David Spencer: A Retail Pioneer
David Spencer Limited (commonly known as Spencer’s) operated in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century as part of a larger department store chain in British Columbia. It was established in Victoria in 1873 by Welsh immigrant David Spencer, who had arrived in the gold rush. A staunch Methodist who did not believe in offering credit to his customers, he expanded to Vancouver in 1906, buying the drygoods firm Drysdale & Stevenson which was renowned for its high-stepping chestnut horses pulling its chestnut-coloured delivery wagons through the city streets. His son Christopher, known to the employees as Mr. Chris, moved to Vancouver to manage the store and built a large house in Kerrisdale. A second son, Col. Victor Spencer, was the long-time owner of the large house now called Aberthau near the old Jericho military base (see Jericho Arts Centre).
The Flagship Store
Spencer’s expanded quickly from its original Vancouver store, and by December 1926, after purchasing a greater part of a block in the 500-block Hastings Street, it opened an elegant nine-storey art deco flagship store. Designed by McCarter & Nairne, the building had five stories below street level and 320,000 square feet of shopping space. As well as having many amenities, it boasted a toyland and its trademark chairs beside the elevators. The store sold a lunch menu that was touted as being “the best in town”. Spencer’s ran the store for close to 20 years before selling it to Eaton’s department store chain in 1948.
Why was Spencer’s important in Vancouver?
During the first half of the 20th century Spencer’s Department Store was an important retail institution in Vancouver as it not only supported many civic events but also employed many people in Vancouver. In 1936, it celebrated Vancouver’s Golden Jubilee by creating a time capsule to be opened in 1986 (now part of the City of Vancouver Archives).
Selling to Eaton’s
In 1948, David Spencer Limited sold all its stores in British Columbia, including its Hastings Street location to the T. Eaton Company of Toronto. Under the new owner, the department store operated as Eaton’s until 1972, when Eaton’s opened its new Vancouver flagship store in the newly constructed Pacific Centre shopping mall.
Older portions of the Spencer’s store were demolished in 1973 for the construction of a mall, office tower and observation deck, leaving just the 1928 part which was reworked into a Sears store. In 1989, Sears moved out and Simon Fraser University moved in. Today it serves as the downtown “Harbour Centre” campus of Simon Fraser University.