I was going down memory lane with a friend a few weeks ago, recollecting childhood days growing up on the outskirts of Summerside.
All of us have done this sort of thing from time to time.
Like most small towns of its day, Summerside had a Water Street, or its equivalent, a downtown hub of department stores, grocery stores, smaller speciality shops, restaurants, barber shops, banks, and professional offices.
My mother did her grocery shopping at Holman’s, and Biscuits, the delivery man brought them to our house at Glover’s Shore. Shoes were bought at Sheen’s, other clothing at Smallman’s, fancier stuff at MacKenzie’s House of Fashion, flowers at Kelly’s, and books at Mrs Bell’s shop on Spring Street.
I picked up the latest copy of Famous Monster magazine at the news stand on the corner of Granville and Water, my first 45 record at MacAusland’s and ice cream at the Ideal Dairy on Central, across from the Capital Theatre.
All of these small local businesses were owned and operated by our neighbours, families who resided in the town and some of their children were school friends of mine.
It was a self-reinforcing local retail economy in which profits remained in the community and though product variety and choice didn’t rival the larger centres, the two locally owned department stores, Holman’s and Smallman’s, worked hard to keep up with the latest trends and styles.
These local businesses prided themselves on quality and customer service.
There was a very human scale and character to Water Street at that time. It was a street for pedestrians, bicycles and people going about their daily business. It was also a gathering place to socialize on the street or maybe at Smallman’s snack bar where the biggest and most delicious milkshakes could be found.
If you stand on the corner of Water and Spring Streets today, near what used to be the main entrance to the Holman Department Store, the words “Holman’s Where Old Friends Meet” are still memorialized in the sidewalk.
But few people meet on Water Street these days.
The brick paver sidewalks and fancy lighting, and a transformation of the Holman’s building into a suite of government offices, suggest a valiant effort by municipal leaders to revitalize the downtown, but Water Street is really a dead place.
With the closure two years ago of Crocket’s Jewellers, all of the old family retail business are now gone and there is little to draw anyone to what is left of Summerside’s downtown.
The business activity has been relocated to the north end of Granville Street, and is dominated by two strip malls and several large box stores, including Walmart, Sobey’s, Superstore, and Canadian Tire. Most of the smaller retail businesses in the mall areas are national chain outlets.
If you put your ear to the sidewalk along north Granville Street these days, you can hear the whoosh of money being sucked out of the community.
This is the story of one little town. Of course it is not unique. Beginning in the 1960s, smaller communities throughout North America have seen their downtowns obliterated by the emergence of shopping malls and box stores.
I remember the vigorous shopping mall debates of the early 1980s, the Shopping Mall Moratorium of Conservative Premier J Angus MacLean and the misadventures of Charlottetown developer Frank Johnston.
Premier MacLean’s approach was true and noble, but a little like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke, and in the end, we gave up on our local businesses and swarmed to the indoor malls like flies to honey.
The Charlottetown downtown business district still has a slight pulse but box store retail development continues to spread outwards and across the bridge into Stratford.
Living as I do in Hunter River and with Sears, Kent, Sobeys, Canadian Tire, Tim Horton’s and the Liquor store all situated together just beyond the Arterial Highway in Winsloe, there are few reasons for me to go into downtown Charlottetown.
I usually avoid the downtown of our capital city simply because there is nowhere to park during the daytime. As a city parking attendant confessed to me one time, most of the meters are being fed by employees of local businesses and offices and you have to do a lot of circling and waiting to find one.
Big box retailers come in several flavours. There are the so-called category killers like Best Buy and Toys “R” Us that focus on one kind of merchandise, the discounters like Wallmart that sells a broader range of goods, and the warehouse clubs like Costco.
We have most of these on the Island now, excepting Costco, welcomed by city officials anxious for the tax revenue but indifferent to other realities such as the minimum wages paid to employees and no commitment to the community.
The American States of Vermont and California have led the fight against big box store development with varying success, but for Prince Edward Island the horse is already out of the barn.
Islanders can’t wait to roam the aisles of Princess Auto and dream about the day when they can purchase a membership to their very own Costco.
A month or so ago my friend, Perry Williams and I took a little trip over to Amherst, Nova Scotia, to get a firsthand look at the operations of the amazing little community radio station CFTA.
As we walked down the main street of that once vibrant town at the head of Chignecto Basin, we came to the beautiful old three-storey brick Margolian’s department store, built in 1906 and operated since 2004 as Dayle’s.
The window displays were empty and the sign said it all, CLOSING.
Driving out Albion Street towards the highway, you pass by the new Walmart.