A changing of the guard in the Madoc retail scene

Wilson's of Madoc

“Retirement sale,” proclaim the signs in the windows of Wilson’s of Madoc. And while I am sad to see the shop closing, I can report that there are good deals to be had until the end of July, when Ellen Wilson closes the doors for good.

Raymond and I had a busy Saturday this past weekend, spending most of it doing pretty much everything there was to do in the village of Madoc. (Don’t laugh! There’s lots to do in Madoc. Sometimes you just have to look a little bit.)

We started with an extremely interesting morning at the Madoc Public Library, at an event (which I wrote about here) focusing on the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. It was fascinating to look at the WWI artifacts that local residents had brought in, and to hear the stories about them.

But then it was on to something I’d been wanting to do for a few weeks, ever since I heard that the proprietor of the venerable shop Wilson’s of Madoc was going to start a well-earned retirement: we stopped in and had a chat with her.

Her name (as everyone in the Madoc area knows) is Ellen Wilson, and she is the daughter of the founders of the store, Robert and Hilda Wilson. I have happy memories from the time of my childhood at the Manse of visiting their shop – which sold gifts and also paint and wallpaper – and admiring all the pretty and useful things in it. In fact, a decorative teapot that I bought for my mother at Wilson’s once upon a time was still being used  by my parents until not all that many years ago, when it must finally have broken after about four decades of daily service.

It was delightful reminiscing with Ellen about the shop’s history. She told us about how, when she and her sister were in high school, they would get to go to Toronto when her parents travelled there to buy stock for the store. They would get dropped off by their parents downtown, told to be at such-and-such an entrance of the Simpson’s store – do you remember Simpson’s in downtown Toronto? Now that was a wonderful department store – at 4:30 p.m. to be picked up, and would proceed to have a day on their own in the big city. What a rare treat for teenagers from tiny Madoc back in the 1960s!

Ellen was able to quickly clear up one puzzlement I’d been having about the shop, which was how much bigger it seems today than the one I remember her parents being the proprietors of. (Quite the opposite of the usual situation, when you revisit things from your youth and they seem so much smaller than you remember.) The reason is that the shop was smaller in those days; it was located next door to the present one, in the considerably narrower space that is now the pretty shop Kelly’s Flowers and Gifts.

She also had interesting things to say about how the retail business has changed over the years – and about being one of the veterans of the Madoc retail scene.

As it happens, another of those veterans is also retiring. That would be Gord Johnston, the proprietor for ever so long of his family’s business, Johnston’s Drugstore across the street from Wilson’s. (You can read an article about the changes at Johnston’s here.)  I remember Gord being behind the pharmacy counter way back when I was a teenager buying nail polish and Mother’s Day gifts at his shop (and eyeing the fabulous Valentine’s Day displays of heart-shaped boxes of chocolates).

With so many other friendly, locally owned shops that I remember from those days now long gone – Stickwood’s Dry Goods, Ross’s Ladies’ Wear, Kincaid Bros. IGA and so many more – it was nice, when I came back to the area, to see that Wilson’s and Johnston’s were still going. And Johnston’s will continue, under new ownership. Ellen Wilson, however, is closing her shop (and having a very appealing sale to clear out stock), so Wilson’s of Madoc will be no more.

What part of Meow

A little something (which all cat people will understand) that we bought at Wilson’s on Saturday. It now hangs over the food bowl of Sieste the cat.

The storefront will not be empty; the Madoc thrift shop where I have found so many treasures these last couple of years will be moving into the space. But I will be sad that there will be no more Wilson’s. And I know I am very, very far from being alone in that feeling.

But I know I’m also not alone in wishing Ellen Wilson and Gord Johnston a wonderful, healthy, well-deserved retirement – and in feeling grateful to them for all the years that they and their families have provided good shopping, and excellent service, to the people of Madoc and area.

18 thoughts on “A changing of the guard in the Madoc retail scene

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting Ellen a few years ago, when I did a piece for Stirling’s own Country Roads magazine, about the history of general stores. Ellen was a fountain of information, as you have learned, and shared a few archival photos which appeared in the article. I was there just recently, to pick up some ‘plant ivory’ jewellery (few places stock it, but friend Brenda let me know that Ellen did) from the diminishing stock. And just after we did the interview, I purchased my three nesting Mason Cash reproduction bowls, Brenda once again mediating, by making the sale and trundling their not insubstantial burden home for me to pick up later. I too, will miss that store, and that lady, and wish her a fulfilling retirement.

