The Food Emporium

When I was a wee thing, one of my greatest delights was stopping at the bakery counter at Simpson’s where my Mom would buy me a gingerbread man. Simpson’s was an old Canadian department store, at that time paired with Sears (old folks referred to it as “Simpson-Sears”), and then later bought out by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The bakery and candy counter at the Simpson’s store in Halifax was right by the main doors that opened onto the city bus depot, convenient for anyone who had to switch buses to get to where they were going.

In those days, upscale department stores stocked a huge variety of sweets, particularly penny candy, and as a kid, it was a place of true wonderment. I’d clutch my gingerbread man tightly all the way home, careful not to let an arm or leg break off before I could eat him.

At some point in my early teens, Simpson’s moved to the other end of the mall, and Sears took over the space, removing the candy and bakery counter and forcing a bit of a trek for anyone who wanted a gingerbread man or a bag of Chinese Chews for the bus ride home.

When I moved to Toronto in the late 80s, the food emporium at Eaton’s was a treasure trove of delights. Sure, I lived in Kensington Market and could have my pick of bizarre Asian fruit or Portuguese fish or real cream cheese, but the aisles of shortbread, jam and tea in the basement of Eaton’s made me feel safe and happy in a city that was often foreign and scary to a teenager a thousand miles away from home. That it was full of sweet little Scottish grandmothers didn’t hurt either.

Over the years the food emporium areas of both the now-defunct Eaton’s and The Bay (formerly Simpson’s) at Yonge and Queen have morphed with the times. When Sears took over the Eaton’s space, the basement floor became part of the mall – if Sears has ever had a food section, I’ve never found it.

Down at the Bay, the food section still exists, but shrinks every few years as the demand for high-end household goods grows. $500 sets of pots turn a bigger profit than penny candy, which The Bay no longer carries. The bakery, once huge, is a mere counter, and the deli area is one small section of a prepared-food area that specializes in pizza and Caribbean food. There was a big cafe area there for a while, with plush comfy chairs, and at one point about 2000 square feet of interesting prepared items such as mustards, jams, preserves and bread.

It’s not that people don’t want these things anymore – fine food shops are springing up everywhere and high-end products are hugely popular. But department stores, especially those with aspirations of being high-end, would rather take up floor space with expensive items with a larger profit margin. So 600-thread count sheets will always win out over candy. And even the candy that they stock is swank, with brand names like Godiva taking up most of the small area allotted to sweets.

Now that the Bay has been sold to Lord & Taylor, it will be interesting to see what changes occur. There’s already talk of splitting up the historic building and cutting out certain merchandise segments to allow for not only higher-end items, and a Lord & Taylor floor with designer fashions, but to bring in a small Zellers store, the lower end department store owned by the Bay.

Which makes me wonder if there will be room again for a food emporium area.

Funnily enough, while walking through the small food area of the Bay the other day, I spied gingerbread men in the bakery case. As I bought one and prepared to stick the bag in my backpack, the sweet Jamaican lady behind the counter seemed distressed. “You’ll break his arms off before you can eat them!” she said in that classic accent. “You don’t want that!”

“You’re right,” I said, gently removing the brown paper bag from my pack. “I should be more careful.”

I carried that bag separately the whole way home, despite having a backpack and an additional heavy bag to carry. I resisted the urge to munch on my gingery friend on the streetcar, and was happy to see that he made it home to the plate in one piece, although he did lose one of his royal icing eyes in the process.

I wonder how long the little bakery counter will remain after the store officially changes hands; whether they’ll keep it or scrap it. I wonder if little kids today even care about gingerbread men. And I wonder where Scottish grandmothers go to buy their shortbread and jam now that Eaton’s is a distant memory.

Certainly, you can’t stop progress and things don’t ever stay the same, but carrying home that gingerbread man made me so very happy. Happier than chichi cupcakes or fancy restaurant meals ever have. I hope there’s still a place for bakery counters and gingerbread men once the store is renovated. Treats from the department store food emporium are an integral part of the typical Canadian childhood – it would be a shame to lose that.