Growing up in small town Ponoka during the 1950s and early 60s was, for this writer, filled with good experiences. With a population in the range of 3,000 to 4,200 people, it was easy to really feel like you belonged to a closely-knit community.
Outside influence from larger urban centres such as Red Deer, Wetaskiwin, Edmonton and Calgary was present, but unlike today, to a much more limited extent. Aside from staff at local schools and the General Hospital, major employment occurred at the nearby Ponoka Mental Hospital with almost all the staff living in Town or District. Shopping downtown was the habit of most people.
Hwy. 2, which we now call Railway Street, ran right through downtown as it connected the “dots” between Calgary and Edmonton. During the early to mid-1960s the new, four-lane highway made its appearance and our otherwise somewhat sleepy town began to be impacted in significant ways.
Prior to the 60s decade, the local merchants and service providers could count on strong support from town and country residents. All types of businesses flourished in the 40s, 50s and early 60s, but that was all about to change. It was my distinct privilege to work in several of them.
Early in my teens I worked at the Revelstoke Lumber store as a yard “hand.” After school at the age of 15 it was a privilege to be able to make deliveries with the company pick-up truck even before having a driver’s license. However, after one cold winter of loading and delivering loads of coal – all by shovel – from the dark and spooky boxcars behind the grain elevators, I knew it was time to consider a “career” change.
With three, thriving, dedicated men’s wear stores in town, I set about looking for a clean, warm, indoor job with more agreeable working conditions. And so it was that I entered the world of “haberdashery.”
First up was Jim’s Place owned by Jim Trahan and his wife Noreen, located in the historic Bird Drug brick building – now vacant – on Chipman Avenue. Jim gave me good training in how to deal with customers, apply suggestive selling, coordinate clothing choices, handle money, maintain the inventory and do window dressing. Of course, being the “grunt” on staff, it also included janitorial duties inside and out – bathroom included.
Jim would always find a way to make his customers comfortable, had a polished approach to selling, and was always ready to discuss local affairs and share some good humour. On several occasions in the summer, I went on purchasing trips to Edmonton with him in his immaculate, huge Hudson Hornet car. I recall being impressed with the way he was respected as a gentleman by the manufacturer’s representatives.
A year of more later, I was enticed to move to a competitor … Jack’s Men’s Wear. The owners, Glen Mah Poy along with his wife Win (“Winnie”), were very persistent and enjoyable characters as employers. A bigger pay cheque was offered so I moved up the alley about 300 feet to my new “post.”
Even in this small town, I recall there being a noticeable difference in the profile of clientele. Glen was in the habit of going to the Auction Market almost every Wednesday to possibly buy some goats, ducks or whatever other animals might be suited to his little “hobby farm” below the railroad tracks near the river. This “side line” of his connected him with many rural folks, so they tended to gravitate to his store. He always found time to take an interest in each customer and share jokes and stories.
Glen was the consummate salesman. He never wanted to lose the chance to sell something to whomever came to the store. His mantra could be worded this way: “If they come to this store, they must be planning to buy something. So, make sure you sell them something.”
Old and outdated stock, such as shoes, pants or jackets were never just given away or tossed out. “There is a buyer for everything,” he would say. On more than one occasion I was requested to rummage through old stock in the back room or basement to find an item that just might meet a customer’s need. Wrapping paper wadded up and stuffed in the end of an “old” new pair of shoes just a bit too roomy would more than once ring up a sale and send a customer away happy. A good deal sometimes trumped a good fit.
“Work life” at Jack’s Men’s Wear was a valuable experience. But, an opportunity for still better pay in a larger store, with more challenging work was too good an opportunity to miss. So, after a year and a half I moved back down the alley to Thomson’s Men’s Wear (now the location of Jones Agencies Insurance) which was often considered to be the prime men’s wear store in town.
It was apparent very early that this store, in general, served a rather different slice of the Ponoka market. This was partly due to the fact that the owner, Richie Thomson with his wife Jean moved in different circles than the owners of the other two men’s stores.
Richie came from a local merchant family dating back to 1924, with his father first having a grocery and bakery store on Railway street, and then in the early 1950’s acquired the Green’s Gent’s Furnishers business and building on Chipman Avenue. Later, the store took on his family surname. Also, this couple was much involved in local Kinsmen and other service organizations, with friends and associates who were long established as leaders in local businesses, community government, civic organizations and a wide range of professions. It often happened that the expectations of this clientele, concerning product knowledge and customer service, were higher and as staff we tried hard to meet those expectations.
A part of this store’s offerings was the “added value” service of a very talented and amiable tailor, being Frank Turner who was the lead tailor at the Ponoka Mental Hospital. He was regularly available to perform his “sewing magic,” making alterations to suits and pants so that customers would be assured of the very best fit and look.
Another unique service was membership in the store’s “Suit Club.” It fell to me to make the rounds on Tuesday of each week to many local businesses to collect a $2 membership fee. This money accumulated in their account, allowing a purchase of clothing – typically a dress jacket or suit – with a significant discount once a year. This was another marketing strategy to ensure a good grasp of the “business clientele” in Ponoka.
The Town and District of Ponoka were well served by these men’s wear stores with their skilled, dedicated and congenial owners and staff for many years. However, as for many other retailers in town, this “Mom and Pop” business model has been challenged in increasingly significant ways over the past five decades.
Increased ease of highway access to bigger urban centres with extensive product choices, easy credit plans, slick marketing strategies as well as the arrival of online purchasing – plus many other factors – has made many small businesses such as these clothing stores unviable.
Considering how the world of commerce has changed, it is now imperative to be highly service-oriented, knowledgeable and innovative in finding new ways to attract and hold customers in order to develop a profitable small business. Happily, some Ponoka retailers are achieving this, thereby helping to preserve the small town culture that we enjoy.