Toronto

As final Zellers stores close, former employees swap memories, memorabilia

The final two Zellers stores will shut down later this month. But an active community of former employees hopes to keep the doomed department store remembered through memorabilia and online.

Staffers reminisce as last 2 stores shut down in Ottawa and Etobicoke, Ont.

The final two Zellers stores will shut down later this month. But an active community of former employees hope to keep the department store remembered online — by sharing memories and memorabilia like this toy truck. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Zellers is pulling the plug on its final two stores in Ontario this month, but Richard Hall doesn't want it to die.

He's rounded up a museum-worthy haul of Zellers memorabilia in his dining room, spilling into his kitchen. There's flashy branded buttons, bathroom key chains, even a fire extinguisher from one of the doomed department stores. 

His wife calls it hoarding. He calls it collecting.

Hall spent 35 years employed by Zellers, working at 11 different stores. Today, he relies on his memorabilia to reminisce.

"Every segment of my life, I think back of what store I was in," he said. "It's weird but it's kind of a measurement of time."

The last two Zellers locations in Etobicoke, Ont., and Ottawa will close on Jan. 26, according to Hudson's Bay Co., the retailer's parent company.

Richard Hall somehow ended up with the key chains for the bathroom keys from one of the Zellers he worked at. 'I was probably supposed to give those to somebody to put the key to the bathroom on and it ended up in my things.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Hall's memorabilia spans his entire dining room. He's got signed hockey sticks, limited edition bottles of Hudson's Bay Co. scotches, multiple copies of the same Zellers flyers — all in mint condition. 

And this is after he purged the collection.

Perhaps his most prized possession is a gift he was given: A framed copy of a newspaper from 1945, just after the Second World War ended, containing an ad from the original Zellers location in London, Ont. The page celebrates the "glorious day of victory," while also being dominated by a lengthy spread on Adolf Hitler's "mad career," complete with swastika imagery.

"This isn't about Hitler. This is about the Zellers," he assures. "I point that out to everyone that I show: I say, 'No, I'm not a Hitler fan. I'm a Zellers fan.'"

Among Hall's prized possessions is this post-war Zellers newspaper ad from a page in the London Free Press in 1945. Walter P. Zeller founded the first Zellers store in London, Ont., which dates back to 1928. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Met his wife at Zellers

Hall started at Zellers when he was 15, working his way up to general manager of marketing, where he ended his career in 2013. That's when most Zellers were closing down or converting to now-defunct Canadian Target locations.

Along the way, he met his wife. She was working at another department store, Towers, when Zellers took it over.

Richard and Maria Hall met at Zellers and have been married for 28 years. They say many couples met at the department store. They joke they once had a New Year's Eve party with four other couples from Zellers — and every couple had a baby nine months later. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"I was asked to take the assistant manager from Towers under my wing, and so I did. And we've been married 28 years," he said. "I took the instructions literally."

Maria Hall remembers how Richard relentlessly tried to woo her. She worked at Store No. 64, so he sent her 64 balloons, 64 roses — and then a limo to the store.

"Isn't that crazy? The store was like, 'What is going on, Maria? Like, what is going on with this guy?'," she recalled.​​

Zellers stores, she said, started many relationships.

Hall kept a few buttons, including this one from Toyland. He recently purged his memorabilia, getting rid of several stuffed Zeddy bears, Zellers' signature mascot. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

When Target came in, Richard and Maria Hall both lost their jobs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Richard kept the letter employees received when Zellers made the announcement that the U.S. retailer was taking over.

Target spent about $1.8 billion acquiring leases for 189 Zellers locations across Canada in 2011, though the move north of the border turned out to be a disaster: The last Canadian Target store closed its doors in 2015 and the company lost billions.

"Our lives are much better and it was a good thing," Hall said of losing his job. "It was a catalyst to go do something different after being in the same company for so long."

The final two Zellers stores will close January 26. The CBC's Haydn Watters sifted through memories and memorabilia with former employees of the chain who have been busy reminiscing. 4:47

'It's like working for family'

A handful of Zellers stores remained open, ultimately outlasting Target.

That includes the Etobicoke location, in Toronto's west end, which has seen hours-long lineups over the past few weeks, with shoppers snaking around the store, hungry for sales.

The final two locations are a bit different than other, traditional Zellers that Canadians may remember, Hall said. They instead liquidate the Bay's leftover inventory.

Lines snaked around Zellers in Etobicoke, in Toronto's west end, as shoppers jockeyed for deep discounts ahead of its closing on Jan. 26. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

But the closing at the end of the month still means the Zellers name will be officially gone.

"I think only us employees that have worked there can actually understand that, 'cause it's hard to articulate how important it was to people," he said.

Many people are active on a Facebook group called "If you ever worked for Zellers," where store and corporate employees from around the country reminisce. News of the last two closings has spurred a flurry of memories.

The group was started in 2013 by Brenda Scott, who worked at a Zellers store in Huntsville, in Ontario's Muskoka region. She wanted a way to stay in touch with colleagues as the stores were first closing and said the group has filled that void.

More than 4,500 employees have joined her group since.

Brenda Scott started a Facebook group for former Zellers employees as a way to stay connected. In addition to sharing memories, it functions as a place to share employee pension and severance information, as well as to post death notices. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"You work for a Zellers, it's like working for family," she said.

Scott, who now lives in Barrie, Ont., travelled down to the Etobicoke location earlier this month, wanting to say goodbye to the chain. She watched as crowds lined up in front of the store, waiting to get in before it had even opened.

She said it made her feel upset — and longing for a Canadian company to shop at.

"I'm pretty sure Walter [P. Zeller] is looking down, watching everybody, and saying, 'This isn't necessary,'" she said. 

"It's the end of an era. It really is. Being the end of an era makes a lot of people who worked there sad."

Hall kept five copies of the final Zellers flyer, seen at the bottom of this stack. He notes the 60 per cent off sales on sweaters and flannel. 'You don’t get that on Amazon.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.