Hudson's Bay Blanket Bingo
During my last year of high school, I started working in the Bay’s record department on the fifth floor located between toys and books. I was so clueless. I was once asked about The Clash’s latest album. I remember the exact words of my response: “Well, you can’t go wrong with The Clash.” As if I knew anything about punk music. I was more of a Billy Joel, Carole King, Jesus Christ Superstar kind of kid. (But the art of dissembling would serve me well years later as an entertainment writer.)
A couple of years later, after short stints hauling furniture and selling shoes, I ended up in 317, the young people’s jeans and fashion department. Very glamorous. I once sold Alan Sues of Laugh-In fame a pair of cotton pants that converted to shorts (they had zippers at the knee). He was performing at Stage West dinner theatre, starring in the cross-dressing farce Charley’s Aunt. The ’Peg was no cultural backwater.
Every Winnipegger of a certain age has strong memories of that downtown Bay: the smell of wet winter wool and cigarette smoke while waiting for buses inside the doors along the Vaughan Street entrance; malt milkshakes in the basement; or rows and rows of gaily coloured bowls of Jell-O in the Paddlewheel Restaurant on the top floor (immortalized in Guy Maddin’s historical fantasia My Winnipeg as the site of a 1930s male beauty pageant presided over by a lustful mayor).
Ever since the time of the fur trade, The Bay, Canada’s oldest continually operating company, and the city of Winnipeg have been closely linked. HBC basically owned the land on which the city is now located. The company’s first-ever department store opened in Winnipeg in 1881. And when its new six-storey flagship was built in 1926, handsomely clad in locally sourced Tyndall stone, it was the country’s largest reinforced concrete building. The HBC head office was transferred from London, UK to Winnipeg in the 1970s, though it moved to Toronto in the '80s as the company expanded into Ontario and Quebec; at least the HBC Archives are still in Winnipeg.
Sadly the grand old department store at the corner of Portage and Memorial is on her last legs. Business has moved elsewhere because of suburban sprawl and shortsighted urban planning. The Bay’s top three floors have been mothballed and the Zellers in the basement just closed. HBC seems to be biding its time until the province unveils its plan for the site (here's good update from the Winnipeg Free Press). Hopefully it won’t go the way of the Eaton’s store, demolished in 2003 to make room for a downtown arena.
So The Bay is back in my professional life. My first cheque; my last cheque. It’s one of those circle of life moments. But bittersweet. The perfect symbol for that circle, the spinning, splashing paddlewheel from the cool riverboat diorama in top-floor restaurant, is no more. Hopefully the building itself will have a happier fate.