January 20, 2022

Cl Youth Theatre

Fashion, The needs of women

What’s your favourite ’90s mall store? Vote in our nostalgic holiday shopping bracket

Those who follow me on Twitter know that I have two passions: food and shopping malls.

On the latter topic, it’s the era of GTA malls in the ’80s and ’90s in particular — before they were all renovated into cookie cutter, white-tiled laboratories. I loved the hot air balloons at Scarborough Town Centre, the giant kite art at the Eaton Centre (it’s now at the Barrie Public Library) and the terrazzo tables at the Fairview Mall food court, even if the stench of the smoking section was everywhere.

Look, as someone whose adulthood was ushered in by the 2008 recession, who is constantly reminded that I will never be able to afford a home in my city (and if I did, it would probably be underwater in a few years anyway), I can’t help but think fondly of an era in which I had no thoughts — just vibes and Icees.

Keeping with the spirit of my previous Bulk Barn snack bracket for Halloween, I thought during this year’s holiday shopping season it would be fun to reminisce about the stores that I (and many of you probably) shopped at.

I would like to note that not all the stores in this bracket are entirely gone. As with the evolution of retail, some went under a name change, others have gone solely online and a few merged with other businesses. Also note, yes, I miss Honest Ed’s too, but we’re talking about mall chains. I also don’t count the World’s Biggest Bookstore since it was a stand-alone.

So have at it. Partake in this nostalgic celebration of consumerism without having to think about supply chains.

Just like last time, vote for your favourites and check back to see which store makes the cut.

  • Dec. 11: First round one of voting begins.

  • Dec. 13: First round of voting ends at noon ET, and the second round starts.
  • Dec. 15: Second round of voting ends at noon ET, and the semifinals start.
  • Dec. 17: Semifinals voting ends at noon ET, and the final round begins.
  • Dec. 20: Final round of voting ends at noon ET, and the winner is announced.

Department store group 1

Eaton’s

The defunct department store that lives on through its namesake downtown Toronto mall first filed for bankruptcy in the late ’90s and was taken over by Sears Canada, which tried to revamp the brand as a high-end retailer in the early 2000s (remember that big budget Aubergine commercial?). The irony is that Sears Canada later went through an unsuccessful revival of its own in the mid-2010s before closing for good.

Simpsons

The lesson in mall chain history is that a lot of stores simply get absorbed by acquisitions. The Simpsons department store was bought out by The Bay in the late ’70s, and many of its stores were turned into Bay locations. It’s why The Bay’s headquarters next to its flagship Queen West store is in a building called the Simpson Tower.

Department store group 2

Zellers

The discount subsidiary of The Bay is more remembered for its mascot Zeddy and in-store restaurant than anything else. For me, I saw it as the store that met an unjust end when its locations were cleared out to make way for the arrival of Target Canada. When Target shortly fizzled out, Zellers never returned (save for a few signs at a Burlington pop-up this past summer) and malls were left with giant empty spaces.

Woolco

While Woolco was actually founded in Ohio, its Canadian locations outlasted the American stores. But the Canadian Woolcos met a similar fate to Zellers. In the early ’90s, Woolco was cleared out in order for Walmart to enter the Canadian market.

Department store group 3

Consumers Distributing

The department store founded in Toronto was a precursor to online shopping, as shoppers flipped through its catalogues at the front of the store and employees would retrieve items in the stockroom. I think the only thing our family bought from here were sleeping bags for my first slumber party before Consumers Distributing closed all its locations in 1996.

BiWay

For those who couldn’t afford Five Star binders, BiWay was always there for back-to-school needs. There were plans to bring back the surplus discount retailer in fall 2020, but around that time, Mal Coven one of the original founders of BiWay who was also behind the reopening, died, putting the plans to revive the store on hold indefinitely or potentially cancelled.

Where adult Karon still shopped until the end

The Disney Store

While not Canadian, it was still a staple for a lot of ’90s kids, especially the original look of the Disney Store with its carpeted floors and slow-moving animatronics overhead. The company closed all its Canadian stores earlier this year. Am I only including this in the bracket to justify buying the Countdown to the Millennium set of 102 pins and binder back in 1999? Maybe.

Mmmuffins

Mmmuffins’ last Toronto location in the Scotiabank Plaza closed at the start of the pandemic. However, when I wrote about my beloved mall bakery a few years ago, the firm that owned the chain told me they might stock Mmmuffins at Country Style. Lo and behold, you can now find them at the doughnut shop. Welcome back, cheddar muffin.

Where Karon spent all his back-to-school money as a teen

Randy River

I can’t think of a store that catered to teen boys as much as Randy River. It was the epitome of Y2K fashion: ribbed thick-knit tank tops meant to be worn by themselves, extremely baggy cargo pants, comically long ribbon belts with flame graphics (I still have said belts in my closet).

Grand & Toy

The office supply company founded in 1882 closed its remaining 19 retail locations in 2014, but still exists as an online store under the ownership of American company The Office Depot.

Where all the cool kids that ignored Karon shopped

Le Chateau

The coolest kids that had their growth spurts in high school shopped here and as a teen I yearned to have the guts to wear the ’90s boy band fashions this store stocked. The Montreal clothing company declared bankruptcy last year but recently relaunched online via its new owner, Suzy Shier, with plans to stock its clothes in some Suzy Shier locations next year.

Jacob/Jacob Jr./Jacob Connexion

All I remember about this Montreal-based store is that my older sister went to Jacob Jr. to buy knee-length spaghetti-strap dresses that she’d wear over white baby tees and pair with Timberland boots and a choker. The physical stores closed in 2014, but the company continues to sell its fragrances online.

Wild card group 1

Toys Toys Toys

Technically Toys Toys Toys is still around despite a bankruptcy filing last year and some locations closing (which might be a strike against it in the spirit of this nostalgia bracket). The remaining locations are now called Playtime Toys and still specialize in hard-to-find plushies. For my generation it was Beanie Babies, for my niece, Squishmallows. Earlier in the fall I bought a Squishmallow at the Hillcrest Mall Playtime Toys and it actually came in a Toys Toys Toys bag.

… It Store

Before the Canadian arrival of Hot Topic and Spencer’s there was the …It Store with its seductive red neon sign. We told our parents we were going to look at something G-rated like Beanie Babies, but were secretly stealing glances of PG13 adult-themed calendars.

Wild card group 2

Future Shop

Yet another tale of a store being absorbed in buyouts. The B.C.-based electronics megastore was bought out by Best Buy in 2015.

Bata Shoes

The Bata shoe company was once based in Ontario until all of its Canadian locations closed by the mid-2000s (and soon after, its sister company Athlete’s World). Its headquarters are now in Switzerland and Bata stores still exists in other countries. In Toronto, the Bata legacy lives on through the Bata Shoe Museum.

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