Guided by the 90s: Robson Street

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We took a 1990’s guide to Vancouver sightseeing so we could get a sense of how much the city has changed. Follow this disjointed adventure as it unfolds, or learn more about the series HERE.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Will Smith celebrate the opening of Planet Hollywood on Robson Street in 1997.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Will Smith celebrate the opening of Planet Hollywood on Robson Street in front of a crowd of twelve thousand on March 16th, 1997.

Emerging from the West End’s residential core under a melancholy induced by the past’s vulnerability to demolition, my guide and I welcome the distracting flood of people crowding the sidewalk on Robson Street.

“If you like shopping, you’ll love Robson St. A collage of tourist shops, fashion boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants,” my guide says, resuming its duty to describe the area for me with a tone that sounds like its under the influence of retail therapy. “Locals, international tourists, and recent immigrants all throng here giving the street the feeling of a mini United Nations.” As we pass through an impressive stretch of izakayas, ramen bars, and bubble tea houses that have come to define its terminus near Denman over the past decade, my guide’s 15 year out-of-date descriptions of Robson sound incredibly robust with a zest for usefulness. But as we head east, its ability to keep time with the present begins to crack.

“Part of the fun of browsing here is that the shops are really eclectic — you can find everything from Giorgio Armani suits, to hologram portraits of Elvis, to a shop dedicated to fancy condoms.” The disconnect between what the guide says and what I’m seeing creates a dementia people tend to sympathize with, but avoid addressing at all costs. Uncomfortable silence has begun to permeate any glaringly obvious moments when I realize my guide is frozen in time while the rest of world is constantly evolving.

Guidedby90-Robson-Mexx
A vacancy left by the recent closure of Mexx awaits a new tenant along Robson Street.

I’m not seeing the diversity of stores described by my guide in the J Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, Sephora, Forever21 and Club Monaco that welcome shoppers along Robson Street’s main arcade of activity today. As much as I’d love to put the guide into a bespoke Armani suit for its final day of touring before I end its suffering on the shores of Sunset Beach, none can be found here. Since the 90s, tastes have changed, and Robson Street has evolved to meet the fashions of its customers, but doing so has created an assemblage of brand-name chain stores not unlike any other major urban shopping district, if not Pacific Centre just up the street. The area’s designation as an upscale shopping destination seems threatened by its nearby sibling, Alberni Street, where Burberry, Tory Burch, and Versace have all recently set up, leaving a noticeable amount of For Lease signs up and down “Vancouver’s Runway.”

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Dining and drinking along Robson Street can still satisfy an appetite for something less franchised though. After sheepishly running through suggestions like Cactus Club, Earls, and Milestones, I push into the guide for something more unique and find several mainstays that have survived escalating rents along Robson Street for more than 20 years. Zefferelli’s “large open room,” Cin Cin’s “sophisticated ambience,” and the “traditional Northwest cooking” at Joe Fortes Seafood & Chophouse all sound inviting and keep the fine dining flag flying high over Robson Street’s south end, while Hon’s Wun-Tun House, and Shenanigans, a pub on the bottom floor of the Blue Horizon Hotel, have their own thing going on, and haven’t changed from how they’re described in the guide.

PRICE OF NIRVANA’s NEVERMIND ON COMPACT DISC:

1990: $10 to $15 

2015: $5.62

As much as I’d love to get to know my guide better over a beer in the comforts of the Expo 86 influenced interior design of Shenanigans, it’s still too early for revelry, and we’ve got lots of work to do. Instead, I consult it for anything else worth seeing; turns out it loves bookstores — go figure. Rather than bring down the hammer of the present, I decide to just let go, and let the 90s in.

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Manhattan Books & Magazines has an excellent selection of foreign (mainly French) language books, magazines and newspapers.”

“Wait, what?”

The guide starts again, “Manhattan Books…”

“No dummy,” I snap back in confusion on the corner of Robson and Thurlow Street, “I know! That’s where I live?”

I had no idea Manhattan Apartments, one of the oldest residential buildings in the West End, the building I’ve called home for almost 10 years, had a cool little bookstore on its bottom floor. It would have been nice to stop in, but we can’t. Instead, I move quickly by the jewellery store that’s replaced Manhattan Books with my guide tucked tightly under my arm so it can’t see that a member of its extended family is no longer with us.

The Manhattan Apartments has housed everything from drug stores, travel agents, book stores, and people who call Robson Street home since it was built in 1907.
The Manhattan Apartments has housed everything from drug stores, travel agents, cafes, book stores, and the people who call Robson Street home since it was built in 1907.

But the guide’s love of bookstores won’t rest that easily. It wants books, so books it is. It goes on at length about Duthie’s Books, a family-run chain that opened in 1957, and the huge selection at Chapters; any trace of their existence today only lives in the endangered pages of my guide. Then I hear the word, “mega” and my memory of the 90s is rekindled with familiarity. Nothing says 90s more than “mega,” and nothing represents the height and power of tangible media in mid-90s Vancouver more than the Virgin Megastore!

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Virgin Megastore is the largest music and entertainment store in Canada and the selection is simply staggering,” says the guide, crackling with an excitement, oblivious to what has happened to the building standing in front of us at the corner of Robson and Burrard.

Guidedby90-Robson-Victorias
The Robson Street entrance to Victoria Secret seems discreet compared to the Virgin Megastore and Planet Hollywood that used to reside here.

A better example of media technology’s progression from book, to disc, to an uncontainable cloud can’t be found in Vancouver beyond the building that maintains the address of 750 Burrard St. From 1957 to 1995 it housed Vancouver’s Central Library. In 1997, at the height of the disc drive era, it became a media “megastore,” owned and operated by Virgin. When Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Will Smith helped to celebrate the opening of the Planet Hollywood restaurant inside of it, the building seemed to act as living proof that Hollywood had come north. Most of us know the rest of the story: it was sold to HMV, just as the concept of file sharing was beginning to make its destruction upon the idea of ownership known.

Standing in front of the Victoria’s Secret that maintains a mega inventory of panties there today, my book, my guide, with its bent paper covers and well worn pages, once again has fallen silent.

Another disorienting tour for our writer and his sidekick guide. Check back next week, when Guided by the 90s attempts the rest of downtown and Granville Street with a list of hotspots 15 years past date! Learn about this series.