Oral histories - Excerpts - English
Jack Carson Worked for Zellers on the East Coast
Zellers moved me to Montreal from Guelph to open a store in at Moorgate shopping centre, which has since closed. It was set up as a regular store with cash registers on all the counters and at the last minute they decided it was going to be self serve. It was the first self-serve in Canada. So we just took two counters out, which didn't facilitate matters very well there was no place for carts or anything else. The new store opened as self serve in 1956. Before then Zellers stores had cash registers at every single counter, instead of a big row of registers at the exit. There was a cash register at the grocery counter and at the meat counter, which meant an awful lot of staff.
At the store's big opening I looked outside and there was a big Bentley pulling up in front and the founder of Zellers, Walter Zellers came in. The opening was pretty hectic, as most openings are, and we didn't have enough cash registers and the lines went to the back of the store. Mr. Zellers stood there talking to me for 15 to 20 minutes. Even the Vice President of operations was operating the jewellery counter cash register and you can imagine the confusion (laughs) it was all hands on deck. They started calling it quick service rather than self-service. Mr. Zellers' only comment was "you call this quick service-- there is a line to the back of the store!"
Zoom-a-Top toy, ca. 1949
Bill Miles began his Zellers career at the age of 12 in 1949
My name is Bill Miles and back when I started with Zellers I was called Billy Miles. That's how most of the old people in the company would know me. My first start with Zellers was back in the Easter holidays of 1949 when I was a school kid in Hamilton in grade 7. I just went into the Zellers store, store number 7, downtown Hamilton, as kids wander around department stores on days off school and I saw the assistant store manager, a fellow named Gordon Lewis.
Gord Lewis I knew a little bit because he went to the same church as my parents went to so we knew each other by sight a little bit. And anyway I saw Mr. Lewis, said hello, and he was putting out an end feature of a toy called Zoom-A-Top, a little new toy they had got in and he was doing a feature end display and he showed me how to work it and I started playing with it and customers came along and started buying a few of these things. So then, he's sort of an abrupt sort of a guy, and after a few, maybe 10 minutes or so he told me to get the hell out of the store, get out of here, go on home, you can't hang around here and by the time I got home my mother said "I don't know what you were doing but Mr. Lewis wants you dressed up in a suit, your face washed up and cleaned up and put in a suit - kids wore suits to Sunday school in those days - and get back to the store."
So I went back to the store and by then they had the thing all set up and they set me up on a little milk carton, or a milk case, and I started demonstrating the toy. They sold very well. That was Thursday of the Easter holidays. When I went in on Friday morning Louie Penick, who was also interviewed for this session - Louie was our window dresser - and he had done up a whole window display and the second day they put me in the window to demonstrate these toys. They sold well on Saturday, Friday and Saturday and by Saturday afternoon we were sold out of them so they sent me to the stockroom to sweep the floors.
The next weekend, they didn't have any left but the small store on Ottawa Street, store 24 at Ottawa and Barton, in Hamilton had not sold very many of these tops so I was sent to store 24 and after selling those for the weekend we sold out. And it turns out their janitor had just had a heart attack so they asked me would I come in after school on Monday, to sweep the floor that night, come in after Monday and sweep the floors which I did. I continued doing that because he never came back to work and I swept the floors.
Anyway, that's how I started with Zellers from the toy demonstrator to the sweeping to the stockrooms. So I continued working at Zellers part-time all the way through elementary school, through high school, Central Secondary in Hamilton, and then my parents had wanted me to be a chartered accountant but I did not want to be an accountant and I thought to work for Zellers would be fun. So anyway I decided instead of taking chartered accountancy I went to McMaster who was just starting a course in commerce. So I went the first year of the commerce course at Mac and graduated with a commerce degree four years later, all the time [phone starts ringing] working for Zellers part-time and when I finally graduated I then joined Zellers Management Training Program as one of the early waves of university graduates that were hired. Up until then they didn't hire very many university graduates. So in 1959 I graduated Mac and started full time so I had 10 years of part-time work.
J.P. Laurier in a store, ca. 1940s
Jean Paul Laurier, formerly of the Raw Fur Department in Montreal
Before I went to Fur School, I had already handled a lot of furs for 2 years, you know. There I learned a lot of new things about fur, discovered new types of fur: the red fox from Quebec, and the Western red fox, both very different from one another. For example, in those days you could pay $50 for a red fox pelt caught on the North Shore while an identical one caught around here, I'm not talking about the Abitibi area, but here, around Montreal, was probably worth $20. It has changed over the years, just like for mink.
