternalism and then, eight years ago. held a strike that made Dupuis Frères Canada's only department store with a collective bargaining agreement covering all employees. In Montreal. English-speaking labor tends to be better paid than the French, but not at Dupuis Frères: as members of the National Syndicate of Store Employees of the Canadian and Catholic Federation of Labor, Dupuis' help earns as much as the people in comparable English stores.
However, it's the employees’ near-universal Catholicism, rather than their union activity, that makes the store the favorite of the hundreds of religious orders that have accounts for their schools, orphanages, hospitals, asylums and cloisters. Through the aisles move dozens of black-robed priests and pairs of nuns with downcast eyes and a gait that suggests floating on air.
Founded half a century ago to cater to them, the service du clergé, or clerical department, undertakes the monumental, the complex or the trilling with equal aplomb. It has furnished every stick of furniture — from beds to rugs to sacred candles in the chapel — for the new fiftyroom residence of the Fraternité Sacredotale. a religious order in Hull. Que. If a priest from the country finds himself in a Montreal hospital without his bathrobe. this same department will rush a new one right over. A dining room at Dupuis Frères reserved for the clergy, sells wine to some priests, who are accustomed to it with lunch. The Quebec Liquor Commission issues a unique permit that, technically, allows general manager Boucher to serve wine and beer on the premises. Boucher cracks. "If there's trouble, it's me that goes to jail.”
Serving lunch, however, is the least of what the department does for the clergy. When a village curé gets a telegram from Rome announcing he's to be consecrated a bishop, he's in an enviable position compared with his counterpart in Ontario. The Ontario parish priest will probably go to an ecclesiastical tailor for his vestments, elsewhere for his ring —the one Catholics kiss—perhaps somewhere else for the pectoral cross. He may send to Rome for everything. He may be uncertain of the details. The Quebec cure leaves it all to Dupuis Frères. The manager of the service du clergé, his experience trusted implicitly by the FrenchCatholic hierarchy, will round up the new bishop's three thousand dollars' worth of vestments and jewelry, make sure everything fits and attend the consecration ceremonies as a representative of the store.
While remaining a businessman, such a representative must be letter perfect in Catholic ritual and discreetly able to learn how much a priest wants to spend without giving offense. Dupuis Frères, just once, had an over-enthusiastic salesman who would outfit a new bishop with a two-thousand-dollar ring even though
“You can’t get blood from a stone?” says the credit manager “ƒ can!”
his parish committee had raised only about eight hundred dollars. After that, this salesman didn't last long.
Lionel Goyer, the current manager of this department, was sent to Rome by the store in 1950 for a semi-private audience with Pope Pius XII, to enhance his prestige. He’s president of the laymen’s auxiliary of a religious order and an orphanage and secretary of his parochial choir and the Dupuis Frères chapter of the St. Jean Baptiste Society.
Before I met him, I couldn't help expecting to see a silvery-haired ascetic, perhaps in flowing robes. Goyer turned out to be a husky, black-haired thirty-three-yearold in grey tweeds, who says he never considered the priesthood. He has a wife, a daughter of six and a boy, four. Describing his service, he says briskly, "Two nuns, for example, may never have shopped in a city before so they write to me. I meet them at the train, bring them here to a special waiting room, get their purchases made for them if they're too shy to go out on the floor, and see that they get some lunch. I eat every day in the clergy’s dining room, which seats forty. I started here as a clerk when I was seventeen and just out of the St. Arsène Orphanage — I wasn't an orphan, just a student — and some of the brothers from there saw me here. They mentioned me to the clerical department, to which I transferred. My audience with the pope was the experience of a lifetime. He gave me a pure white calotte — a sort of ecclesiastical cap. But my job isn't as esoteric as it sounds. Primarily we’re another service operation, like home decorating or delivery or credit checking — but different, admittedly, from any other store's.”
Pierre Lecours, manager of the credit department, says his service isn't exactly like any other store's either: "Your truly traditional French Canadian still does his banking in the top of his sock and puts down cash for everything. I mean, I'm an accountant and well educated and so forth, but before I took this job seven years ago I was apprehensive about credit myself. We French have a nagging idea there’s something shameful or immoral about owing money on anything.” Today, although Dupuis Frères has built up about a hundred thousand accounts, it knows this is low in relation to its total business, and it plugs hard to build up credit sales.