    • Lindi, thank you for reminding me (and readers) of that wonderful and comprehensive article you did about Hastings County’s general stores for Country Roads; readers, if you didn’t catch it the first time, you can see it here. I am sure (based on my own experience) that your conversations with Ellen Wilson have been fun and informative. As for her retirement, I wouldn’t want to be the one to disclose the plans she mentioned to me, but let’s just say they would be a great boost for Madoc!

  2. Hi Katherine. Wow, that is a big change — affecting two stores in a small community. That is very interesting about the size of Wilson’s now (and then). My memory is playing tricks on me … do you remember if they used to sell school supplies? There was a store right in that portion of the east side of the street where we used to buy scribblers and pencils, but I can’t remember if it was Wilson’s then. I must admit that I don’t recall any other shop similar to Wilson’s having been there. The staff were always so helpful there.

    And what a change for the pharmacy across the road. Johnston’s was another place that I loved to go to, and I remember buying a vase for my mother’s birthday from their gift area (and the nice woman who worked there kindly gift-wrapped it beautifully, free of charge.) Speaking of pharmacies, is Rupert’s Rexall still in business, along in where Wilson’s is situated?

    As for Simpson’s downtown in Toronto, you may know that it has been The Bay for many years now (since around 1988 or so.) What you might not know is that they have gone through a recent series of major renovations to the store. Canada’s biggest women’s shoe department is on the main floor (shoes as far as the eye can see). They’ve refurbished the 7th floor (which was only partially used before) and they’ve removed coverings from windows that hadn’t had light through them for years (including on the main floor facing Yonge Street.)

    I wish Madoc’s retiring merchants well, and best of luck to those who will now be providing service to the town.

    • Hey, thanks on behalf of all of us in the Madoc area for your good wishes to our venerable (and soon to be much-missed) shopkeepers, Sash! I don’t remember Wilson’s selling school supplies, but perhaps other readers would. But: maybe that was Rupert’s Drugstore, which you also mention? (And which is no longer with us, sadly, though a great old sign embedded in the sidewalk remains; I wrote about that here.)

      Ah, Simpson’s, and all it has been through; is it true that the building is now going to be a Saks? I miss Simpson’s…

      • Oh, you’re welcome. I’ve just taken a look at the street view on Google Maps, and I see Country Treasures and Kelly’s, so I am now sure I was confusing Wilson’s. Country Treasures has bigger windows than Kelly’s, and I seem to recall Rupert’s pharmacy was a smaller store, so I’m thinking Kelly’s has that space now. The Country Treasures store likely was the shop that was somewhat like the Beamish store. I think it had the bigger windows and more space than the one beside it. I don’t remember that store selling clothing (which Beamish did sell), but I remember going in with my mother and a shopping list that had been given by our teacher. We bought scribblers, pencils, erasers, pencil case, that sort of thing, for back-to-school.

        I am not entirely sure of the plans for the Bay/Saks. The word was that Saks would go in, but then the Bay sold the store to the Eaton Centre (and they are leasing it back.) So, this means that the former Simpson’s store is now part of the Eaton Centre. We also heard that the Bay at Yonge & Bloor would close and Saks would go in there, competing with Holt-Renfrew in the next block. Those plans were cancelled, so I’m not sure of the old Simpson’s space, either. I will look into this and let you know. The Sears (former Eaton’s) that was in the Eaton’s Centre closed in the winter and it is being renovated. Nordstrom’s will take that space. The renovated Bay (former Simpson’s) is very beautiful, with matching prices (which will only escalate if Saks takes over.)

      • Hi Katherine. Here is a link to a Toronto Star article about Saks going in with The Bay. Saks will have a 150,000 square foot store within the Bay store (the former Simpson’s). Supposedly, it will be open in 2015. I was in the store the other day and there is no more construction work or renovation going on right now (after the major renovation of last year), so perhaps it’s just a matter of giving the space over to Saks. The Bay will still have 600,000 square feet of space. It’s a huge store and now that the seventh floor is opened up, it’s even bigger. Maybe you remember the Arcadian Court restaurant up on the 8th and 9th floors? It is built like an atrium, with the 9th floor looking down on the 8th floor space. It’s now an “events” place, which can be rented for catered receptions. They used to have a really nice buffet at lunch every day, but no more.


        The article says that both the Bay and Saks will have food courts. Uhhh, expensive food courts, that is. Fried bologna (baloney!) and eggs is $14. Here’s a review of that (and I wouldn’t mind if the Bay reinstated the hot dog & orange-drink stand instead.)


