We’re looking at the East Georgia face of the building that used to sit on the corner of Main Street – we think our image is from the early 1970s. When it was built Main Street was still called Westminster Avenue, and East Georgia was Harris. We don’t know who the builder was, but we know the developer; Charles Woodward. It’s possible that the builder was Dan McPhalen. He was a contractor, lived across the lane on Harris Street, and was in the city as early as 1888, and built several other buildings that look like this. On the other hand, many buildings built before the end of the century looked like this – so that’s by no means a definitive observation. When he arrived in Vancouver in 1892 Woodward was just short of forty years old, had eight children, and was an experienced but unlucky storekeeper.
Charles Woodward was born in 1852, started out as a farmer, but newly married, decided he wanted to learn how to run a store. He sold his farm, apprenticed as a storekeeper and after a couple of frustrating years was able to open his first business on Manitoulin Island in 1875. He had intended to farm there, but the land he had bought turned out to be so poor he ended up building a log cabin and opening a trading post. He then built a small store in Manitowaning village – but inexperience led him to be too trustful, and as a result he ended up in debt after a customer’s cheque for $600 was not honoured. After that Woodward’s stores never sold goods on credit. He paid off his debts, accumulated some profit, and almost immediately lost much of it trying to invest in a cattle business in what quickly turned out to be a failed ‘boom’ in Manitoba. He tried partnering on another store in Thessalon – only to have the profit spent by his partner, along with $30,000 more. Charles had to dismiss the partner, sell his first store, and concentrate on making Thessalon work. He moved his wife and now six children over the store, and worked on recovering the business. He accepted the job of town magistrate; a role almost certainly connected to the discovery one morning in 1890 that his building had been burned to the ground. He had a wife, eight children, $2,000 in insurance, and $15,000 of lost stock – but he had no debt, some savings, and no intention of staying in Ontario.
He moved his family to his parent’s home, and headed west. He briefly stopped in Calgary and Kamloops, looked hard at Port Moody and even harder at New Westminster before deciding on Vancouver where he bought the two lots at Westminster and Harris. He returned east, collected his family but returned without his wife who was ill with tuberculosis, and pregnant. Charles arrived in the first week of January 1892 with the children, rented a house, hired builders and on 1st March the new store in the picture was complete. His wife Elizabeth joined him with the new baby, only to die in August, followed by the baby, Ruby, two weeks later and his oldest daughter, Margaret only a few months after that. A financial crisis in the US and massive flooding on the Fraser River caused a recession that forced Charles into bankruptcy – but as before he worked on, paid off the debt, and continued to feed his family now numbering six (the oldest son, Jack, was attending college in the east at this point).
Initially he ran the store single-handed from 7.30am to 7.00 pm, six days a week. Whenever he could, he passed any discount he obtained for goods on to his customer’s with a modest mark-up. This made him unpopular with his rivals, but established a customer base. His son, Jack, returned from Ontario, aged 19 and a qualified pharmacist. Charles had sold off the grocery part of his business to concentrate on dry goods and footwear; now he intended that the grocery space would be occupied with a drug store offering the same modest markup as his other goods. The local pharmacists had no intention of letting a discount rival become established, and made sure his supplies were cut off whenever they could detect where he was obtaining them. He circumvented them by setting up two other pharmacies that were owned by him, but fronted by other pharmacists, and they picked up supplies for his store as well.
His luck finally turned when the Klondike gold rush started up: Charles acquired all the hardware, snowshoes, sleighs and dog harnesses he could find – $10,000 worth, mostly on credit. His experience on the trading post came in useful, and he cleaned up financially, and in 1897 was able to rent the three adjacent stores and expand. Business continued to grow, but in 1900 Jack died, like his mother and siblings from tuberculosis. In 1902 Charles decided to grow and move the business to a much more grand new property at Abbott and West Hastings. He sold the former store a year later to buy out the partners he had made the mistake of teaming up with for the new store. We think he may have sold to Chinese merchant Loo Gee Wing – Mr. Loo built a frame dwelling and store here in 1904 on East Georgia (which would have been at the back of the store, on the right of the picture).
Charles Woodward’s original Vancouver building lasted until the 1980s. In 1987 James K M Cheng designed an unusual replacement: an eight storey strata parkade with retail and office spaces. Originally the top floors were planned to be housing: that changed to office while the building was under construction.