The ghosts of Steinberg’s

There’s something particularly iconic about supermarkets, especially in North America, where they first emerged in the 1940s and have a good half-century of history behind them. While supermarkets today are an entrenched part of the urban landscape, there was something particularly fresh and innovative about them in the 1950s, which you can see in those that have survived from that era without too many alterations.

But even those that have been altered significantly have left a big imprint on the shape of our streets and neighbourhoods. I never realized just how big of an impact Steinberg’s had on the Montreal landscape until Kate McDonnell pointed me towards a Flickr photostream containing a few dozen then-and-now images of Steinberg’s supermarkets around town.

Steinberg’s was one of those businesses that was more than just a business: in postwar Quebec, it was a cultural phenomenon, a Jewish-owned grocery chain that became an entrenched part of working- and middle-class francophone culture. “Je fais mon Steinberg” became a phrase housewives used to mean they were going out to buy food for dinner. At its height, it was one of the largest and most important food businesses in Canada, with stores throughout Quebec and Ontario and at least one location in each neighbourhood of Montreal.

Steinberg’s went under in 1992, the victim of a family dispute, and its assets were divided between Metro and Provigo, its two Quebec competitors. But its legacy lives on in popular culture. Fifteen years after it disappeared, pretty much everyone in Montreal still knows about Steinberg’s; its logo has even become a trendy accessory, thanks to buttons and t-shirts made by Montréalité.

But what really interests me is how the ghost of Steinberg’s continues to linger in Montreal’s commercial areas. In the photo above, for instance, you can see the Steinberg’s on Somerled Avenue in western NDG as it appeared in 1951, when it was first built, and today. It has lost a lot of its mid-century verve since the—the campanile has been inexplicably chopped down and the present-day Metro logo appears clunky and misplaced—but you can still see that is bulky presence has been maintained on an otherwise marginal commercial street.

I’ve always considered Montreal to be particularly well-served by grocery stores. I wonder how much of that had to do with Steinberg’s and the groundwork it laid when it built such a large network of stores throughout the city. Could it be that, more than leaving a cultural and architectural legacy, Steinberg’s continues to play a role in Montreal’s economy?

Crossposted from Urbanphoto

25 comments

  1. Greengrocers at the Jean-Talon Market, chatting (in Italian) about the decline and closing of Sami Fruit, talked about their youth when that space on the northern edge of the market (south side of Jean-Talon just west of Henri-Julien) had been a Steinberg’s, an “anchor” for the market. After the Steinberg’s closed, it became a rather seedy, large tavern/brasserie/bar before its Sami Fruit reincarnation.

    But indeed, other than the market and all the Maghrebi and East/Southeast Asian shops nearby, there are three supermarkets within easy walking distance: Métro Bourdon (Jean-Talon and av de Chateaubriand), IGA (St-Zotique and St-André) and of course now the big Loblaws, just across the viaduct at Jean-Talon and du Parc/Hutchison.

    I know many people in Toronto and Ottawa who have to take a bus to get to a supermarket, if they don’t have a car and it isn’t cyclable weather. Some in Québec City as well. Fortunately, that seems less common here.

    Pity about the campanile.

  2. The folks at Azores hardware on St-Laurent x Vallières (at the little Parc Portugais) will tell you that the original Steinberg’s store was in that building, and they still have the original safe to prove it. (I suspect that Steinberg’s were originally situated further south, nearer to where Warshaws used to be, but I could be wrong).

    I think the prevalence of grocery stores has to do with the population density – one of the highest in NA cities per square mile. So it fits that there are more grocery stores, as they’d be just as profitable as if spread farther apart in other cities.

    Funny that you posted that image of the Somerled Steinberg’s – it was the one my mother shopped at when we were small. We also used Steinberg’s when we moved to Ottawa – there was also a Loblaws in the same mall, but Steinberg’s had ingredients, and Loblaws had “fast food”.

  3. As mentioned in another post, we shopped at the Somerled and Walkley Steinberg’s for almost 20 years.

    What most now do not know is that Steinberg’s built a TUNNEL beneath Somerled to send groceries in cardboard boxes on a conveyor to the then-large parking lot on the East side of Walkley behind the bank.

    At that time, c. 1955?, the South parking lot took up most of the 1/2 block from just South of the bank to just North of the apartment building at Terrebonne and Walkley.

    In 1959 they built the apartment in the South end of the old parking lot.

    Adjacent to the Drug Store on Somerled there was a long-low roofed structure with garage-type rolling-up doors where the conveyor rose from beneath Somerled carrying the boxes of groceries and attendants loaded these into customer’s autos as they queued up facing Somerled.

    After other Steinberg’s opened at Walkley and Cote St Luc and at Cote St Luc Shopping Centre when it opened in 1956, fewer people shopped at Walkley and Somerled putting the tunnel beneath Somerled and the conveyor out of business c. 1962?

    The shelter in the parking lot lasted well into the sixties and a taxi stand was there for a long time.

