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Remembering a store that treated employees like family

Virene’s: The department store that treated employees like family and offered 'a square deal always.'

In business for an astonishing 78 years, and run by multiple generations of the same family, Virene’s was a department store with an excellent reputation for selling quality clothing.

They were also known for treating their employees well. Employees were offered long-standing careers, not just jobs. For instance, employee Norman Nicholson had been with Virene’s for 32 years when a newspaper article was written about the business in 1969 entitled, Virene’s Nice Place To Work. Blanche Turner, was at that point employed for 27 years, primarily in the children’s department.

Employee turnover was said to be minimal. According to Ruby Newell Farmer in an Oral History of Sault Ste. Marie interview, she stated that Virene’s was “wonderful to work for, they cared just as much about your family as they cared about the store.”

Another employee of the establishment, Liam Brennan, was the focus of an amusing article written about Virene’s in 1979 where he is teased about his affinity for a mannequin he named Gretchen.

Liam, a buyer for the store, was responsible for dressing Gretchen in the latest fashions. He said in the Sault Star article that he would “occasionally swing her off her feet and pretend they were on the dance floor.” Liam also dressed Charlie, the male mannequin at Virene’s but Gretchen was his favourite.

“Charlie’s easier to dress, but he’s no fun to be with,” Liam is quoted as saying.

Judging by the article, Virene’s employees definitely had a good sense of humour and knew how to have a bit of fun at work.

The history of this retail landmark began back in March of 1913 in a former grocery store at the corner of Gore and Albert streets. The store was filled with approximately $2,000 worth of stock of men’s and boy’s wear.

The store was named A.L. Virene and Sons and touted the slogan “A Square Deal Always” above the door.

In 1920 the business was taken over by sons Elnor and Alvin upon the retirement of their father and then, in 1929, they acquired the stock and business of the W.L. Cherry store. Two stores were then run for two years until consolidating under one roof on Queen Street.

Expansions and additions continued through the years. Between 1931 and 1937, ladies, children’s wear and linens were added to the inventory and then on April 7, 1949, the official opening of the new Virene’s department store on Queen Street occurred. The Sault Star reported at the time that it was the “most modern and impressive store interior north of Toronto.”

In 1955, after the death of his uncle Elnor, the next generation of the family would enter into the business.

Thornley Virene was noted in the Sault Star to be “not quite ready” to start managing the department store. However, armed with a fresh diploma in business administration, his services were needed by his father Alvin who had always looked after the retail aspects of the store.

In 1960, Alvin decided to retire, leaving the responsibility to continue the legacy with Thornley who was only 28 years of age. He was believed to be the youngest department store president in Canada at that time.

Eventually, Thornley Virene chose to return to school to obtain a law degree and left the management of the store in the capable hands of longtime employee J.P. “Jack” Kersey. Mr. Kersey worked to maintain the store's reputation for selling quality goods and “put a lot of stock in a loyal, dedicated, and efficient staff.”

The store began to experience some difficulty upon the advent of the (ACR) Station Mall in 1973, however, loyal customers kept the store afloat and Virene’s maintained its presence in the downtown core when other businesses were migrating away.

In 1983, the store marked its seventieth anniversary with a champagne party and fashion show at the Windsor Park Imperial Room.

In 1987, the fourth generation of the Virene family, Philip Virene, took the helm of the newly remodelled store at the age of 26. 1988 was a very profitable year for the business but things were to quickly change by 1990.

In November 1990, the Sault Star reported that after 77 years in business, Virene’s was planning to close its doors due to the economic uncertainty of the Sault Ste. Marie area. A number of factors were involved in the decision to close - the fiscal problems at the steel plant, the impending Goods and Services tax, the effects of cross-border shopping, and the fact that Canada’s economy was in a recession that started in approximately April 1990.

Mr. Virene and the family “saw a very bumpy road ahead for the type of large independent store they had.”

When the doors to Virene’s were closed for the last time in February of 1991, Phil Virene warned in an article in the Sault Star that, “if Algoma does go, the city will basically collapse.” He also added that, “we always felt that when things looked like it wasn’t going to be worth running the business, when the future looked really scary, we would step out while we were still ahead.”