So You Think Eaton's was Just a Store?

So You Think Eaton's was Just a Store?

Posted on January 2 by Bruce Allen Kopytek
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When I was first faced with the prospect of writing a book about the history of a department store, I figured that it would be easy. I would tell about the stores, their size, their architectural style, and how their appearance changed over the years. However, since research also involves talking with real human beings, I learned that these sadly-missed institutions housed much more than just hosiery or pots and pans. They were the workplace, shopping center, and dining spot for real people, places where anything could happen. And it often did!


With encouragement from my wife, Carole, who said she "just loved" the quirky stories I uncovered about employees and the funny and interesting incidents that from time to time "made their day" or the tales of shoppers that revealed touching memories about their experiences with the store. Before long, I had a great angle with which to proceed: A department store was a place of life, and it could almost be brought back to life, long after societal changes made it anachronistic, merely by telling the stories of its people.


Eaton’s was no different. When I asked, via letters to the editor or questions on a Facebook page, if anyone had an interesting story to share, the floodgates opened, and my e-mail inbox became jammed with correspondence from Canadians only too willing to share reminiscences about how the great old institution affected them.


One couple, Maurice and Velma Van Beukenhout, sent pages about their history – growing up in rural Saskatchewan, they came to Regina to work at Eaton’s, met, and have been married for over 61 years. I have kept the synopsis of their story brief, so as not to spoil the charm of it for potential readers, but this delightful fairy tale doesn't end with the book.


I sent them a copy out of gratitude for their contribution, and about two weeks later, I received a text with a picture of this handsome couple in front of their Christmas tree, holding the package containing their book. They didn’t want to open it, because their four grown children would receive autographed copies as Christmas gifts – and tearing it open would spoil the surprise for their son, who brought it to them from the post office!


The story continues: two days later, the couple attended their Eaton’s retiree Christmas party and brought their book along. When they showed it to their friends and colleagues, they were treated like celebrities, and called up to the stage with the book that told all of Canada about the rôle Eaton’s played in their lives. The book itself barely survived the night, falling apart after a whole crowd paged eagerly through it.


The moral of the story is this: Eaton’s as a store may be gone, and many of its iconic buildings have disappeared from the Canadian landscape, but as long as memories like these continue to make people think about its human side, Eaton's most important “goods” will surely remain with us.