Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca

It’s hard to keep up with the rate of change. The other day, a news report announced that Army and Navy stores were closing.

I remember Army and Navy as the place to go to get stuff cheap. The late Sam Cohen founded Army and Navy in Vancouver

101 years ago, as a war surplus outlet.

The Great War was over. He could get goods at going-out-of-business prices; hence the Army and Navy title.

He soon moved out of war surplus, but maintained his motto: “Buy cheap; sell cheap.”

During my short years in sales, an awestruck co-worker told me about Cohen buying a whole trainload of wooden tent pegs – just when plastic tent pegs were coming in.

No one wanted wooden pegs any more, Cohen’s staff told him.

Cohen’s answer — tie them in bundles and sell them as firewood.

“And he still made a profit,” my colleague burbled happily. “That’s the power of bulk buying!”

Sam Cohen is gone, and so are his stores. His daughter and inheritor Jacqui Cohen blamed the restrictions of COVID-19. “We had too many goods to sell and no one to sell them to,” she said.

The same week, news stories said the Reitman’s clothing chain was filing for bankruptcy. Even the survival of the venerable Hudson’s Bay Company was in doubt.

HBC is almost synonymous with Canada itself. The first Canadian limited-liability corporation, maybe the world’s first. Founded in 1670, before Canada was even a country. Opened the west to English trade. Made the world’s warmest blankets.

I can no more imagine Canada happening without the HBC than without the CPR.

These closures can’t all be blamed on COVID-19. The trend was there long before. The department stores I grew up with – especially Spencer’s and Woodward’s in Vancouver – have all gone.

Sears Canada folded two years ago. Sears itself was descended from Simpsons, the department store competitor to Eaton’s, the granddaddy of Canadian catalog sales.

At the same time, some retail chains have seen their sales soaring. Canadian Tire’s revenues dropped, but its online sales and pickups rose “20 to 30 times,” according to president and chief executive Greg Hicks.

“We believe COVID-19 has permanently shifted the shopping behaviour of many,” Hicks told the Globe and Mail.

It’s hard to keep up with the changes already happening, let alone with what may come.

I’ve written previously that I suspect many churches will close, even when COVID restrictions end.

The majority of regular attenders (and reliable supporters) are over 60. They come out every week because that’s what they’ve done, and were encouraged to do, all their lives.

But for two months now, they’ve discovered they don’t have to come to church. There are higher priorities than gathering for worship.

I wonder how many of those regular attenders will make the effort once gatherings are permitted again.

Universities have had to experiment with online teaching. Conventional lectures may go the way of Army and Navy.

And schools are re-opening. Sort of. Children will start going back to school in

10 days. But school attendance will be optional, not mandatory.

This from a system that once employed truant officers to round up kids playing hookey, and that put Doukhobor children in an internment camp to make sure their parents couldn’t keep them from attending.

Teachers will certainly get the smaller class sizes they have lobbied for. Physical distancing will probably limit class sizes to under a dozen students, who attend only one or two days a week.

I have a hunch that the education system may discover that children can learn as much in a single day when the teacher can give individual attention, as they can in a week when the teacher’s primary task is maintaining some semblance of order.

The COVID pandemic has also made us, as a society, re-think seniors’ care. Especially those seniors who lack a vigorous younger advocate to raise hell on their behalf. Our model of caring for helpless elders resembles an uncaring assembly line. They become objects, to be fed, cleaned, and left alone – out of sight, out of mind.

I’m not surprised that 80% of COVID deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities.

My wife saw enough of that system with her aging aunts. That’s why she insisted that she wanted to die at home.

Army and Navy stores might have closed anyway. Education might have changed anyway. Long-term care might have changed. But much more slowly. COVID-19 has forced our hands.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca.