Russell Bowers reflects on a very different kind of Christmas of yesteryear, and one with ready-made magical holiday memories.
Without fail, the holiday season brings with it an endless array of messages extolling the “magic” of the season. And certainly, if you’re awaiting Santa or you are captivated by the promise in the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, feeling that magic is obvious.
The ‘Must Have’ Item
However, as it’s usually the zephyrs of retail markets that remind us constantly of the magic of Christmas, I wanted to confine myself to that particular brand of magic they weave at this time of year.
Each year and each generation brings that “must have” item. Little or large, it’s the urgency of possessing that one thing that makes the season bright which indelibly stamps the holidays into memory.
And so, I’d like to say a very personal thank you to Miller Ayre. Mr. Ayre was the namesake of a department store that was a staple of shopping for my family. If your childhood was similar to my vintage (the 70s), it was a golden decade for Newfoundland and St. John’s-based retail.
Whether it was classroom supplies, back to school clothes, shoes, winter boots, or corduroys (size Husky please), a trip to Ayre’s or Giant Mart, The Arcade or The London was what you did.
Adventures of Austin
However back to my Thank You note for Mr. Ayre. You see, in 1978, the only thing in Christendom that would make 10-year-old me the very happiest was a Six Million Dollar Man action figure! I saw an ad for it in the very first comic book I ever bought. I was already watching the adventures of Major Steve Austin every Sunday night after we got home from the Salvation Army. And here was an action figure that would let me make up my own adventures the entire week.
In the ad, Steve Austin was in the clutches of Maskatron (each sold separately) but Steve, with his bionic arm and eye, also came with an engine block for him to lift up and with which to bonk Maskatron upon the head.
It’s at this point that my mother enters the picture where I ask her/Santa for a Six Million Dollar Man. Initially, she declared dolls were a waste of money (“It’s an action figure, Mom!!”) and that when she was a girl, all she ever got was an apple and a story book, which I assume she read in the umpteen feet of snow on her way to school, uphill, both ways.
However, Daisy Bowers was also never one to be denied and it was the scarcity of this toy during that winter of 1978 which engaged her. My mother was a former telephone operator and when tasked with using the phone to achieve something, little would stop her. Calls were made, starting with the big stores. Woolco, Woolworth’s, K-Mart and Simpson-Sears were national chains, but my mother seemed to know most of the staff by name, so they felt like local businesses.
However, no amount of her professional operator’s phone voice could turn up an action figure on their shelves or in inventory.
Next on the list was Ayre’s. Would she call the one at the Avalon Mall, or the one on Water Street? The one at the Mall mostly carried clothing, so she rang up the downtown store.
In those days, telephone calls to St. John’s were considered long distance, so in addition to the cost of this action figure, add in the phone tolls. But, success!
The downtown Ayre’s had one Six Million Dollar Man left and with her best phone operator’s persuasion, she got the clerk at Ayre’s to put it aside for her.
And so, like Magi off to follow a star, the Bowers Family caught the quarter-to-four boat from Bell Island and headed for Water Street. My mother always had a way with store staff. Maybe it’s because we were always dressed up when we went shopping. “We can’t have the crowd in St. John’s look down on us for being from Bell Island. We must show dignity,” she would say. When she passed in 2012, the staff at Zellers sent my family a wreath! Can you imagine?
It was dark by the time we reached Ayre’s. I can still picture the stairwells between the floors and the echo from the tiling. But I wasn’t allowed to witness the purchase. “Santa will bring it,” I was told.
As we normally did, our family made the rounds for other Christmas shopping. A sweater for Aunt Millie from The London. A cardigan for Uncle Wallace from the Royal Stores. Gloves and Hai Karate for the bachelor uncles, Neil and Walter, from Woolworth’s.
Smell that Old School
And how can I mention Woolworth’s without mentioning the french fries? It’s been over 30 years since I stepped inside that store and I can clearly recall the smell of fries and gravy from Woolworth’s. And if you shopped there, I’ll bet you can too.
All the best stores had their own restaurants. Golden Skillet at the K-Mart, Red Grille at Woolco, the Country Inn at Sears. We never ate at Bowring’s. “That’s a rich man’s store.”
I was always partial to The Arcade. At that point in the 70s, the store aesthetic was somewhere between treasure chest and unmade bed but they had this one section where they had a rack of comic books. Three in a bag for 89 cents! I must have bought dozens of those bags over the years with every birthday and Christmas fortune that came my way. Ripping open a bag of comics was amazing because the middle comic you could never see.
It might be rubbish or it might be a gem (it was usually rubbish. Who the heck reads Micronauts?!?). But oh, the smell of new comics fresh from the bag!
It’s not surprising that smell and memory are so linked. I can name favourite meals from my childhood and also tell you what TV show was on as I ate. I was only ever in a Nativity Play once, and it was in the theatre gymnasium of the decommissioned Salvation Army school on Bell Island. I was a shepherd and although my performance was a “triumph” (Peter Gard, The Evening Telegram), I was not imposed with dialogue. However, all these decades on, I can still smell that old school. I’m sure that smell was mostly composed of mold and neglected bass drums, but it’s as alive in my nostrils now as anything I could have at hand.
It was on that trip to secure the Six Million Dollar Man that the most enduring Christmas memory was made for our family. After we exhausted the cash registers and credit card kha-chunk machines, my father Steadman, my brother Steadman, my mother, and I walked back to the parking garage underneath Woolworth’s. The lights from Chafe’s window, The Sports Shop, Parker & Monroe, O’Brien’s, and HFC dominated the street level.
Can’t Feel the Magic
But then, we noticed it was snowing and all four of us stopped to look up. Past the street lights, past the facades, into a black Christmas night, with little flakes of snow drifting down toward us and on us. And so when I think of the magic of the season, I think of this kind of magic. The magic of that one last action figure at Ayre’s. The magic of the lights and sounds of a bustling Water Street of the 1970s. It’s the magic of the places we can’t go anymore. The places we can’t see.
On Facebook, quite a few pages have grown for people to showcase their memories of St. John’s and other small towns across Newfoundland and Labrador. For one reason or another, we all express a wish to go back. But of course we can’t. We can’t rebuild The London or The Arcade. Even if we did, would it really be the same?
I don’t feel magic when I walk through the Mall today. But maybe if I was 8 again, and everything was still to be known, I’d feel different. And in 50 years time, when that 8-year-old is middle-aged and nostalgic, I’d write about the magic of long gone places like Walmart and Winners, EB Games and Claire’s.
Will Miss One Day
Maybe not. We won’t know unless these places disappear and so for this holiday year, during a time none of us have known before, let’s embrace the magic of the things we can’t see, touch or smell, but remember fondly.
And let’s make sure that the little ones who don’t yet know what they will one day miss, will have a moment of magic that is all too real to all our senses. So, thank you, Miller Ayre, to you and the many people who were your staff, for a moment of Christmas magic those many years ago. PS. I still have the Six Million Man.