Dead Zellers, Dead Sears, and Dead Factories…But Hopefully Living Memories

Have I just had more of an eye for it or has there been quite a string of places announcing their closures lately? Chapters Runnymede (which actually did close recently), The Annex Book City (done in the spring), and The World’s Biggest Bookstore (over on March 23)…coincidentally all book shops, all neighbourhood landmarks, all ending.

Sunday evening, I made unintended stop at another place that is part of that list: the Eaton Centre Sears. I knew about its closing since the announcement, but was not yet able to get down there before it closed up shop for good. Fortuitously finding myself on Yonge Street, I decided to go for it. I didn’t plan on it happening in such a fashion, but I was also there during its final minutes open to public.

Sears Eaton Centre Empty 2

And I admit: even though my personal attachment to that store was not that strong, being there really got to me.

Whether we choose to make a big deal out of it, the closing of Sears does mark the end of a retail era and dynasty in Toronto and a change in the city’s retail landscape – just like the end of Eaton’s before it and the beginning of Nordstrom’s after it. Yes, I realize Sears is not Eaton’s and does not begin to match its iconic status. Regardless of the sad mismanagement that led to its demise, Eaton’s holds an undeniable place within the city’s (and country’s) commercial and retail heritage. Can we claim the same for Sears? Definitely not. But it is still worthy of recognition.

As I walk through the barren space, I am reminded of the Bridlewood Mall Dead Zellers I passed by a few months ago. So empty. The pillars without anything between them is – as odd a choice a word it may be – very unsettling.

Dead Zellers Bridlewood Mall 1

Dead Zellers Bridlewood Mall 2

The ‘Everything Must Go’ signs throughout the Sears mean, well, everything – even all the makeup fixtures – must go. I get shivers thinking about the retail ghosts on each level, between each column. I think about the hordes of shoppers that have wandered its floors and traveled its escalators over the years.

Sears Eaton Centre Fixtures For Sale

But even more so, I consider the employees. Some of them currently work the counters for the very last time, ringing in the last few sales ever. I think about their stories as insiders. They knew the store better than anyone. If someone in 10 or 50 years were to ask ‘What was the Eaton Centre Sears like?’, they would be able to tell us. What would they be able to tell us?

Sears Eaton Centre Shoppers

And then I think about them, as the store’s final occupants, having to see and experience its operations wind down. What are they feeling? This Toronto Star article highlites some of it. Sadness, lament, nostalgia, surrealness, disbelief, uncertainty, perhaps new opportunity? I suspect any combination of these. Because I too feel it in my life.

I consider all this because I am currently experiencing it first hand at an east end factory that is in its last days as well. Like the Sears, it is the end of era – for manufacturing in Toronto, for the near century year old building, and in the individual lives of its workers.

As a soon to be former employee of Weston Foods, I have been thinking a lot lately about my tenure in the plant. A month ago,  I cleaned out my locker. It was an odd experience to say the least. Having been there longer than I should have been, I was glad to close that chapter for good. But seeing the plant emptier and quieter than I had ever seen it and employee morale not overly high, it just felt weird and sad. I was and am very attached to that place and its people. The end was near and that got to me.

Weston Bakeries Eastern Avenue 2

On that day, I reminisced with friends and coworkers about the great, stupid, funny times we shared together. We talked about the weird cast of characters that have come and gone over the years. We talked about all the changes in management, employees, jobs, machines etc we’ve seen. Like a considerable chunk of our time spent working, we just told stories. These personal anecdotes will live on with us as long we can recall them.

But I wonder about how others we see this plant after it is converted into a mixed use space – its legacy. Actually, I wonder more about if people will look at it. We, as insiders, are the caretakers of its stories, memories, and legacy.

Weston Bakeries Development Proposal

I often look at the nearby converted factories on Carlaw Avenue and think about what they were like once upon a time: who worked there, what was a work day like, how did that change over time etc.. I wonder if people in the future will think in the same way about our factory on Eastern. They will have the (modified) physical structure still to consider, but what of the things they can’t get from gazing at the brick facade – the intangibles inside its walls? We, as workers, know those intangibles. We can tell stories about mechanization, race, sexual orientation, immigration, gender, management-worker relations, unionism – all as they played out in this 20th century manufacturing plant. As a student and follower of local history and Toronto’s industrial legacy, these inside stories become extremely fascinating to me.

Weston Bakeries Eastern Avenue

Back at Sears, I hear a three minute warning for shoppers. I wonder if it was a hard announcement to make. The giant doors have been closed save for one. I, along with the last few shoppers, pass through it, wondering about the next chapter in the building’s life.

Related Links

Toronto Star – Eaton Centre Sears closes its doors

Toronto Star – Chapters Runnymede closing, with Shoppers Drug Mart moving into heritage premises

Toronto Star – Book City’s flagship Annex store to close after almost 40 years

Toronto Star – World Biggest Bookstore closes February, sold to developer

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