Brand building through storytelling

A retail icon’s death is like a death in the family

I hadn’t planned to check out the liquidation sale at Sears in Eaton Centre, but a homing instinct for bargains has been running in my mother’s family since they were haggling for chicken necks in the shtetl. The once-expansive housewares department had shrunk to a couple of aisles, where hastily hand-lettered signs promised 50% off the last marked price. A ceramic mixing bowl that would have met Mrs. Patmore’s standards could have been mine for a mere $7.50 (down from $59) in a choice of colors Mrs. P. never dreamed of. But I didn’t need another mixing bowl–or anything else on offer. Nor did anyone else, it seemed. The copper pots and pastel-colored, Kitchen Aid mixers looked like castoffs at a yard sale, fingered and forgotten as if the plunging prices were a taint.

Sears was dying on the very site where the Eaton’s flagship went down after the chain’s bankruptcy in 1999. I’d been one of those shoppers who abandoned Eaton’s, who found it impossibly dated and poked fun at the store’s doomed attempt to rebrand itself as the Frenchified, up-market Aubergine. When Sears swooped in to acquire its rival’s corporate assets and set up shop in Eaton Centre’s prime real estate, I figured the vanquished chain deserved its fate. Even so, the death of Eaton’s felt strangely personal. My mother’s mother had been an Eaton’s loyalist to the core. I never heard Grandma speak of going shopping. “Go to Eaton’s” was how she always put it, as if no other store existed.

On the prairies where she and Grandpa eked out a living from one failing general store after another, Eaton’s was the teeming font of everything a person could possibly desire, from ukuleles to georgette dresses–all unveiled twice a year in a catalog that brought a touch of urban swank to outposts like Birch Hills, Saskatchewan. They couldn’t afford to place an order; they just turned the pages and marveled.

In her memoir Raisins and Almonds, my Mother ranked the Eaton’s catalogue alongside Dickens as one of the most influential books of her childhood. She wrote, “I pored over the city flounces. I read the lists of books and records; even, as the season progressed, the pages of farm supplies. I played ‘choose-ups’ with friends, taking turns at wishing on the catalogue. And when the new copy came–double joy!–I got the old one to cut.” The family took what was left to the outhouse. Unlike Dickens, it doubled as toilet paper.

When Eaton’s made its last, desperate stand as Aubergine, I knew what my grandmother would call it: mishigas, craziness, pure and simple. I thought of Grandma again today, as I held the Sears mixing bowl in my hand–and put it down, as she’d have wanted me to do. Grandma didn’t believe in wasting money on stuff you didn’t need, and she wasn’t one to ask why the world as you’ve always known it can be taken apart for passers-by to pick over.

Of course, it’s not just megabrands that are being laid low in the age of online shopping and outsourcing. It’s also people in many lines of work, including the one that enthralled, challenged and supported me for more than 30 years. I no longer want a job, but I’ve seen countless people with talent and track records left high and dry in mid-life like that mixing bowl at Sears. At $59 it was value for money. And now they’re giving it away.

Posted by Rona

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