Everything must go: S&R closes its doors

Last month, the city bade a fond farewell to downtown discount department store and Kingston landmark

An empty building is all that remains of the S&R department store, which called 27 Princess St. home for 40 years.
An empty building is all that remains of the S&R department store, which called 27 Princess St. home for 40 years.
A back-to-school advertisement for S&R from the Sept. 10, 1974 issue of the Journal.
A back-to-school advertisement for S&R from the Sept. 10, 1974 issue of the Journal.
Eric Lee
Eric Lee

As Queen’s students, it’s hard to picture downtown Kingston without many of its beloved shops and restaurants . But, many Queen’s alumni and long-time residents remember Kingston in the 1950s as a different city. Retail shops stopped at Princess and King streets, Ontario Street was alive with daily trains and Confederation Hotel was just a twinkle in an architect’s eye.

Although Kingston’s shopping area has seen many closures and grand openings, the S&R Department Store, which closed its doors at the end of June, stood as a part of Kingston’s history. Located at 27 Princess Street, S&R once served double-duty as a home and a store. Commercial Mart, as it was then called, was built in 1812 and designed by George Browne, the architect also responsible for Kingston’s City Hall building. After many years of commercial use, the building became the Wormwith Piano factory, and was later purchased by the federal government for warehouse and office space. In 1959, Percy Robinson and Morrie Smith (The “S” and “R” of S&R) bought the building and passed it down to various family members until the store’s current owner, Michael Robinson, announced its closure in late April.

Fomerly home to 80 employees, the 60,000-square foot, four-storey building is listed for sale with DTZ Barnicke.  Before S&R was founded, Robinson and Smith operated a menswear store on King Street called Berlin’s. As the 1950s drew to an end, the two men decided to try something different.

Michael Robinson told the Journal the building caught his family’s eye when the federal government put the then-abandoned building up for sale in 1960.

“My father and uncle decided they wanted to buy it,” Robinson said. “Everyone thought they were crazy, but they wanted a retail store.” Although some Kingston residents thought the space would serve the community best as a parking lot, the store opened in August of 1960.

“The entire city showed up for the opening day,” Robinson said.

Robinson said his family initially had difficulty with the sheer size of the new space.

“We didn’t know how to fill it,” he said. “We had hundreds of bunks of the same thing. ... There was no continuity of supply. But things changed. ... We evolved from an item, limited number, never knowing what you’re going to find to a regular department store with regular lines.”

In its early years, S&R’s prices topped out at 99 cents, with a mixed inventory and unreliable stock. Robinson said the store eventually evolved into a top-quality department store, a claim supported by its regular lines--fitness giants Adidas and Nike among them.

Robinson began working at his family’s store as a stock boy when he was 10 years old.

“I always knew I wanted to work here,” he said. “In the end, I guess I accomplished my goal and I enjoyed working here.”

Robinson said the only time he left S&R was when he went away to complete his MBA at the University of Toronto. In 1975, Morrie Smith died and Robinson returned to take things over.

Robinson said the recession, a decrease in sales with an increase in competition, and a decline in Kingston’s population were contributing factors in the store’s closure.

“The pie was getting smaller and smaller and we weren’t able to make the kind of structural changes that would have been necessary to be more competitive,” he said. “What gave the store its charm and uniqueness is what probably hurt us in the end.” Robinson said the reason S&R has prospered over the years is the work ethic and quality of his staff.

“Of long-term employees,” he said. “We’ve been very lucky. They go out of their way to help people.” Robinson’s employees are now weighing their options, with some finding new employment, and others returning to school.

Although Robinson said he isn’t sure what he’s going to do now, he knows he’ll remain involved in the community.

“I’m definitely going to still be in Kingston,” he said. “I need to keep busy but I haven’t got a clue as to what lies ahead.”

Robinson said with his store’s closure, the department store void downtown will mean former S&R patrons will frequent big box stores on the city’s west end.

“After being such an important part of downtown, I hate to think that all these sales are going to go outside downtown.”

Longtime S&R employee Dawn Marans said the day Robinson announced his intention to close was an emotional one.

“Most of the staff spent the whole day crying,” she said. “I know life has to go on, but this place has been a big part of our lives.” Marans said S&R has been a home away from home for many of its staff.

“We’re all losing part of our family,” she said. “A lot of us spend more time here than our own homes.” Marans said she’s been working for S&R since 1979. She started working for S&R in the store’s elevator on a temporary basis before being offered a full-time position.

“I walked in off the street and they hired me on the spot,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of education but I’ve been able to work myself up to the manager of toys and linens. In the last six months, I’ve done the buying and managing of the shoe department.” During her 29 years at the store, Marans has gotten to know many of the staff who work there—including Robinson.

“I think Michael’s a great guy,” she said. “I’ve seen him many times over my years reach into his own pocket and give cash to staff that can’t make their rent. He’s a really good guy with a big heart.” Although Marans has been offered other jobs in the past, she said she never thought about leaving S&R.

“I love working here,” she said. “It’s frustrating sometimes and I have been offered other jobs but I never took them. I never wanted to leave.” Marans said she also contributed to the store by helping put in new cash registers.

“I brought us from the 1900s to the 2000s,” she said. “The store has gone through a lot of changes. We used to be called ‘Shit and Rubbish’ because you never knew what you were going to get.”

Marans said she will continue to work in retail in her post S&R life.

“I’m moving on,” she said. “I’ve been offered a position in another store, in the toy department. It’ll be a new challenge.” Finding a new owner for the building will be a challenge.

