In the 1970s, the stretch of Whyte Avenue that ran through Old Strathcona was not much of a shopping or hang-out destination. It was a place of discount stores, services like banks and gas stations, repair shops, dive bars, and a few strip clubs. By the time the 1980s came around, I was on the avenue at least once a week after high school, visiting HUB Cigar to pick up my copy of New Music Express and other British music weeklies, and a few times a year for a group outing to the Princess Theatre to see movies like Dawn of the Dead.
Then came the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. In a handful of mid-1980s years, the festival grew from a week of plays in a few theatre spaces, makeshift venues, and back alleys to a massive festival spread over several blocks. The festival, the Old Strathcona Business Association, and many interested community members built up the neighbourhood into a lively, year-round destination of boutiques, cafés, and a better class of night spots.
But gentrification and growth led to other problems. One was the proliferation of bars that left the street rowdy at night and empty during the day, addressed over the years through nightclub-led security initiatives and a municipal moratorium on bars. Another was the combination of chain stores eager to drink existing businesses’ milkshakes and landlords who were all too willing to serve them.
A new building went up at the corner of 105 Street and Whyte Ave, where a bank and gas station had stood. The first tenant in the expansive first-floor reatil space was a Sony Store, definitely a step up from the Radio Shack that was previously located down the block. But the high-end pricing of the store didn’t meet the low-end budget of the students, artists, and seniors who lived in the neighbourhood.
In the late 1990s, Old Strathcona fans and residents like me did not welcome the news that Chapters would be moving in. Walmart in the U.S. had set the precedence of a corporate big-box entity that would steamroll over existing locally owned stores, then close up when it was convenient for corporate HQ, leaving a community without any of the stores it replaced. (It was such a familiar pattern, the late 1990s sitcom That 70s Show borrowed it for a whole story arc involving the father’s unemployment due to the arrival of a giant “Pricemart” franchise.)
It took two decades, but Chapters is finally completing the familiar narrative, leaving the neighbourhood after it contributed to the premature closures of both Orlando Books and Greenwoods Books. In 2015, Jacqueline Dumas wrote about the factors that went into her decision to close her store, Orlando Books, for the Edmonton Queer History Project. She did not specifically mention Chapters, but did include the fact that she’d already moved the store east from its original location closer to Garneau due to rising rents.
Chapters’ prominent presence was most obviously a bold challenge to Greenwoods Books. The family-run store had a prime location on Whyte Avenue by the eastbound 104th Street bus stop, and, for a time, a second location in the building off Whyte that now houses some personal care studios and shops next to Planet Organic. (That building is itself the result of gentrification, having previously been home to Prudham Building Supplies.) I vividly remember being in the new Greenwoods, which was huge, well-stocked, beautiful, and had a wonderful children’s section, when a couple of tourists walked in. They said it was nice, but they were looking for the DVD section and knick knacks. In short, they were looking for Chapters.
After Chapters’ imminent closure made the news, I read a lot of fond remembrances on Twitter by people who had never known another new-release bookstore on Whyte Avenue. A few people said they would miss Chapters as an actual bookstore, and one that supported local authors. But most tweeters made mention of browsing the shelves, using the washrooms, having a place for kids to play, and hanging out for a coffee. They were essentially describing a library with a café. Chapters was evidently not selling enough books or knick knacks to run a library and public washroom on Whyte Avenue.
I also read some disparaging comments about the replacement tenant, Winners. I’m not thrilled that it will be competing against the nearby, underrated Army and Navy (some of my favourite pieces of clothing are from A & N Boutique!), but is Winners out of character for the neighbourhood? It’s certainly not a business that screams 1914, the heyday of Old Strathcona, but it’s not far off from the large, corporate tenants that have established themselves on that corner. Winners is just the next step on the retail ladder that detractors feared: an even larger, even more generic chain store. Granted, it does have a better general housewares section than anything in the neighbourhood since Call the Kettle Black moved to High Street. It won’t be a venue for local writers, but Winners might serve the neighbourhood’s needs as well as Chapters — as long it has enough washrooms.