As final Zellers stores close, former employees swap memories, memorabilia

·4 min read

Zellers is pulling the plug on its final two stores in Ontario this month, but Richard Hall doesn't want it to die.

He's rounded up a museum-worthy haul of Zellers memorabilia in his dining room, spilling into his kitchen. There's flashy branded buttons, bathroom key chains, even a fire extinguisher from one of the doomed department stores.

His wife calls it hoarding. He calls it collecting.

Hall spent 35 years employed by Zellers, working at 11 different stores. Today, he relies on his memorabilia to reminisce.

"Every segment of my life, I think back of what store I was in," he said. "It's weird but it's kind of a measurement of time."

The last two Zellers locations in Etobicoke, Ont., and Ottawa will close on Jan. 26, according to Hudson's Bay Co., the retailer's parent company.

Haydn Watters/CBC
Haydn Watters/CBC

Hall's memorabilia spans his entire dining room. He's got signed hockey sticks, limited edition bottles of Hudson's Bay Co. scotches, multiple copies of the same Zellers flyers — all in mint condition.

And this is after he purged the collection.

Perhaps his most prized possession is a gift he was given: A framed copy of a newspaper from 1945, just after the Second World War ended, containing an ad from the original Zellers location in London, Ont. The page celebrates the "glorious day of victory," while also being dominated by a lengthy spread on Adolf Hitler's "mad career," complete with swastika imagery.

"This isn't about Hitler. This is about the Zellers," he assures. "I point that out to everyone that I show: I say, 'No, I'm not a Hitler fan. I'm a Zellers fan.'"

Haydn Watters/CBC
Haydn Watters/CBC

Met his wife at Zellers

Hall started at Zellers when he was 15, working his way up to general manager of marketing, where he ended his career in 2013. That's when most Zellers were closing down or converting to now-defunct Canadian Target locations.

Along the way, he met his wife. She was working at another department store, Towers, when Zellers took it over.

Haydn Watters/CBC
Haydn Watters/CBC

"I was asked to take the assistant manager from Towers under my wing, and so I did. And we've been married 28 years," he said. "I took the instructions literally."

Maria Hall remembers how Richard relentlessly tried to woo her. She worked at Store No. 64, so he sent her 64 balloons, 64 roses — and then a limo to the store.

"Isn't that crazy? The store was like, 'What is going on, Maria? Like, what is going on with this guy?'," she recalled.

Zellers stores, she said, started many relationships.

Haydn Watters/CBC
Haydn Watters/CBC

When Target came in, Richard and Maria Hall both lost their jobs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Richard kept the letter employees received when Zellers made the announcement that the U.S. retailer was taking over.

Target spent about $1.8 billion acquiring leases for 189 Zellers locations across Canada in 2011, though the move north of the border turned out to be a disaster: The last Canadian Target store closed its doors in 2015 and the company lost billions.

"Our lives are much better and it was a good thing," Hall said of losing his job. "It was a catalyst to go do something different after being in the same company for so long."

'It's like working for family'

A handful of Zellers stores remained open, ultimately outlasting Target.

That includes the Etobicoke location, in Toronto's west end, which has seen hours-long lineups over the past few weeks, with shoppers snaking around the store, hungry for sales.

The final two locations are a bit different than other, traditional Zellers that Canadians may remember, Hall said. They instead liquidate the Bay's leftover inventory.

Haydn Watters/CBC
Haydn Watters/CBC

But the closing at the end of the month still means the Zellers name will be officially gone.

"I think only us employees that have worked there can actually understand that, 'cause it's hard to articulate how important it was to people," he said.

Many people are active on a Facebook group called "If you ever worked for Zellers," where store and corporate employees from around the country reminisce. News of the last two closings has spurred a flurry of memories.

The group was started in 2013 by Brenda Scott, who worked at a Zellers store in Huntsville, in Ontario's Muskoka region. She wanted a way to stay in touch with colleagues as the stores were first closing and said the group has filled that void.

More than 4,500 employees have joined her group since.

Michael Wilson/CBC
Michael Wilson/CBC

"You work for a Zellers, it's like working for family," she said.

Scott, who now lives in Barrie, Ont., travelled down to the Etobicoke location earlier this month, wanting to say goodbye to the chain. She watched as crowds lined up in front of the store, waiting to get in before it had even opened.

She said it made her feel upset — and longing for a Canadian company to shop at.

"I'm pretty sure Walter [P. Zeller] is looking down, watching everybody, and saying, 'This isn't necessary,'" she said.

"It's the end of an era. It really is. Being the end of an era makes a lot of people who worked there sad."

Haydn Watters/CBC
Haydn Watters/CBC