I learned about the quality of fur and the type of fur. Some felt like silk to the touch. Without wishing to brag about myself, I tell you that in the end I was able to pick the beaver pelts without even touching them.
J.P. Laurier with fur, ca. 1943
You would take the pelt and a guy, it could be a farmer or a trapper, would tell me: "Hey, this is the beaver I caught this year..." Then I'd say: "No way you caught this beaver this year; it's a two year old beaver." He'd argue: "Never in my life!" Then I'd say: "Lying isn't a sin, but it will take you nowhere in business." We were able to tell if a pelt was from this year, last year or two years ago. Simply by the colour of the fur.
Rosaire Robillard on the job, 1953
Rosaire Robillard, a Morgan's employee for 40 years. Part of a family that has 109 years of service over three generations. Hired in 1945 as a driver's helper, he finished as head of distribution for the Montreal Bay and Simpson's stores.
I met my uncle who was a very influential man. He asked me where I wanted to work. But I didn't really know what I wanted... When you come from the country, you aren't very familiar with the public. So he suggested working in the delivery area instead of in the store, like he had first thought. He took me to the manager and introduced me like this: "I'm bringing you a good fellow." He didn't really know me, but since I was his nephew... The manager, a Mr. Danskin, was a Scotsman. My uncle asked him to do him a favour and hire me. He said: "OK, no problem". That was it. He made me sign a piece of paper, then he asked me: "Do you speak English? I answered: "A little bit"... In those days, we all said "a little bit". But with time, I learned because I knew a little bit of English. Then I had to go and get my uniform. They owned a laundry on the other side of the street. That's were they washed all the sheets they used to cover the goods.
Rosaire Robillard and his art, 2003
They gave us two uniforms. This way, when one was dirty, we could wear the other one and bring the dirty one to the laundry. When we started to work, we were given two uniforms. With gold buttons and a police cap. Morgan's employees commanded a lot of respect. In Montreal, we were always "number 1", as we say!
June Moore started at Zellers in 1948
I remember being on the hosiery counter, which is where I started to work. It was the first counter in, and we had - this was just after the war ended, and things were still not very plentiful - and we had some kind of a sweater, for young people, that was popular at that time. And we had so many of them, I think maybe 2 dozen or something, and they were at the end. Before we opened, there were people, just women, lined up to get these sweaters and I imagine they were for their daughters because they were not what older people would wear. And when they opened the door, [laughter] they just grabbed and the counter was bare just like that! They just came in and grabbed. I can still see those women running in [laughter]. I think they would have killed for one of the sweaters. And they just grabbed them and then after they looked at them you know, like sizes and that, and they were changing with somebody else.
A northern store, ca. 1943
Wulf Tolboom, a long time employee of HBC in the north
We had a store, and the idea was, we traded furs, bought their furs in exchange for supplies the trappers needed. The supplies, of course, were very limited, flour, ammunition, tea, sugar, and traps. There was no currency exchanged, whatsoever. We used tokens. Each pelt was worth so many tokens and as I traded, we took the tokens off the table. I remember the first tokens that came in; they were called 'Beaver tokens' because they represented a beaver pelt. In the arctic you don't have beavers. But they brought in those tokens, and started a token system, it was just strictly a skin system, one dollar a skin, you might say. But basically, as tokens came along they tried to make them like our currency: nickels, dimes, quarters, in that respect. But in tin tokens, so the trappers didn't have to take them home. They never took them home, they always left them with us. Whatever was left was a credit on the books. And when they came down the next time we'd ask them how many they'd want to trade and we'd lay out the tokens. You could be up to 100 or 200 tokens, depending on how many skins they had. Sometimes they'd have an awful lot. And needless to say, when they brought in a large amount of skins, they wouldn't trade it all. So they left it as a credit on our books.
Listen to this excerpt.
Diana Wessels, 2004
Diana Wessels worked for Simpsons
They used to sell canoes in Simpsons. We bought a canoe, and this friend of ours bought a canoe. And he used to do these canoe trips. He was a guide in Algonquin Park, when he was a young man. He had a certain way he had to test the canoe. So, he threw the canoe up over on his shoulders and marched down the aisle with the canoe on his shoulders. And this is, you know, how you move a canoe. And this is what he did just to find the weight. Yes. In the middle of Simpsons, that's what he did. He bought the canoe and we still use it today.