A Column of Woodward History.....
Charles Woodward arrived in Vancouver in November of 1891. Three months after his arrival, he opened his first Vancouver store on March 1, 1892 at Westminster Avenue and Harris (Main and Georgia Streets). It was a three-story building on a 55 x 70 ft. Lot. From the first, his was to be a working man’s store with narrow aisles and no credit allowed. His chief hope of meeting competition was to sell more cheaply than his competitors, the practice he had followed religiously at Manitowaning, Gore Bay and Thessalon (the location of very first store in the East, which was destroyed by fire—he lost everything). Selling more cheaply than his competitors was to remain his guiding rule.
His first years in Vancouver were fraught with difficulties. He was operating on a shoestring. Mortgage payments had to be met, merchandise and fixtures bought. On top of these expenses he had heavy bills from doctors for his wife and children—all of whom were victims of the dread illness, the scourge of those times, consumption.
In August of 1892, his loyal and loving wife, Elizabeth, who had stood by him through every castastrophe, died --followed two weeks later by his baby daughter, Ruby and a few months later by his sixteen –year old daughter, Margaret. He still had six children at home, none of whom were older than eleven, and no wife to care for them.
His was one of many small Vancouver stores forced into bankruptcy by hard times during the recession of the early and mid1890’s. He settled his debts with Eastern wholesale houses from whom he bought, for fifty cents on the dollar—with a Chattel Mortgage on his merchandise as security. He was one of the few who, years later, repaid the other fifty cents with interest.
Charles did not let hard times diminish his enthusiasm. In the mid 1890’s Vancouver’s economy started to improve. Woodward’s was very much into the Gold Rush trade. Largely as a result of the Klondike Gold Rush, Charles was in a much better financial position by 1897. His business grew along with Vancouver. He was renting the three stores adjoining his own and the name Woodward’s appeared in the 1897 Vancouver Directory with its new address: 622-624-626 Westminster Avenue. However, businesses were beginning to move towards the west in Vancouver which was believed to be the up-and-coming area of town.
The following was taken from Mr. Charles Woodward’s diary:
“The corner of Hastings and Cambie Streets for some years had been my ideal location for a big store. It was owned by McMoran & Costello and I was informed they wished to sell. I called on them and asked them if it was for sale and they said ‘yes’. I got the price and then asked them if they would like to trade for my block on Harris Street and for me to pay the difference. We made a trade there and then, however, when I mentioned the fact that I still owed a balance of a mortgage of $4,000 they would not consider trading until I paid it off. I was not able to do this just then. I tried to get them to agree that they would hold it for me until I raised the money to pay off the mortgage, but in two weeks, Mr. Flack who had been mining up in the Yukon, and he had been very successful, landed in Vancouver with a lot of money and he bought the property.
I was a very sick man with disapointment when I heard about the sale—to me there was no other place as suitable for a department store as the north-east corner of Hastings and Cambie Street. At that time any further east than Cambie Street, until you reached Carrall Street, was practically no better than a country road—there were one or two old frame buildings on those two blocks, a blacksmith shop and, if I remember rightly, wooden side-walks on one side only and no streetcars running nearer than Cordova Street.
The treatment I received over the loop lights on Westminster Avenue and the fact that they had been erected without being mentioned to me, certainly influenced me very much to get away from the location I was occupying on Westminster Avenue. J. Edward Bird, a young rising lawyer, who had recently arrived in Vancouver, conceived the idea of combining several small businesses. One was a crockery store, another a jewellery establishment and a third, a party who wanted to start a boot and shoe store. They came to me and wished me to join the combination of men who owned these different stocks of merchandise, and rent a big store in the centre of the city.
I thought it over for some time and then decided that I would join the combination. We all signed an agreement and it was definitely understood and settled that I would be the General Manager, not that I was any smarter than the others but I had more experience in running a big general store than the others. They were used to the West End business and were inclined to scorn the medium class trade, but the thing was for us to agree on a location suitable to our different ideas.
I had my mind on the north-west corner of Abbott and Hastings Streets (this property was only a block from the Flack property) but the others did not appear to have as much vision of the possibilities as I had. The more I studied the location the more impressed I became, but we could not agree.
I happened to hear of a party who was figuring on buying this corner and I knew they had the money and could pay cash. I went to the agent who had it for sale and after some dickering I took an option on it at $25,000 by paying $500 down.
Then I informed my associates what I had done, and there was a big row all at once. I listened to them for some time and then I said we did not need to proceed any farther with the partnership. I said I would take the lot and pay for it myself if they would let me out of the combination. I also said “I am the General Manager and the deal stands.” They refused to let me out but I was firm in my determination and I would not yield what I thought was the best location available considering the price, namely, $25,000.00. We had the choice of three or four locations and none of them were as good and none as cheap, and I carried through with my decision.
You will realize that this part of Hastings Street real estate was not considered very valuable and did not fetch a very high price judging from the price I paid for a 66 x132 feet (that was in 1901).”
On September 12, 1902 the Company was incorporated as Woodward Department Stores Ltd., a loan for $79,000 was obtained from Canada Permanent Loan Company of Toronto and construction commenced. Charles’ first store had been built in less than three months. The building of his second Vancouver store took over a year. On November 4, 2003 the new store was opened. At that time, salaries for all managers, including Charles Woodward, were $75 per month.
Today, we wonder what Charles would think of Vancouver’s Downtown East side and the new “Woodward’s Project’ –a 43 story building, a 32 story building, an 8-story Simon Fraser University for the Arts, along with a completely renovated original 1903 Woodward’s building—due to open in November 2009. It is hoped that this new development will help to re-vitalize the Vancouver Downtown Eastside!