S&R closing a great loss to Kingston

Department store’s demise signals ominous times ahead for locally-owned businesses

Jamie Swift
Jamie Swift
On Saturday Jun. 7, S&R fans and long-time shoppers gathered outside the store to celebrate 50 years of fond memories.
On Saturday Jun. 7, S&R fans and long-time shoppers gathered outside the store to celebrate 50 years of fond memories.

There’s a story about a hung-over University of Waterloo varsity basketball player who fell asleep just as the team bus was pulling out of town. They were headed for a game against the University of Western Ontario.

He woke up as the team hit the big box sprawl surrounding London, Ontario. He groggily looked out the window at the grim ketchup strip—fast food outlets, car dealers and carpet outlets.

“How come we’re still in Waterloo?” the befuddled fellow asked his seat mate.

What does this droll tale of could-be-anywhere North American cityscape have to do with the recent closure of Kingston’s popular S&R Discount Department Store? And how does it relate to Kingston city politics?

Well, one reason the demise of this independent, downtown business prompted a remarkable outpouring of civic sorrow—bordering on grief—was that the S&R was authentic. Unique. It could not have been anywhere. It was distinctively of this place, its limestone home featuring 19th-century arched windows.

The S&R was cluttered and funky. You could walk there from campus, bringing back bargains on everyday household needs—everything from shampoo to sardines, parkas to socks. When it went out of business in its 50th year, the store in the hammer-dressed stone building still had an elevator whose operator, a Buffalo Bill lookalike, even has a Facebook group his admirers started months before.

The S&R was a crucial local business—one of the operations that made downtown Kingston work. Unlike the fashionable boutiques and restaurants that dot the downtown, it catered to most everyone. While you can still get a life preserver for your Chihuahua downtown, you can no longer get a reasonably-priced bra—and get it fitted by a savvy saleswoman—at the same time you pick up paint, roller and brush for your new apartment.

Now that the S&R is gone, Queen’s students will be in the same boat as their counterparts in London and Waterloo. They’ll need either a car or a long bus trip to big box land if they want all the basics they need to equip their apartments.

In all the laments for the S&R and what it meant for a healthy, diverse downtown, one of the words seldom mentioned was Wal-Mart.

But you would need the social awareness of a parsnip not to see the connection between the clear cutting of independent retailers like S&R and the rise of the big box behemoths like Wal-Mart and Lowe’s.

I teach a fourth-year course called Critical Perspectives on Business within the Queen’s School of Business. One focus of the course is relentless corporate concentration and the demise of locally-based business. The course pack contains articles I wrote about the S&R before it closed.

Over the years I have asked students to stroll over to the S&R to look around. After that there’s a class called “Survivor.” Last winter, S&R owner Michael Robinson helped out with a guest lecture explaining just how hard it is to survive as an independent department store in the age of Wal-Mart. Five months later his business was gone.

The heartfelt remarks by Mr. Robinson, a self-effacing fellow, provoked one of those vibrant discussions in which students who rarely spoke up did, indeed, speak up. Teaching Assistant Sean Tucker, finishing his PhD in organizational behavior, remarked that it was one of the most engaging campus discussions he’d attended in a couple of years.

One of the points of the course is to get students to think about the relationship between market forces and society. This always morphs into discussions of the way that business and politics interact—once called “political economy” before economics got all technical and technocratic.

Last winter, I started the semester by handing out an article that was, however unwittingly, connected to the imminent demise of the S&R. I had written a column in the Kingston Whig-Standard about a hot local controversy: City Council turned down a proposal by American hardware giant Lowe’s—in partnership with Kingston’s powerful Springer interests—to build a home improvement megastore on a tract of Springer-owned land in the suburbs.

I cited the carcasses of small businesses that clutter North America’s retail landscape; the way category killers like Lowe’s can devastate small, local operators who spend money on local services such as accounting and advertising.

Wal-Mart’s developer of choice—named Smart!Centre without apparent irony—recently did a study of local retailers.

Wal-Mart wanted to build a megastore close to downtown. The analysis Smart!Centre submitted not only downplayed the existence of S&R, but it completely ignored the unionized downtown retailer. Kingston’s politicians nixed the Wal-Mart bid.

When I handed my opinion piece to the students, I also gave them an outraged letter former suburban politician Carl Holmberg had written to the Whig in response. Mr.Holmberg said he was “astounded” that I was “actually teaching our future generations, at Queen’s School of Business, no less…”

Mr. Holmberg is perfectly entitled to his views on academic freedom. They, too, prompted a lively discussion in Commerce 407—as did his views on giving the likes of Lowe’s a free hand hereabouts.

Recently, Mr. Holmberg and a small claque of like-minded former and current Kingston politicians started a move to make Kingston’s City Council less democratic.

Maybe they’re worried the current Council isn’t friendly enough to developers and big outfits like Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and the Springer interests. Perhaps they really do believe abolishing direct local election based on a ward system in favour of elections at large will make things more democratic.

What’s clear is their petition to radically alter the way City Council gets elected makes no mention of democracy—or of accountability.  It does, however, say that by “dissolving existing wards” city council will work more “efficiently.”  In the end, the effort to abolish direct neighborhood representation was resoundingly defeated by a skeptical majority of City Councillors who took note of a remarkable petition bearing the names of more than 4,000 citizens opposed to the proposal from Mr. Holmberg and his colleagues.

There is no doubt an argument that driving to a big box store and idling at the drive-thru on the way may in rather narrow ways be seen as more efficient than strolling or cycling to a store like the S&R.

Then again, I always liked the S&R. Its uniqueness will be missed. Should Kingston welcome a Lowe’s or another Wal-Mart—with their cookie cutter, could-be-anywhere sameness—the implications for our remaining, locally-owned survivors will be ominous. And if we move to abolish local voting, it will pave the way for more influence by big interests at City Hall.

That building, by the way, was designed by George Browne—the same colonial architect who did the old S&R building.

A Kingston writer and Queen’s School of Business professor, Jamie Swift is the author of 11 books on politics, corporate power and the environment.

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