My Eaton’s was on Saint Catherine Street in Montreal. Where was yours?
Everyone of a certain age in Canada can answer that question, although nearly a generation has passed since the venerable chain, founded by Timothy Eaton, a Scotch-Irish immigrant fleeing a country wracked by famine, went bankrupt in 1997 and saw its remaining assets purchased by a competitor.
Eaton’s was supposed to always be because it had always been. Founded when Canada was still new, it grew along with the country itself, becoming the Trans-Canada store at a time when that was a phrase that captured the imagination. The world was bigger then.
As a boy, Bruce Kopytek travelled with his family on long car trips that took him through cities anchored by handsome family department stores. In Canada, the handsomest of all were the Eaton’s stores.
It is through those rose-coloured glasses that Kopytek approached his subject, assembling the 461 meticulously researched pages of Eaton’s The Trans-Canada Store.
That is not a bad thing. The last major book was the not-so-nice The Eaton’s, The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family, by business writer Rod McQueen, a former colleague at the National Post.
McQueen’s description of what went wrong at the chain was smart, well-written and pitiless — Chapter 11 was entitled Four Boys, One Brain — a reference to the perceived incompetence of the last Eatons to govern the enterprise.
Kopytek’s book provides an entirely different perspective. He was a fan and he is speaking to people who remember Eaton’s with fondness, those who worked there and those who shopped there.
He lingers on the beauty of the buildings and the products they sold, the innovations that drew customers through the doors and the character of the founder who cared deeply for the well-being of his employees.
Timothy Eaton was apprenticed at age 13 by his widowed mother to work in a shop during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland, where entire families were starving to death. He slept in the store and worked 14-hour days, an experience that would lead him to set reasonable work hours for his own employees.
He brought humanity to his business affairs.
He founded his first Toronto store in 1869, at 178 Yonge St. He banned bartering, still popular at the time, and credit. It was cash only, but he also introduced “Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded,” which wasn’t just a competitive edge, but a reflection of his staunch belief in honesty, integrity and good will.
Timothy insisted that “Eaton’s advertisements, and even the word of the salespersons, must be accurate and honest at all times when describing merchandise,” Kopytek writes.
The level of detail in the book will particularly please architects and city planners and history buffs. Kopytek clearly lays out the growth of the store and its manufacturing and catalogue arms, block by city block, in many major cities, including a section on the Winnipeg Eaton store and stores in smaller communities, including Moncton.
He follows the chain as it enters Quebec, building an exquisite Art Deco restaurant on the ninth floor of the store on Saint Catherine’s, all while weaving anecdotes from former shoppers and employees into the text.
He follows Eaton’s into the suburbs and describes the decline and, finally, the demise of one of Canada’s most beloved commercial enterprises.
The Eaton’s stores in Quebec were simply shuttered, leaving puzzled customers on the sidewalks and workers sharing the disastrous news.
If you ever worked for Eaton’s or shopped at Eaton’s and loved it then this book belongs in your library, and it belongs in every public library.
The history of Eaton’s was an integral part of Canadian history — the Eaton family, as Kopytek points out, was the closest Canada had to royalty. Despite that, it is hard to imagine someone will ever again as painstakingly and successfully pull together so much detail on the history of the chain.