    The Steinberg’s tunnel under Somerled was a big deal at the time, and there could be more info in the newspapers of the time.

  4. What a great post! Steinberg’s was such a big part of my life growing up in Ottawa. My mom worked there (at Westgate) for a while, and that’s where we bought almost all our groceries. I still recall shopping with her before I was old enough to go to school.

  5. Pinky Stamps were also a big deal in the fifties and they were awarded with purchases simlar to Canadian Tire money is today.

    A Pinky Stamp was Pink, obviously,had dry glue on the back and was a little smaller than a regular postal stamp, and was intended to be dampened and stuck into a Pinky Stamp Book.

    There was a little Pinky ‘man’ on the face of each Pinky Stamp holding a banner with the word ‘Pinky’ thereupon.

    With big purchases the Pinky Stamps came in sheets which had to be sized down to fit in the book.

    Messy! and sticky! but, fun for kids on a rainy day.

    When full the Pinky Stamp Books were returned to select Steinberg’s stores for redemption for gifts.

    Not all Steinberg’s were Pinky Stamp redemption centres, and, as I recall, the Steinberg’s at Sherbrooke and Cavendish was one of the stores in NDG where redemption could be made.

  6. Hello, thanks for the announcement, this will bring a lot of people to see the Steinberg heritage around town (or whatever left of it…).

    In your text, you forgot that IGA took over some stores as well, only Provigo and Metro. A few blocks away from the shown store, IGA has former Steinberg’s sites in Cote-St-Luc Shopping Center and Cavendish Mall…

    Reason I did this is in memory of the Millen/Henri Bourassa store which was demolished last year and as well some others in Montreal and around Quebec and Ontario. This “then and now” reminds us that we did have a “supermarket” boom as well as the Americans. If you have a chance to see in Flickr, many web sites have vintage supermarkets storefronts.

    And most of my relatives worked for Steinberg’s (my late dad, my mother, brother and uncle) so it’s a tribute of what was a pionneer in food store history.

    Thanks again and keep up the excellent work !

    CL

  7. There was a supermarket-type store in NDG at Bessborough and Somerled on the South East corner which may have been a ‘Thrift’ store?

    Upstairs was a pool hall.

    And another supermarket on Decarie, before the Expressway, on the West Side, facing Saranac/Dalou, the name of which escapes me almost 60 years later. Dominion?

  8. @Cdnlococo

    Somerled/Bessborough store was a THRIFT then DOMINION up to the end of the 70s.

    Decarie store was a Dominion as well, opened in 1949 and closed somewhere in the mid-70s…

    Coincidence: both stores after Dominion left were carpet stores…

  9. We lived on Saranac in the Forties and shopped at that Decarie Dominion before moving to NDG in the Fifties and then shopped at the Walkley and Somerled Steinberg’s and the Steinberg’s at Cote St Luc Shopping centre after it opened in ’56.

    Thank You for confirming the ‘Thrift’ store on Somerled at Bessborough as I had forgotten all about it until reminded of it by this thread.

    A drive in the then-new auto out 2-17 to shop at Dorval Shopping Centre c. 1956 was considered a great outing by all. There was a Steinberg’s there too, as I remember.

    Shopping Centres were considered the marvel of the modern age even tho’ you then had to go outside to get from store to store.

    Mall Rats, tacky music and Lattes came much later.

  10. HI Chris,
    There is still a brass S for Steinberg embedded in the exterior floor masonry at the entrance corner Walkley and Somerled.

  11. Hi, I want to make an article in our old truck magazine (Véhicules Utilitaires Anciens) on the fleet of Steinberg Truck over the years. We looks for old photos of the big truck with the name Steinberg, Miracle Mart ou Cardinal on them. Thanks.

    Bob

  12. In an article above there is a Link to a photo of a red Steinberg’s truck taken at St Jacques and Prud Homme in 1954.

    Prud Homme and Minto were both ‘disappeared’ when they constructed the Decarie Expressway in the Sixties.

    Here is a present-day view from Google looking West towards Addington and Girouard, the angled building visible between the tower on the Tower Car and the Steinberg’s truck in the 1954 photo is still evident at Addington and St Jacques.

    http://maps.google.ca/maps?hl=en&source=embed&q=city+hall&ie=UTF8&radius=0.11&sll=45.461239,-73.648699&sspn=0.00142,0.004495&rq=1&ev=zi&t=h&layer=c&cbll=45.469706,-73.603015&panoid=G2GnDMsmKGh5UTyevzA8Jw&cbp=13,261.37,,0,1.86&hq=city+hall&hnear=&ll=45.469627,-73.603147&spn=0,359.997264&z=19

    When I was young we lived on Saranac off Decarie, my father and I would walk down Decarie to St Jacques to overlook the CNR’s Turcot Roundhouse just below the escarpment West of St Remi.

    The CPR Glen/Westmount yard was then just to the North of St Jacques, East of Decarie.

