Paul Wilson: A Sign Past Its Time – Farewell Five-and-Dime

The SS Kresge Company was a big player in the era of the five-and-dime. The Hamilton store was long ago taken over by bingo, but there's got to be a better use for all that empty space.
The Kresge chain was still at the top of its game when this picture of the store at King and Hughson was taken in 1960. (Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

Long ago, before the big box, the dollar store, the shopping mall, the five-and-dime was born. The big ones were Woolworth’s and Kresge’s.

Both had stores in downtown Hamilton. Woolworth’s was on the north side of King, half-a-block east of James. And Kresge’s was just steps from there.

Woolworth’s closed in 1990. The building is still there, all renovated, several storefronts below, offices above. All traces of the retail past are gone.

As for Kresge’s, well, this is another installment of our Sign Past Its Time feature. But you’re going to need to look hard for this one.

Start at the northwest corner of King and Hughson, and move slowly up the sidewalk, alongside the old Right House building. It helps if it’s a sunny day.

Peer across the street. And there on a slab of stone set into the brick wall, you’ll spot the outline of six big letters pulled down years ago – KRESGE.

That name was once on hundreds of stores across the continent. It belonged to Sebastien Spering Kresge, who got his start in 1899 in Detroit.

The downtown Hamilton store opened in 1930. An expansion to the rear took place in the 1940s. At one time, a hundred people worked there.

A store like Kresge’s was a rung below the department stores. It was a five-and-dime, after all, even though inflation meant the price of merchandise certainly climbed past five cents and 10 cents.

But it would be a mistake to compare Kresge’s to an outfit like Dollarama. Kresge’s had a long, marble lunch counter. And a cafeteria. And a kitchen and bakery upstairs, where they made the fancy white cakes that sat in the front window.

Kresge’s carried all manner of merchandise – and for years, a full 75 per cent of it was made in Canada.

SS Kresge himself made it to age 99. A few years before he died in 1966, the company opened its first discount store – Kmart. And one by one, the old Kresge stores began to fall.

They survived a little longer on this side of the border. The Kresge’s at University Plaza closed in April, 1994, and soon became a BiWay.

As for the downtown store, it was Canada’s last Kresge outpost. It closed July 27, 1994. It was but a shadow of its former self by then. The Richmond Room was pretty much a fries-and-gravy cafeteria, with small aluminum pie plates for ashtrays.

The building is vast, stretching right back to King William. Taxes were $117,000 a year. It went on the market at $2.8 million.

Perhaps in the late ’80s it might have fetched close to that. But the core was in meltdown. The Right House, Robinsons, Zellers, Woolworth’s had all closed. A pair of bingo barons got the the Kresge building in 1996 for $800,000.

And they’ve been running games there, day and night, ever since – breaking once a year for Christmas. Jim Montgomery has been a manager since the beginning.

He agrees to a tour and down the marble stairs we go. It’s high, dry and huge down here. This has got to be Hamilton’s biggest basement. Long lines of wooden stock shelves are still in place, all empty.

Montgomery is sure there were some big, dusty gold letters stacked up down here, a K on top. Up and down we go with the flashlight, but it looks as though that treasure is gone.

On one wall, under glass, there are the typewritten notes from the head of the Kresge construction department in Toronto, Sept. 27, 1946. It’s a finely-worded warning to maintenance staff at the Hamilton store:

"You are cautioned against the practice of your store help attempting to make promiscuous repairs and adjustments to equipment when your better judgement dictates the advisability of attention by a skilled mechanic."

Then Montgomery and I climb the stairs to the second floor. More vast, empty space. The bakery was here, the kitchen there, shiny tile still on the walls.

There is the big staff lounge, with great views of Gore Park. There was always a portrait of old SS Kresge up here. The office space includes two hefty safes. One bears the Kresge name, the other a notice that "This Safe Cannot Be Opened By Manager Alone."

Right in the heart of the core, so much space, so little purpose. It’s no secret what the slots have done to bingo. The crowds at Delta Bingo grow more sparse.

What’s next for the Kresge store? If Mohawk College ever decides to be part of the downtown renaissance, it should take a hike through the old five-and-dime.

A Sign Past Its Time pops up every now and then on CBC Hamilton. If you’ve spotted an old sign that needs its story told, do let me know. | @PaulWilsonCBC

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.