The Old Gent

When Eaton’s closed its catalogue division in 1976, the event was deemed to be so seismic that family members personally paid courtesy calls on a federal cabinet minister as well as senior aides and premiers in New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba to give advance notice. After all, 9,000 employees would be thrown out of work.

The Eaton “boys” as they’ve always been called, despite the fact that they were all in their thirties at the time – John Craig, Fred, Thor and George – took media training to prepare for the anticipated public outcry at the icon’s demise.

But when the announcement came on January 14, 1976 that the spring-summer edition would be the last of the catalogues begun by founder Timothy Eaton in 1884 there was instead an outpouring of nostalgia and the boys escaped blame – at least until 1997 when the department store declared bankruptcy.

All this pining for the printed word struck me as I read this morning about the end of the Canadian Tire catalogue, at least in published form. The online version will continue. There was no official announcement, no political panic. Begun in 1934, the Canadian Tire catalogue had by 1941 not only become a household companion, it had acquired a character in the form of an older gent who appeared in cover illustrations until 1969.

In my 2001 book about Canadian Tire, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” I described the Old Gent with his white hair and upturned moustache as a stand-in for co-founder A. J. Billes. The two boys with whom he was usually shown could have been his sons Fred and David, and the blonde, daughter Martha. To be sure, the real-life mischievous Martha had red hair but on the covers she was always more assertive than her brothers who were portrayed as too heavy for light work and too light for heavy work. As we all know, Martha beat out Fred and David to become controlling shareholder and even now is passing along ownership to her adopted son, Owen, 38.

Unlike the late and oft-lamented Eaton’s, Canadian Tire has prospered against the onslaught of American retailers. How the Tire catalogue morphed into a new format in the digital age is just another example of survival that some family businesses never learn.

Still, I do miss the Old Gent.

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