        I don’t know about you, but I think I’d much rather have something from Mary Jane’s.

      • Wow, this is very interesting, Sash – thanks for the links. My goodness, what with Saks and Nordstrom’s moving in, the Eaton Centre will be considerably spiffed up, it seems to me. (Gracious, I am so old that I remember when the Eaton Centre was brand new and very spiffy indeed; its later decline was depressing to see, so this is encouraging news.) As for fancy and pricey fried baloney, yeah, give me fries and gravy from Mary Jane’s in Madoc any time!

      • Did you notice the final amount of that baloney lunch? $28.25!! How many lunches could we have had at Mary Jane’s for that money? Or how much baloney could we have bought at Kincaid’s?

        I never go to Holts ($325.00 for a pair of jeans is a bit much, if you ask me), so I will visit Saks and Nordstroms but I doubt that they will have much, if any, business from me. When Eaton’s was re-born in the late 90s, they did a wonderful job of re-making the store. It had been closed for a year for the renovations, and what a job they did, but it was all short-lived when we heard news about bankruptcy. Sears kept going downhill, I hate to say, but I guess the writing was on the wall, especially at the outrageous rent they must have been paying there.

      • Ah, but do you (I’m sure you do) remember all the excitement when the Eaton Centre was all brand new, back in the ’70s? Now that was something!

      • Oh, yes, I remember all of that. I remember the fire that destroyed the old Eaton’s Annex store (and the south-facing windows at Holy Trinity Church), and I remember when they demolished the old Eaton’s on Queen Street to make way for the second phase of the Eaton Centre. Five thousand people turned out for the grand opening of the Eaton Centre, and I went down after work. As lovely as the store was, it seemed too new and, naturally, it lacked the older details of both College Street and Queen Street stores. It took a while for me to accept that my other two favourite stores were history. I had dinner at the new restaurant on the main floor (at the entrance from Yonge & Dundas) but it wasn’t too long until that room was removed and converted to merchandise space. And, I went through both close-out sale times for the two times Eaton’s closed, and I also went down on Sears’ last day. Now, that was a sad day, to see what the store had become after so many years of thriving as Eaton’s.

        Speaking of Eaton’s, do you remember the Eaton’s on Front Street in Belleville?

      • I do not! Never knew there was an Eaton’s in Belleville! Where was it, Sash? Does the building still stand, do you know?

        And hey, when you refer to the restaurant inside the doors at Dundas and Yonge at the Eaton Centre (when it was new) – do you mean the place (I think it was Italian?) that was kind of made to look like it was floating in midair? I hadn’t thought of that in years…

      • Hi Katherine. The Eaton’s in Belleville was where the restaurant Capers is now (and also Maxwell College), 270-272 Front Street, just a bit south of Victoria Avenue. I can’t remember exactly when Eaton’s left, probably around 1966-7. The store then became Walker’s department store. Eaton’s was a nice old store (as was Walker’s), on three floors (with a basement) and it had an elevator. After Walker’s vacated in the 80s, it was an S&R (same company as the one that was in Kingston.) This is when downtown Belleville was “the” place to shop — the mall did not go in until 1971 or so, and then many businesses from downtown gradually closed. I remember one time in a window at Eaton’s, they had human models modelling swimsuits. We were all waiting to see how steady they could pose, and they did remain quite still. Then, S&R vacated and I believe the space was vacant for a while.

        You might know of other stores that were on Front Street … Kresge’s, Woolworth’s, Lipson’s, Zellers, Metropolitan. Zellers and Metropolitan were quite old, with creaky wooden floors. I remember being there on hot summer days. They had big fans up on the upper shelves trying to cool the place down, but it was still hot on a summer’s day, and it smelled old. But, hey, they were great places for dry goods, linens, that sort of thing. I have a friend in Belleville who has lived there since the 1930s. To this day, Barb can still list the stores in order, going from south to north, and for both sides of Front Street.

        The restaurant that you mention in the Eaton Centre (in the atrium near the former T-D Bank space) is long gone. That entire lobby was remodelled years ago. No, that was not the restaurant in Eaton’s. The Eaton’s restaurant was at the doors to the store just past the floating restaurant. As one entered the store, there was a side door on the right that took you to the dining room. I forget what they called it, but it was a nice place. One floor below, they had “Sir John’s”, named after John Craig Eaton, and it was more casual. Up on the 6th floor they had the “Marine Room”, the cafeteria, which was always popular. The main floor dining room lasted only a short time, maybe two or three years, and then Sir John’s closed after a few years. Then, when Eaton’s went out, that meant the end of the Marine Room, too.

