Second Floor, Men’s Wear

The Hudson’s Bay store in Downtown Winnipeg is closing soon. I heard the announcement today (October 4) on CBC Radio while I was driving, and I gasped. I didn’t gasp because the Hudson’s Bay Company is in financial difficulties, as many companies are in financial difficulties during this pandemic, the landscape of our “shopping” experience often changing and shifting. The Hudson’s Bay store in Winnipeg made regular appearances in my childhood and though I haven’t visited the store since my days at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, it still plays a significant role in my remembering.
My first memory of visiting the store as a child was the sight of baby carriages lined up “bumper to bumper” in front of the store along the sidewalk under the eave and against the window, the babies asleep, no matter the season, while their mothers shopped inside on the six floors of goods and services. The sight of that seemed odd then, and unthinkable now. The Hudson’s Bay store was my first experience riding in an elevator and the elevator in those early days came with an attendant. “Men’s wear,” the shoppers might say, and the attendant would press the button for the appropriate floor. “Shoes, please,” and another floor would be lit. It seemed like magic to me to step inside a box and arrive somewhere moments earlier you hadn’t been, a bit like time travel. And likewise, it was the first time I rode an escalator, a daring and risky business, the moving stairs threatening to gobble me up when we arrived at the top if I didn’t jump off at the appropriate time, and I have to say, I remember that sensation every single time I ride on an escalator even now.
A customer had to have cold hard cash to use the bathroom, each stall requiring the insertion of a coin in order to open. There was a way around that as customers held the door for another to use without benefit of coins. I think that was an early version of paying it forward. Aside of the means of transportation within the store, the highlight for me was dining at The Paddlewheel Buffet on the sixth floor. Eating out was a big deal when I was a kid and having fish n’ chips while my sister had a hot turkey sandwich at The Paddlewheel Buffet was a treat like no other and after our meal, my sister and I would throw pennies into the fountain and make our wishes, wishes that always involved a horse. The Paddlewheel Buffet had exactly that, a paddlewheel replica of that which was used to power the steamships bringing supplies to the Red River Colony before the arrival of the train.
The Hudson’s Bay Company built their flagship store on Portage Avenue, opening to the public in 1926. “It took 300 men, 120 teams of horses, 20 trucks, and two steam shovels to excavate 150,000 tons of earth to lay the foundation of the store; 151 concrete pillars were driven by hand down 52 feet to bedrock to support the building; and two million feet of lumber, 100,000 tons of concrete, and 125,000 cubic feet of Tyndall limestone went into the construction”, according to 
The building is now protected by its designation as a heritage site, despite the closing of retail operations. The building has been assessed with a value of $0.00 in light of the structural requirements to keep it erect. I would truly hate to see its destruction, though I can understand that option may be the only feasible solution. We in Canada have such few heritage sites, our history so shallow in terms of the larger world. It would be nice to cling to what we have, though I suppose in the end, it is merely concrete and limestone, serving the vision of a company that took a great deal from this part of the planet before we became a nation. My own nostalgia may have no bearing on the bigger picture, but I’m very happy remembering wandering the aisles and being awestruck, agreeing one of the very few times to wear my patent leather shoes and a dress, while on this auspicious outing in downtown Winnipeg, where shopping at the Hudson’s Bay store was something special.