Shopkeeper Blues: The End of Montreal Retail?

In 1916, there was a revolution in retail shopping. The Piggly Wiggly grocery store was opened in Memphis. Before the Piggly Wiggly, shops kept their goods behind the counter. If you walked in and wanted to buy something you’d tell the staff what you wanted, and they would bring it to you.

Colin McGregor  File: Society

Not at the Piggly Wiggly. Customers selected their own goods from the shelves, and paid the cashier on their way out. Their goods were cheaper, because the Piggly Wiggly needed fewer employees. After the Piggly Wiggly, retail was never the same.

Decades later, another retail revolution happened right here in Montreal – our “Underground City” was the toast of the world. Traveling in the 1980s, from Australia to Europe, say “Montreal” and the two things people knew about were the badly-planned Olympics and the world’s largest Underground City. School children were shown films of the shopping concourse below Place Ville Marie and the tunnels and Metro lines linking it to Place Bonaventure and other malls, not to mention apartment buildings, gyms, and even schools. To be able to walk a mile underground on a cold day made Montrealers the envy of rain and snow haters around the globe. Shopkeepers along Sainte Catherine complained that people only visited their stores when the weather was nice, and that soon they’d have to close their doors.

From December to April, shoppers browsed in the tunnels beneath our streets. And when Stanley Cup-type riots erupted, it was the above-ground shops that suffered most. Revelers armed with bricks would always make a beeline for “Splash,” an unfortunately named clothing store on Stanley and Ste-Catherine with a giant picture window full of modern fashions, and scream, “Smash Splash! Smash Splash!” Eventually, Splash reduced the size of their display window, out of fear.

Banks were no exception:  one enterprising bank robber would smash the street-level picture window of a different downtown bank every Friday afternoon with a bowling ball, when cash receipts for the week were being counted. He’d leave behind his bowling ball, always custom-made. He was never caught. Mall banks had no bowling ball fears.

Today’s retailers are facing different threats – ones that this time may lead to their extinction. Online shopping is one. Giant mall retail outlets constitute another. A final threat is condo-ization. On Greene Avenue in Westmount, where my family ran a street-front travel agency for decades, it is no longer rational to run a retail outlet: condo blocks have pushed real estate prices too high, bankrupting well-established shops. And even below-ground stores can’t compete with the wide selection, the ease and the cheapness of shopping over the Internet.

This time there is a real chance that the friendly neighborhood store may go the way of the woolly mammoth. Empty urban storefronts bear witness to this danger. Support your local shopkeeper.

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