Doug Ritchie, managing director of downtown Kingston’s Business Improvement (B.I.A) Association said he’s hopeful someone else will fill S&R’s large shoes.

“We’ve had meetings with realtors already,” he said. “Maybe a retail restaurant on the main floor, a boutique hotel or residential above. ... There’s a wonderful future for the building.” Ritchie said S&R’s success was the result of dedication and perseverance.

“It flourished for many years beyond what downtown professionals would have guessed,” he said. “The downtown of 25 years ago had Steadman’s and Stacey’s. We would have had a dozen or more discount department stores ... they all departed as malls and big box stores, taking over the role of mass distribution of regularly consumed goods ... but S&R kept plugging away.” During Robinson’s time as chairman of the B.I.A in the mid-1980s, Ritchie said the city put on its first major concert in market square.

“Michael was a major sponsor of the event and it was raining so bad that day with lightning and thunder,” he said. “We had to move [the event] to the memorial centre hockey area.” Ritchie said Robinson’s move to close the store was a good step.

“He was ready to retire,” he said. “He didn’t have anyone in the family interested in carrying on.” Ritchie said he empathizes with the community’s emotional response to the loss of the store.”Everyone had favourite stories and stuff that they purchased at the ‘SNAR,” he said. “A lot of people got emotional and nostalgic.”

Becky Turner,16, is one of those people. She said she’s been visiting the department store since she was one month old.

Turner, whose family has been driving to their Napanee cottage from Toronto every other weekend for years, said they made a special point of visiting the store on each trip.

“S&R was the highlight, every single time,” she said. “Our weekends were planned around the closing time of S&R. We wouldn’t leave the building until five minutes before closing.” Growing up, Turner said she always looked forward to seeing a woman who worked in the shoe department.

“I still see her there every time we go,” she said. “She watched me grow up.” Another favourite S&R memory for Turner was Eric Lee, better known more as “the elevator man”.

“The elevator man was always dressed up in a suit,” she said. “You knew you were in S&R when you saw him.”

Even Turner’s high school teacher, a Queen’s grad, never forgot the elevator man, she said,“I said to him, ‘Oh, you went to Queen’s? Do you know S&R and the guy in the elevator?’ and that was the one thing he remembered.” Betsy Donald, a professor and chair of undergraduate studies in the department of geography at Queen’s, said she doesn’t know what she’ll do without the store since she’s been doing her Christmas shopping there for years.

Donald said also shopped at S&R for less-conventional items.

“Something came over me the night my eldest daughter lost her first tooth,” she said. “I asked her, ‘What do you think the tooth fairy should bring you?’ and she told me she wished for ‘a pink dress with flowers and matching hair clips’. Of course S&R was the place to go. My daughter found the outfit under her pillow the

next morning.” The store was a necessary part of Kingston, Donald said.

“It was a unique urban place that contributed to the social fabric of Kingston,” she said. “Where people would come together for a common purpose—socks, Tupperware or Halloween outfits.”

Donald said S&R was an “unassuming” store that contributed to the city’s personality.

“It’s the everyday urban places that build the character of a city,” she said. “It’s the everyday places that people love to adopt, and that’s what S&R really represented to the people of Kingston.”

Going up

Eric Lee, better known as “The S&R Elevator Guy,” is a bit of a local legend for fans of the now-defucnt local department store and anyone who visited its second floor. The Journal had the opportunity to speak with Lee about his time at the store and his post S&R life.

Where are you from?

I’m originally from Southern California. I moved to Toronto in the mid-1970s. I never experienced the winter before. It’s brutal. My mom’s from Winnipeg, so she’s used to the cold.

When did you start working at S&R?

I started there full-time in June 2003.

How did you get the job?

They fired the previous guy—apparently he was making inappropriate comments to the customers.

What’s your favourite S&R memory?

The terrific people that I met—especially Queen’s students who were bright and interesting. I can’t say enough about them.

How do you feel about the Facebook group devoted to you?

I didn’t know much about it until I met the family who started it. It was a really nice thing to do. They came in one day and told me they started the group and I shook their hands. It started off with 30 people. Now it has around 1300.

What’s your favourite S&R product?

The men’s clothing had pretty good discounts. The best department would have to be toys. It was unbelievable. All the customers said they’d never seen anything like it.

What will you miss most about S&R?

Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, I’ve never worked in a place with so many life long friends. Not just the customers, but the staff as well. We were a very close-knit community because we all went through the same thing.

What are you going to do now?

I’m not sure—probably going to enjoy the summer. I might get invovled with construction but I’ll definitely be staying in Kingston.

How did you feel when you found out S&R was closing?

We became suspicious when we heard that we cancelled our Christmas orders. We knew something was up. It was the 100% increase in property taxes. I think that was the final blow. We had a lot of regular customers who shopped at S&R their whole lives—grandparents, parents and their children. They told us how sad they were to see it close.

Do you have any hobbies?

I have a passion for collecting Hollywood Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s—I love Gary Cooper. I follow all politics, both American and Canadian. California is a very political state, so it stays in your blood.

What were your aspirations?

I always wanted to be an actor. I enjoyed the elevator so much because I was in front of people all the time.

What do you think Kingston will be like once S&R is gone?

It will definitely change the downtown—and not for the better. S&R created the spill-over effect. People would come to S&R and then go to other shops.

Do you have any nicknames?

‘California Boy’ and ‘The Original Beach Boy’

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