Leo Ratté, the bald and rather menacing collection manager and controller, adds: "On our credit sales we lose less than a cent on the dollar through bad accounts. It's partly the French temperament and partly me. You've heard you can't get blood from a stone? Believe me, I can. This box of Kleenex,” he says, brandishing one, "is here for women who burst into tears.”
French-Canadian culture is more cheerfully reflected in a couple of departments seemingly unrelated but connected by a stream of small boys. The same darkeyed, solemn-faced youngster in the religious articles section trying on the altar boy's long, red or black soutane and the lacy white surplice will be down in sporting goods an hour later fingering hockey socks. When Boston Bruins get into the play-offs against Montreal Canadiens, the store has to order Boston sweaters because the boys want to look like the players they see on television. (Canadien uniforms. of course, outsell all others ten to one but someone has to play the villain.) Eleven years ago, when Montreal Alouet-
tes won the Grey Cup, the store began building its stock of football equipment, although it used to sell very little. The Alouettes got on television too, and today an east-end Catholic school may buy twenty-four complete football uniforms and a dozen balls at once.
Call it skill or good fortune, Dupuis Frères has usually anticipated the direction in which French Canada would jump. In 1868, the year after Confederation, it was thought to be mercantile madness to open a store on St. Catherine Street East, the ragged fringe of a depression-ridden city of a hundred thousand. The only shopping district then worth the name was between the river front and St. James Street. Today, that once-booming area is mostly plants, warehouses and tottering old office buildings, while Dupuis Frères is just where it wants to be.
The founder, Nazaire Dupuis, was twenty-four when he brought his widowed mother and his family from St. Jacques I'Achigan to Montreal and opened a dry goods shop. Before he died at thirty-two, Nazaire sailed five times to Europe to arrange sources of supply and lines of credit that saw him through the depression of the Sixties and Seventies.
Nazaire was the eldest of eight boys and a girl. All seven brothers took a hand in the enterprise at one time or another. They moved it a few blocks, to the present site, in 1882. Narcisse Dupuis, granduncle of the current president, was sole owner by 1896, when he bought the five stores on either side of him and gave Dupuis Frères its block-long frontage on St. Catherine. It was still so much a family business that no limited company was formed until 1908.
They shopped for a whole year
In those days the store needed the biggest buffet lunch counter in Canada. French-Canadian families from all over western Quebec made an annual all-day sojourn at Dupuis Frères for a year’s supply of Easter hats and gloves, little white suits and dresses for the sacrament of confirmation, and black mourning clothes in case anyone should die. At every annual March sale, crowds were so dense they burst through at least one glass showcase. Farm children who’d never seen toy counters scrambled excitedly on top of them. The crowding was so bad — and business so good — that in 1928 an addition was built that doubled the floor space to two hundred thousand square feet. Another addition, in 1948, increased the floor area to the present half million square feet.
Actually, the first step to reduce crowding had been taken as far back as 1921 when the mail-order division was opened. After the country folk got used to shopping by mail, they no longer descended on the Montreal store in such droves. The mail-order division used to reach far beyond Quebec. A clerk packing orders for the Oblate missionaries at Fort Good Hope was required to know the maximum load an Indian would agree to carry over the portages north of Edmonton. (Everything in bundles of a hundred pounds or less.) In 1948, Dupuis Frères regretfully asked the religious orders in the far north to deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company at Winnipeg. Transportation costs, always paid by the store, were getting prohibitive between Montreal and the Northwest Territories.
About the time it was building the mail-order division, in the mid-Twenties,
Dupuis Frères hired A. G. Lemerise, a retired school principal from Outremont, to lecture the staff on salesmanship. Lemerise is dead now, but a contemporary newspaper account indicates he had a million-dollar idea thirty years too soon: probing the customer's psyche. An article in the Montreal Star in 1928 gave this glimpse of the Lemerise doctrine: “Customers fall into four general classifications . . . The conic-faced type with the red tie and flashy suit is the moneymaker and should be humored. Show him the novelties, the more sensational the better. Don't talk to him about values or explain why things are expensive or cheap ... A comprehension of the motives that impel a customer to buy is a subject of concern to the scientific salesman.” Refined a little and christened “motivation research,” this approach has recently made rich men of countless psychologists.
