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‘The best of all’

The Avalon Mall in St. John’s in the modern era.
The Avalon Mall in St. John’s in the modern era.

BUILDING ON SUCCESS During Christmas, while setting out my Japanese china, I thought of its origin — the Royal Stores mini-department store in the Avalon Mall in St. John’s.

A vintage shot of the mall decorated for Christmas.

By Marie-Beth Wright
Special to TC Media—St. John’s

“The Royal Stores in the Avalon Mall?” you ask. Yes, it existed on the right side of the lower corridor, as you walk towards, Woolco, er, Walmart, whoops, I mean, Sears.
If you are aged 30 or younger, you may be unaware that for each storefront you pass or eagerly enter during an afternoon at “da Mall,” there are the ghosts of its predecessors. The new coffee shop, Starbucks, in the revamped Pasta Plus site, originally housed a laundromat and Top Tone Cleaners. Bentley, on the corner, hides the phantom of a long-ago store, Chez Margot. Macy’s gift store was Melanie Lynn’s current space, next to Fredelle’s Shoes. Oh, and did I mention that Woolco, the anchor store of “$1.44 Day” fame, did car repairs in its attached garage?

Remember the Intermission? Those were exciting days for those experiencing food courts for the first time.

In April 1967, the Avalon Mall opened its doors with 35 stores and services, the largest retail concentration under one roof in the province. Phase 2 added an additional 75 stores in 1977, and the “Intermission” food court. It was built on farmland owned by Walter Dillon, whose farmhouse was located near the current Book and Bible store. Stewart Tremblett was the painting contractor.
My university roommate and I, boarding at 6 Thorburn Rd., had a front-row seat during construction and a deep attachment ever since. In 1984, a new ceiling and a softer lighting system were added. By 1987, 187,000 square feet of extra space had been created and many stores remodelled. Atriums, skylights, park benches, elevators, escalators created the mall as we now know it.
So many memory triggers: The Strand Lounge, movie lineups in the corridor where parents queue up today for pictures with Santa, upstairs and down theatres, the Adam and Eve Hair Salon, snack sites like Hilltop Dairies and The Korner, waiting to pick up groceries outside Sobeys; need I say more?

Many people have fond memories of good times and great entertainment at The Strand.

While checking the mall’s history, I encountered an online chat group whose discussion thread centred on the food court.
One comment: “the ‘new’ food court, opened in 1987, was called ‘Rainbow Bridge’ because of a couple of steps you go up to get over the fountains on either side of the escalators. I got a job wearing a sandwich board, handing out $1 coupons.”
Others indicated that this food section was near the former theatre block on Level 2. Talk of a games arcade, the Trans Canada Drug Store, even a Mark’s Work Wearhouse, was unearthed. Due to parking and road configurations, the Avalon Mall, like Topsy, just grew, fitting its shape and physical renovations to the surrounding streets. Who remembers Town n’ Country, Bowrings, Pet City, Fishery Products Seafood Centre, the Sunday UNICEF flea market in its heyday?

Movie cinemas under construction, 1999.

The Avalon Mall belongs to a second tier of Canadian malls, with 572,261 square feet. The mammoth group that includes West Edmonton ( 3,800,000 square feet), the Eaton Centre in Toronto (1,722,000), Galleries de la Capitale, Québec (1,496,000) and Ottawa’s Rideau Centre (1,259,1991) outsize it , but few surpass its history and renovation.

A quest for stronger retail performance motivated major renovation, specifically in 1987 and 1999. Ayre and Sons‘ former space first accommodated a liquor store and other boutiques but lived as The Gap (set to close on April 25) and Scotiabank since 1991. Stairs at this corner sent you upstairs to the parking lot.

In 1999, Empire Theatres closed its five-screen cinema and a Studio 12 theatre opened across the corridor, close to the mall’s food court, (the largest in Atlantic Canada). In 2005, there were interior and exterior upgrades to the food court, bathrooms and entrances, with Tim Hortons moving from the Booster Juice corner to its present location. The former theatre area is enveloped in Samuel, Goodlife and more. After Walmart and Sobeys left for Kelsey Drive, their spaces were rebranded, giving us Sears (2005) and Winners/HomeSense (2006).

To venture further down memory lane, the home boutique, the Panhandler, near what is now Second Cup, dated back to the ’80s. Birks, near Laura Secord, provided my wedding ring and a friend’s first job.

The Strand, located next to the walkway leading to the Market, had music spilling out as you walked past. The club was home to Ryan’s Fancy and other live musicians, had a fountain and a theatre nearby which bookended the southeast corner. Wonderful Grand Band (in the 1970s) wrote their parody song, “Babylon Mall,” touting the Avalon Mall’s retail footprint and cultural impact; some people in St. John’s still refer to Avalon Mall by this name.

A young man from La Scie offered a magical description in The Scope some years ago. “Every time that song would come on, I remember listening to the lyrics, imagining what a strange and wonderful place the mall must be, where people actually ‘dance all day to music in the walls,’ ride up and down the escalator just for fun, and run around grabbing colour TVs and electric guitars, paying with a plastic card.”

Fast-forward to a shopper’s reaction in September 2016; Nicole from Mississauga writes in TripAdvisor, “A great rainy day activity with great retailers. The mall is surprisingly big, offering a wide variety for the whole family with big box retailers in the parking lot.” Actually, these satellite shops are referred to in the Avalon Mall listings as “Pad shopping areas.”

Enclosed shopping in our climate was/is a godsend. No wonder the Avalon Mall became the province’s chief shopping destination. People also go there to socialize, walk, work, dine, sometimes just to lèche les vitrines ( go window shopping).

Now, 50 years on, the Avalon Mall has faced reputable competition from box stores and suburban wannabes, but continues to forge ahead. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on 20 per cent off day at the mall. This original 20 per cent promotion had early Christmas shoppers in a frenzy on Nov. 10, as they bustled around until midnight. Created to offer relief to shoppers facing a then 19 per cent combined sales tax, the promotion grew legs and the tradition continues, some 25 years later.  

The water cascade by the back escalators has long departed, and Customer Service has found a more central home. The Intermission’s giant pictures of movie stars and its plastic plants have been dispatched. Service businesses are now tilted heavily towards wireless communications and personal fitness.

What is ahead for this highly successful Crombie REIT property? Space constraints preclude a joined hotel or water park, but the Avalon Mall can still add features. Commemorative storyboards highlighting its fabled past would add perspective and pride, while an archival page on Facebook could answer questions from history buffs.

In a consumer culture, where shopping is one of Newfoundlanders’ favourite passtimes, “da Mall’s” future looks bright.

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