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5 things you (probably) didn't know about department stores in Vancouver

Do you still visit department stores?
Clockwise from top left: Spencer's Kraft display in 1947, the second Hotel Vancouver in 1948 before it was demolished by Eaton's, the W from Woodward's and Elf in a Vancouver Bay.

Department stores have been a big part of big cities since they began in the mid-19th century.

In Vancouver, a growing modern North American city for the past 130-odd years, there've been a host of names that locals may or may not recall setting up huge retail businesses in the downtown area or other neighbourhoods. 

These days there are fewer than in the past, especially of the higher-end sort; there's the Bay and Holt Renfrew still around, along with the like of Canadian Tire, Walmart and Superstore but gone are the Eaton's, Spencer's, and Woodward's of the past.

However, many of those that still exist and those that are gone have left a mark on Vancouver; in many cases it's the buildings, like SFU's Harbour Centre (that used to be a Spencer's).

Here are five other things you probably didn't know about department stores in Vancouver.

1. Elf was shot in the old Bay store

This is perhaps the best-known fact; many know Elf was shot in Vancouver, but it's not always clear where it was shot.

For some scenes in the fictional Gimbles Will Ferrel is actually in the Bay's downtown Vancouver location (before renovations).

2. The spinning W is a legacy of Woodward's

Woodward's was a big player in Vancouver for decades and in 1903 the department store opened up its second location at the intersection of West Hastings and Abbott. At the time it was a bustling neighbourhood.

However, it declined over the years (the neighbourhood and the store's fortunes) and in 2006 it was demolished for the new development there (which still bears the name of the store).

However, not everything was destroyed; among the things saved are the giant W that was once on top of the store and staircase. The W that spins in the DTES is actually a replica of the original, the original is tucked away in the new development just off West Cordova.

3. Eaton's knocked down the second Hotel Vancouver

The Hotel Vancouver which stands in the city's core is the third such hotel to carry that name.

The second one was built at the corner of West Georgia and Granville and opened in 1916. For more than 20 years it hosted some big names, from Babe Ruth to Winston Churchill.

However, it closed in 1939 as the newest Hotel Vancouver opened.

This meant the old hotel became hotel barracks during WW2 and following the war veterans who returned to the city took over the vacant building.

Then Eaton's bought it and knocked it down, turning it into a parking lot for almost 20 years.

4. A Woodward's was the site of a huge robbery

Imagine if a four-person gang robbed a store in 2024 of $174,000, but missed out on $1.4 million

That's essentially what happened at a Vancouver Woodward's in 1925 when four men dressed all in grey broke in. One Sunday morning they made their way through 18 inches of brick before capturing a pair of security guards.

The safe they got into first was the small one with $10,000 in it. The safe crackers, known as yeggmen at the time, were starting on the big safe. In it, there was $80,000, equivalent to $1.4 million.

However, they made a mistake with the nitro-glycerin they were using (details are unavailable on what exactly happened) and, luckily for Woodward's, the crew were spooked by a staff member ringing a doorbell nearby. They bolted before getting into the bigger safe.

5. Spencer's art gallery

What makes a department store? Well, for one, lots of departments.

And while an art gallery isn't really a common department in the 21st century for a place like Walmart or Winners (no, the art leaning against each other on the shelves don't count), Vancouver's Spencer's stores did have a proper gallery set up with local painters' pieces.

Spencer's was actually a fairly artsy place.