Around this time, Gratiën Gelinas. long before he wrote and starred in the unprecedented success, Tit-Coq, was earning ten dollars a week selling blankets at Dupuis Frères. Here, too, Camillien Houde, the most popular mayor—among the French—in Montreal's history, used to manage a little informal campaigning along with his shopping.
The store is am conscious of its lively heritage, of being a part of French-Canadian life, that it insists all its advertising be a model of literate French. It abhors anglicisms like “un vrai bon bargain" for "a really good bargain." Its annual award, Le Prix de la Langue Française de Dupuis, is designed to help French-Canadian writers in a most practical way. Instead of receiving a medal or scroll, the winning author—last year it was Michel Brunet for La Présence Anglaise et le Canadien—gets to sell five hundred extra copies to Dupuis Frères. The store then awards these as prizes for the best French essays by five hundred senior high-school students.
Dupuis Frères’ most serious trouble occurred in 1952, when it was faced with a three-month strike unique in Canadian department-store history. With management's blessing, even its urging, employees had for forty years belonged to a union, the National Syndicate of Store Employees of the Canadian and CatholicFederation of Labor. Although Englishspeaking department store help was better paid, the union was docile, “little more than a benevolent society,” as Boucher, the general manager, puts it.
In the early Fifties the union unexpectedly awoke, got legal certification and began to rumble about raises ranging from five to ten dollars a week. Management was firm: nothing doing.
The union called a strike at 11.30 p.m. the night of Friday, May 2, 1952. Maurice du Berger, director of services, remembers: "That night management told me, ‘If we stay open for three days without them, they'll come back to work. Can you do it?’ Well, without delivery drivers or telephone operators or sales clerks, we stayed open. Of course, the strike went for eighty-seven days.”
The store had about twelve hundred employees. Eighty-five non-union department heads and a handful of senior executives worked frantically in shirtsleeves all that first weekend. They unbolted about twenty cash registers and lined them up at the doors, supermarket fashion. In Saturday’s papers, they advertised a mammoth self-service sale: twenty percent off everything in the store Monday
morning. Before the eyes of the dismayed picket lines, eighty thousand people a day began to storm Dupuis Frères.
“Delivery?” snorts du Berger. “At such prices they didn't care. Men walked past me with kitchen ranges on their backs.”
Raymond Dupuis, the president, sold outboard motors. "People asked me how fast a motor would drive such and such a boat,” he recalls. "All I could tell them was that it was selling at twenty percent off.”
The strikers fought back with an exciting variety of guerrilla tactics. They’d stampede an escalator full of women by releasing white mice or detonating a stink bomb. But genuine bitterness crept in as well. A sympathizing union sent a form letter to the clergy and to other customers charging that what really happened during the first weekend was that all price tags were secretly raised twenty percent and that "the twenty percent reduction was simply a lie thrown in the faces of French Canadians.” Dupuis Frères said it would sue the union for libel, but it dropped the matter when the strike ended. The strikers protested to city hall and to the archbishop that “police on horseback charged our picket lines.” A young girl was arrested for creating a disturbance while pleading with shoppers to stay out of the store. During the three months the strike lasted, about five hundred people trickled back to their jobs, denouncing
the strikers for fools, and themselves being denounced as scabs.
During the strike, Boucher, who had been working for Beauchemin Limitée, a small Dupuis affiliate, was made general manager of the department store. He surveyed the carnage and within two weeks Dupuis Frères settled for raises ranging from four to eight dollars. “They wanted the money,” Boucher muses. “A raise is progress. Yet, paradoxically, I’ve always been sure an underlying cause of the strike was their resistance to certain streamlined accounting and selling methods, perhaps pushed at them too abruptly. But we must go forward or die. The French customer’s love of tradition is not a love of cumbersome, slow, old - hat methods.”
Dupuis Frères backs up this view of the French customer with a speedy, credit-card system for those who have accounts; a central wrapping desk that collects purchases for you from all over the store and has them ready when you leave; and a subpost office to weigh and stamp mailed gifts. Indeed, in the west end. floats in the Santa Claus parade to the younger English stores are still dragged through the streets by tractors. Dupuis Frères’ Pere Noël, on the other hand, arrives in Lafontaine Park every year by descending from the sky as he’s supposed to. He comes down in a bright yellow helicopter. ★