Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lunch at the MRA Department Store

As a child of three or four, I was taken uptown regularly by my mother to meet my grandmother for shopping and lunch at Manchester Robertson Allison Department Store - or MRA as everyone called it.

The two buildings in the 1930s photo (below) belong to MRA, but are only two of several that connected down the hill (pictured) and behind. Because of being situated on a hill and comprising several buildings, each with several floors, the interior of the store had a unique arrangement of departments, to say the least - around corners, up or down a few stairs,  into nooks and crannies, and down little passageways.

I remember the tea room being on an upper floor, although my mother says I am wrong. Maybe the importance of the occasions raised the status of the venue in my memory. I remember tablecloths and waitresses in starched uniforms and proper cups, saucers, and teapots. (Always put the milk into the teacup first; then pour the tea, my grandmother insisted.)

Ladies lunching out in the 50's dressed for the occasion - hats, gloves, dresses or skirts, never, never pants. The same rules applied to children, and I remember starched dresses with big bows in the back, white gloves, white socks and black or white patent leather shoes. For the adults, handbags were de rigeur, and occasionally a fur stole. My grandmother had one that actually had the head of the animal attached - to this day, I don't know why anyone thought that was a good thing! I was always a little afraid of that animal around her shoulders; what if it weren't really dead? what if it thought she wasn't looking and bit me when I walked behind her?

My mother and grandmother always dressed very stylishly as well, especially with hats and costume jewellery. The hats weren't necessarily large, but they did have impact. I remember particularly the hats with veils.They made their faces look as if they had black measles, very intriguing for a kid. Even more intriguing were the veils with the odd sequin instead of a dot. Wow, sequined measles!

Lunch was always the same for me: a chicken salad sandwich and a glass of gingerale. I have no idea what my mother and grandmother had, except for the tea. My grandmother used to read tea leaves, but I don't recall her doing so in MRA's at lunch - ladies probably didn't do that sort of thing in public.

Ladies did, however, smoke in public, at least I think more women than just my grandmother did. Her cigarette was always part of her outfit somehow and definitely connected to having tea. My she was stylish, most dramatically so. She would inhale, tilt her head back, and blow a long stream of smoke towards the ceiling. - later I found out that they did this in the movies, and it wasn't really her "move," so to speak. I would always break the straw from my gingerale to the same length as a cigarette and pretend to smoke because that's what grown-up stylish ladies did. I felt very important with that straw cigarette, with my gingerale, in the tea room.

I loved those lunches. My grandmother has been gone now for many years, as has that department store. But my mom and I share the memories of those lunches out at MRA.

This has been a great week for memory and for synchronicity as well - lunches, department stores, and, grandmothers. Santa, too.

A recent post in ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly brought me right back to those lunches at the MRA. Yesterday, I found a story about the 13 indigenous grandmothers. Today, searching for a picture of the MRA, I found a story dated December 13/09 about department store Santas, and guess what? The Manchester Robertson Allison Department Store was the first department store in Canada to have a Santa.
My visit with that MRA Santa might just be my only claim to fame:


Ciss B said...

What lovely memories! They so reminded me of Herpolsheimers, a large store in our little town in West Michigan where I grew up. Though we were too small a town to have a tea room in this fabulous department store, I still have memories of climbing the stairs or taking the elevator which was quite a thrill.

Thank you for your pictures and especially for the beautiful story of your grandmother - she sounds like such a grand character!

ChrisJ said...

Ciss B, I'm so glad to remind you of your fabulous store.

Yes, my grandmother was indeed a character.

Vivien said...

Too cute! I will read this later and really make a comment.

ChrisJ said...

Okay Viv, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'm having trouble posting a comment. This blogging stuff will eat up tons of patience. As I see your problem did too.

ChrisJ said...

Sorry you had trouble posting, but glad you persisted.

Anonymous said...

Reading these kind of posts reminds me of just how technology truly is something we cannot live without in this day and age, and I am fairly confident when I say that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.

I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Ethical concerns aside... I just hope that as memory gets cheaper, the possibility of uploading our memories onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's one of the things I really wish I could experience in my lifetime.

(Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=]R4 Card[/url] DS OperaMod)

robadr said...

Funny thing about memory. I grew up just outside Saint John, and also have memories about the sophistication of MRA's (we called it 'MRA's', not 'the MRA'??).

The other wow experiences in Saint John for a kid in the 1950's were the escalator at Zeller's, and a Polynesian restaurant (can't remember the name - I think it was near the Admiral Beatty Hotel), complete with fake palm trees and little bamboo bridges over fake streams.

There was also a toy store (Thorne's?) on King Street with an extensive display of Dinky Toys, and a shoe store that actually X-rayed little kiddies' feet to make sure the shoes fitted! I'm surprised I still have all my toes...

ChrisJ said...


II remember that xray machine!

Nancy Johnson said...

A real blast from the past. I worked at MRA's when I was 15. It was my very first part-time job. My first position was as "elevator girl". I remember the crank to open/close the doors and how precise I had to be to not stop it so the floor was uneven. LOL I also worked in the Jewellry Dept, Stockroom pricing all the clothing. I made 75 cents an hour.

Nancy Johnson said...

I worked at MRA's, it was my first part-time job. 15 yrs old and I was the "elevator girl". I'd have to announce each floor and also state "going up! or going down! I made 75 cents an hour. Ah, those were the days.

ChrisJ said...


Wow, 75cents an hour! In my first job as a day-camp counsellor at the YW, I made $1 a day!

George said...

These are great pictures and bring back fond memories. My first full time job as a teenager was Stockboy at M.R.A.'s
George H. Wood

ChrisJ said...

Thank you for commenting. It's always nice to create nostalgia for someone.