    When we later moved to NDG, we took the 3A streetcar from Walkley and Somerled, and the Tower Car was often in the South tail of the Wye on Walkley whilst it’s crew was in Cumberland Drug across from Steinberg’s.

    A wonderful machine to peruse before our streetcar arrived for downtown.

  13. But there is a class of persons which cannot be, strictly speaking, included under either of these denominations, namely, the class of those who have ceased to reside in their native country, and have taken up a permanent abode . ,

  14. I have a nice collection of those “Pinky stamps” dishes, star burst pattern, made in France, “Les Etoiles”. If anyone is interested in buying the collection ( 55 pieces) please contact me.

  15. In 1950 we came from Ireland and lived on Sherbrooke and Addington above a bakery and just across the street from Steinberg’s before it went to Sherbrooke and Wilson.

    What was the name of the bakery on the corner of Sherbrooke and Addington?

    Stephanie Craig

  16. The Somerled and Walkley store had a tunnel under Walkley to the parking lot, the idea probably came from their Ottawa store because it worked so well.

    When Steinberg’s opened their first store in Ottawa after the war WWII (the big one) it was in the basement of A.J. Freiman’s department store on Rideau Street and there was a pedestrian tunnel dug under George Street to their Parking Garage with a conveyor and that Steinberg’s used to move the boxes of groceries to where their customers could load them into their cars or Taxis.

    The tunnel is still there and is used by The Bay customers but the conveyor was shut down many years ago.

    A.J. Freiman’s was sold to The Bay. Charles Ogilvy, Caplan’s, Larocques Department Stores all within a couple of blocks were closed when the Rideau Centre was opened. They have all gone the way of Steinberg’s and we older folk still miss them. My wife was from NDG and we always shopped at Steinberg’s in Ottawa-Gatineau.

    But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

  17. Looking for the name of the Bakery at the corner of Addington and Sherbrooke Street. The doors were kitty corner to Addington, in summer screen doors, painted bottle green.
    They made the most wonderful Chelsea Buns and Charlotte Rouse and my Dad always treated us to them. This building was 3 stories, the store, a flat and an upper flat where my girlfriend lived about 21 stairs straight up..with a big balcony overlooking Addington Avenue where I lived.

  18. I grew up in Westmount (Lansdowne between Sherbrooke and Western, now DeMaisonneuve) from ~1965 to 1971. The nearest Steinbergs’ was on the south-east corner of Sherbrooke and Victoria. On the corner was a City and District’s Savings Bank and the Steinbergs was wrapped around that in an L-shape, having entrances on both Sherbrooke and Victoria. It is now a Metro. The entrance on Victoria was between the bank and the Miss Westmount restaurant. On the south side of Sherbrooke, heading east from Steinbergs’ there were a couple of businesses, then Fry’s Stationery, run by two older ladies, then Clement’s small ‘fine’ grocery store (where my mother frequently shopped), and on the corner of Grosvenor and Sherbrooke a Greek (?) restaurant, which if my memory doesn’t fail me was called Arrages (?). Across Sherbrooke street from the Steinbergs was a Pascal’s hardware, however the smooth block of pink-tinted concrete at the entrance to the Pascal’s had a bronze inset of “Steinberg’s” so the store must have originally been there.
    My late god-mother, born c. 1910, worked for ~30 years as a cashier, mainly in the Steinbergs’ that was located under Morgans department store (now The Bay).

  19. I remember the old Steinbergs on Decare Blvd and an old girlfriend who worked as a cashier in the 1950’s. Her name was Joyce Chandler and I took her to my high school senior prom in 1956.

    Arnold

  20. Think I have uncovered the mystery of the Bakery at Addington & Sherbrooke Street with the help of Lovell’s Directory back to 1948-51.

    I believe it was Miles Bakery according to the address on Sherbrooke St. The property was listed under a Wm Miles. Hope someone can confirm this.

  21. As a 22 year employee of Miracle Food Mart, for Mr.Sam Steinberg, I am the grateful recipient of the compassion expressed by the soul of this corporation, the family(employees), and the man known as Sam Steinberg, 

  22. We are trying to find some of the dishes that Steinberg’s offered. I had a collection of dishes that we used for best that came through the pinky book when we shopped at the Longueuil store. They were a white porcelain with a gold baseline around the edge and a gold rose in the middle. I ended up with the whole set, including the tea and coffee pots. For various reasons, they ended up becoming lost and I would like to get them so my sons could have a set. Anyone know the name of the set and where they might be hiding? Thanks.
    Eldrich

  23. We lived in Montreal for years 1947-70s My dad bought a picture there The scene was of a windmill on land and the water by it had a boat in it. It was at night and it was dark out. The name of the painter was Ev.Ottenfeld in 1929 Framed and everything. the code on the back was XC06. I would like more information on it if there is any. Thankyou so much for your time. My dads name was Lee Garby. Hope to hear from you.

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