Vancouver’s Zeller’s Ltd.

CVA LEG26.14. Zeller’s first Vancouver site (1948-63) at Granville and Dunsmuir. 1960. Vancouver Planning Dept. Artist’s concept of the Granville Mall. (Note: Vancouver’s Woolworth’s store – the chain in which Walter Zeller got his start in retailing – is just four doors down from his Granville/Dunsmuir shop).

Walter P. Zeller, the founder of Zeller’s Ltd., was born in Ontario to Swiss parents (Province 13 May 1949). He got his start in business working at Woolworth’s, but by 1931 he had started his own retail shop in Montreal for “thrifty Canadians”. During WWII, Zeller worked for the federal Liberal government as the principal advisor to the Wartime Prices Board.

Early in WWII, Zeller had the following to say about government and its tendencies. Presumably, these were lessons he’d learned (or perhaps re-learned) during his time advising the feds:

“There can be no such thing as partial control by the government of our economic life. Once the government starts to meddle in economic control, it has to go further and further until its economic control is complete. It can’t control prices, wages and money without controlling production, and it can’t control production without the state being master of the lives and welfare of every human being.” Mr. Zeller demands an end of this, once we have beaten Hitler.

Vancouver Sun 3 Dec 1942

However, what was advisable for governments (shrinkage), wasn’t necessarily good business, in Zeller’s opinion. By late 1943, Zeller began to plan corporate postwar expansion, and those plans included Vancouver. It was announced that Zeller’s had bought the MacMillan building at 413 West Hastings and the adjacent Evans-Sheppard building at 417 West Hastings for about $200,000 (Province 7 Oct 1943). But a Zeller’s store would never occupy either of those properties. The Evans-Sheppard site would be sold about a year later, at cost (Province 15 Aug 1944). The MacMillan block would be sold a few years later with the proceeds being donated to the Marpole Infirmary (aka “provincial home for incurables“) (Province 11 Apr 1950).

Nobody likes to be called “cheap”. “Thrifty” is a much more retail-friendly word!

The first property which Zeller’s would occupy in the city was bought for $800,000 and was in the heart of downtown: the three-story former BC Electric showroom at the corner of Granville and Dunsmuir Streets (Province 18 May 1948). (The building still stands; today it is occupied by The Keg). The manager of the Vancouver store was W. C. Soper. He wasn’t a local man (he came from Ontario where he got his start with with the firm), but most of the non-managerial Vancouver employees were from Greater Vancouver (Province 5 Oct 1948).

The year following, Zeller’s would open its second Lower Mainland store: this one at 604 Columbia in New Westminster. The building had earlier been occupied by Spencer’s and later by Eaton’s. (This building also still stands). I don’t recall ever seeing a restaurant inside any Zeller’s store during the 1970s or later. But apparently there was an eatery in the New West store. There was an ad in the Vancouver Sun in 1971 seeking waitresses and kitchen staff for Zeller’s “new skillet restaurant” in that city (Sun 21 Aug 1971).

Zeller’s acquired the former David Spencer building (and later, Eaton’s) in New Westminster at Columbia and 6th Street. NWPL 1207.

Zeller died in 1957 at the relatively young age of 66 (Province 27 Aug 1957).

The downtown Vancouver store closed in 1963. It was considered too small to accommodate all of the merchandise sold in other Greater Vancouver Zeller’s stores, of which there were then four: Brentwood Mall (the largest Zeller’s store at the time it opened), Middlegate Mall (today’s Highgate Mall in Burnaby), Dell Shopping Centre (Whalley), and the Columbia at 6th Street store in New Westminster. By 1965, Zeller’s had opened four other shops in the Lower Mainland: another in New West (near Woodward’s 6th and 6th store); one each in North Vancouver and Richmond; and one on Lougheed Highway.

In the late 1960s, W. T. Grant, an American department store concern purchased 51% of Zeller’s shares. This was the first in a series of mergers, acquisitions and buy-outs over the next several years. In 1976, Fields stores picked up the Grant shares after Grant went belly-up. Then, The Bay acquired all of Zeller’s shares. Zeller’s became the low-end arm of the Hudson’s Bay Co.

You know how the story ends.

This shuffling of ownership of the chain did no long term good for the store or its employees. Mainly, it made a few people, such as Vancouver’s Joseph Segal, fabulously wealthy. Zeller’s finally bit the dust around 2012 when Target bought it from the Bay. But Target got cold feet a short time later and sold the former Zeller’s real estate to Walmart; Target skedaddled back across the 49th parallel like a scalded cat.

I can’t believe that Walter Zeller would be pleased to know that his department store ended “not with a bang but a whimper”.1


1 The quote is borrowed from T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men.

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2 Responses to Vancouver’s Zeller’s Ltd.

  1. lhhouben says:

    I still miss Zeller’s very much. When Target came along, it wasn’t Zeller’s anymore. Target could not compare one iota to Zeller’s at least, not the Zeller’s I knew during the 1990’s. And I still miss Woodward’s, where Zeller’s took over in Metrotown in Burnaby when Woodward’s went bankrupt. And I still miss Eaton’s and Sears. I love department stores. Sigh….Thanks for this article!

  2. Angus McIntyre says:

    Target took away “Club Z” points. Canadians were not amused.

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