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Québec City’s First Department Stores

A journalist wrote in 1900 that any self-respecting modern city needed department stores. In Québec City, J.-B. Laliberté led the way, opening the first such store in this grand old building in 1884. Others followed suit on rue Saint-Joseph and were an immediate hit. In stores like this, customers browsed freely through a wide range of goods, snapping up bargains that caught their eye. But all such stores would close their doors after 1970—or find a way to reinvent themselves. 

Buying better, buying more

Department stores appeared first in Paris, but grew quickly popular in the United States. They were the first to put customers in direct contact with a dizzying selection of merchandise designed to get them to buy more. Shoppers discovered a wealth of products behind their doors and gave in to temptation far more often than in traditional stores, where goods were hidden away behind the counter. Prices were also lower since profits came from selling in volume, although customers did have to pay cash.

Department stores made shopping fun, a novelty that was a big part of their appeal. The stores also played the glamour card. They set up shop in fancy new buildings and offered first-rate service, with plenty of staff on hand to inform and advise clients. They also offered new services like home delivery, mail orders, and in-store restaurants.

Location, location, location

For close to a century, the big four department stores on rue Saint-Joseph—Laliberté, Paquet, Syndicat, and Pollack, all neighbours—competed against each other. To uphold the high standards that drove their success, they vied to introduce innovations like electric lighting, elevators, air conditioning, window displays, easier access for cars, and new product offerings.

This was easier to do on rue Saint-Joseph, which was less densely developed than the city’s older shopping streets. There was room to expand stores along Saint-Joseph, then back to current-day boulevard Charest, which was built in the 1930s to help ease traffic flow.

The Paquet store

In 1890 the new Paquet department store boasted no fewer than six storeys, an impressive height for a building of its size at the time. Customers could buy all kinds of things in store or out of the catalogue: clothes, fabric, hats, gloves, furs, shoes, furniture, mattresses, kitchen utensils, toys, carpets, suitcases, silverware, perfumes, and books.

The store was divided into departments run by managers, who were responsible for sales and for choosing the products that appeared on their shelves. Paquet also opened a garage and stables to accommodate the horse-drawn carriages of customers from outside the city.

The end of an era

For decades these high-end department stores drew in shoppers from across the city and much of eastern Québec. They were the undisputed heavyweights of the retail trade.

But a developing road network and more and more cars brought an end to their dominance. The suburbs filled up from the 1960s on, and easy-to-drive-to shopping malls attracted an ever-growing clientele. Meanwhile people continued to move away from Saint-Roch in droves.

These changes forced the department stores on Rue Saint-Joseph to close in the 1970s and 1980s. J.-B. Laliberté was the only one to survive, by finding a new use for part of its building and refocusing on its original niche: furs.

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