        It’s interesting that the Eaton store in the Eaton Centre originally had ten floors. Below the main level there were One Below, Two Below and Three Below. When Sears took over the space, the Eaton Centre redeveloped Two below and Three Below and there are now many other merchants in that space, including the food court for the Eaton Centre. As well, Eaton’s had six floors ground level and above, with a seventh for discounted goods. Sears had less space and eventually wound up with 3 1/2 above ground and only one below ground. It was a sad way to see a beautiful store end up. Who knows what Nordstroms will do with the space?

      • Looking at Front Street in downtown Belleville now, it is hard to believe that all those relatively large stores were once there, drawing shoppers. Mind you, there are hopes for a rejuvenation of the downtown thanks to the Build Belleville initiative, and I sure hope it comes to something. It’s a beautiful old downtown. Just goes to show what happens when the powers that be allow development to explode on the outskirts of town, without apparently giving thought to the terrible impact it’ll have on the core, the most important part of any town or city.

        Those stores you mention were all before the time if my childhood memories of Belleville, but I certainly remember similar stores – all kinds of goods on display at reasonable prices, creaky wooden floors, ceiling fans in the heat of summer. There was a store like that – a Woolworth’s, I think – in downtown Peterborough once upon a time. Interesting that you mention Walker’s – I saw an old Walker’s box a few months ago, and that logo that I hasn’t seen in so many years gave me a real jolt (albeit a happy one).

  3. And while I’m thinking of it, do you remember the East End Plaza (between Bridge E. and Dundas E., just east of Herchimer) in Belleville? It is now known as the Bay View Mall. When it was the East End Plaza, it was an open plaza, with sidewalks, trees, and even though it was small, it had both an A&P and a Dominion grocery store and a variety of other interesting stores. In the late 70s, they decided to put a roof over it, so that meant ripping up sidewalks, trees, etc and putting in flooring, etc. It just hasn’t been the same since. It’s become quite junky. I hate to say it, because it was another of those places that were fun to visit. It’s one of those “why didn’t they leave it alone” things.

  4. Hi Katherine. Attached is a link to a photo of downtown Belleville in 1948 (looking at the east side of Front Street.) I can’t remember if I’ve posted this before. You will see Lipson’s, and McIntosh’s (which I’d forgotten about) and Leslie’s Shoes (I still have shoes from there, from when they were closing the store after decades of service, mid-90s.) Notice the way the people are dressed … ladies with hats, gentlemen wearing suits. And those cars!

    Please forgive me if I am repeating myself, as I might have mentioned this in another post. Did you know downtown Belleville had two Loblaws? The first one was where Stephen Licence sporting goods shop is, near Victoria Avenue. If you go around to the parking lot behind the stores on the west side, you will see “Loblaw Market” in faded paint at the top of the building. The other Loblaws was over on Pinnacle Street, opposite the farmer’s market; currently, the space is used for the City bus terminal. I understand that the new proposal for revitalization includes moving the bus terminal and putting a new police station there. And there was an A&P at Pinnacle & Station Street, just beside the former Post Office. There was a meat market on Front Street (Black’s), at a lane way just north of where Geen’s was. The Village Shop & Bridal Salon later occupied the space, but it, sadly, has also closed. I’ve often wondered if under the red awning for the Village Shoppe, would we see BLACK’S in the black and white lettering?

    Across the street there is an empty lot just south of Victoria Avenue. The Belmont Restaurant used to be there, and the last time I was there with my mother, she was fascinated with the old framed photos of downtown Belleville from the 40s and 50s. The Belmont suffered a fire and that’s why we have the empty lot.

    When I find a photo of the East End Plaza, I will post it. I know I have it somewhere.

    As for the revitalization of downtown, I have read articles and comments in the Intelligencer. We would all love to see the downtown brought back to life. A revitalization was done maybe 20 years ago, with newer sidewalks, benches, etc. It’s all very nice, but will it bring business back downtown? Will merchants take a risk, when almost everybody is up at the Mall and Bell Blvd. area? Let’s hope so.

    • Heartily agreed, Sash: let’s hope so. Downtown Belleville so deserves better than what it has, and is, right now. I really admire the merchants who are doing their best to make it come alive again. Meanwhile, that photo! (Readers, the link itself is in the followup comment from Sash.) It is amazing! All those cars! All those stores! All those people! Wow!

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