Automotive shops don’t come with a view. They come with grease and rags and the rubbery smell of fresh tires. But a view? No.
Then, there’s the Auto Centre at the Bay.
From the upper deck of the parkade next to the once full, now empty and boarded-up store on Portage Avenue, owner Mike Timlick has an enviable view of Winnipeg’s downtown. Look right, and there’s the Winnipeg Art Gallery and its new beacon, Qaumajuq. Look straight ahead, and Timlick’s eyes meet the twinkling peepers on the Golden Boy’s face.
"In the summer, I come in every day, 6:45 a.m., and if it’s nice out I grab my coffee, sit by myself out there on a little rolling chair I bring out," says Timlick, 59, who bought the auto shop in 2012. "Sun’s rising, look out at the Legislative Building. It’s beautiful. It’s a nice little scene."
It’s a changing scene. Perhaps more than any other neighbourhood in the city, the face of Winnipeg’s downtown has been changed by the novel coronavirus. However, the automotive shop, opened in 1964, has been witness to that change long before the pandemic began.
"The times keep on changing," Timlick said, paraphrasing Bob Dylan and Steve Miller.
On Oct. 29, 1954 — the day the Bay Parkade opened — there was a massive celebration to mark the occasion. A crowd of nearly 200 onlookers assembled on Vaughan Street to watch a 1953 Buick Super convertible tear through a ribbon and become the first car to park in one of its 135 spots. The Royal Canadian Artillery Band performed in uniform to christen the structure, designed by Moody Moore Architects and built at a cost of roughly $8.3 million in today’s dollars.
It was the first parkade built by the Hudson’s Bay Company to address the oncoming boom of the personal vehicle, the result of eight years of research by engineers and Bay executives, who spent weeks travelling in the United States and consulted Yale University’s Urban Land Institute in their planning.
"The war years and the immediate post-war period made plain that downtown department stores in medium-sized cities would have to do something to provide off-street parking facilities and counteract growing competition of shopping centres in suburban areas," read an article in the Bay News, the company’s in-house newspaper.
The parkade would be as vital in the store’s success downtown as woolen blankets and parkas.
The purpose of the parkade was to enhance the shopping experience and the shoppers’ convenience, allowing customers to buy more product while also charging them a modest hourly rate. Soon, parkades were added to the Bay’s Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria and Vancouver stores.
With the first two tiers in Winnipeg consistently full, and automotive registration rising, the Bay added a third level in 1955. By 1964, there was a need for a fourth deck, expanding parking capacity to 849 vehicles. On the fourth deck, the company planned to add a tire, battery and auto accessories centre.
The automotive centre corresponded with the Bay’s desire to be a place where consumers could get everything they needed, whether a meal, a bottle of liquor, a cashed cheque, or even a tune-up.
It sold the tires and the batteries, and fixed them when they needed repairs: for workers downtown, that meant parking their vehicles and getting their oil changed while they toiled away at the office or at the nearby Law Courts. And as the parkade grew taller, the store expanded, repurposing storage space as merchandise areas while other stores opened across the city.
As arms of the Bay’s business model, the automotive centre and the parkade were successful: anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles came into the parkade on a daily basis throughout the 1960s, with signs directing them to the upper deck and to the Auto Centre, which was conveniently located next to a store entrance. There were also hundreds of employees who became repeat customers, including some who still go today.
"Every car I’ve had since 1977 has been looked after by the garage at the Bay," said Nora Loades, 91, who was the manager of furs and later the bridal department. "They’ve taken very good care of me."
Around the time Loades started at the Bay was when Timlick first saw the Auto Centre. He took power mechanics courses and got into the automotive business right out of school, and sold parts to the centre’s owners. He was a bit shocked to find that there was a garage atop the parkade, he remembers.
By 1986, the company sold off the Winnipeg parkade to Citipark, with others across Canada selling around the same time. The regional operations manager told the Free Press then that managing the facilities didn’t fit with the Bay’s mainstream operation: they’d still benefit from the properties without having to staff them or maintain them.
"We’re really not parkade operators," he said. The move also coincided with the Bay growing its footprint out of downtowns and into suburban areas and shopping malls.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2010s, the Bay, though still an important building, underwent major changes as did the downtown, with customer foot traffic steadily decreasing and the store’s displays shrinking year over year. The Auto Centre continued to do steady business.
Then in 2012, one thing led to another, and Timlick bought the shop, knowing it was a stable business with loyal customers dating back decades.
"I was almost 50," he said, recalling discussing the purchase with his wife and crunching the numbers. "How many opportunities like that do you get? If I make it work, great. If it’s a total failure, I’ll survive. There’s always a risk."
Less than three years later, Timlick paid off his debt, with the inherited customer base sticking with him. The first few years were phenomenal, he said.
Yet for however well business was going atop the parkade, the 650,000 square-foot building next door wasn’t doing so hot. By 2019, as the coronavirus arrived, the iconic retail store had consolidated its stock to two of its six levels, and was sparsely visited, a shell of its former majestic self. A company-wide valuation of HBC’s real estate holdings pegged the building’s value at $0.
On Nov. 30, the company officially closed the store, just shy of its 100th anniversary. Despite that, the Auto Centre at the Bay is nearing its 58th year of business.
Timlick says three lockdowns have done a number on his business, which relies on people coming downtown to work. "Our location has hurt us," he said. "But in saying that, it’s helped us, and our base customers have continued to support us."
He never expected his own business to outlive the Bay, but says he understands it: big, downtown department stores are struggling everywhere, especially right now, to remain in the black.
Admittedly, business is slower at the shop, too. "But as long as people are driving, we will be in business," Timlick said. "It’s heartbreaking to see so many places struggling around here, but I think it’ll come back. I really do."
Not a bad outlook from a garage with a view.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.