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The Gazette

October 14, 2006

René and Jean-Charles D’Aoust may not have deliberately intended to preserve a chunk of Quebec’s commercial heritage. But that’s exactly what they did by not modernizing their business. The brothers, who inherited the Ste. Anne de Bellevue landmark store known as G. D’Aoust & Cie, from their father, didn’t even change the wooden counters or install cash registers. As a wonderful result, the 20,000 sq foot store is as it was when it opened in 1900. Its pressed-tin ceiling, maple floors, skylights and stairs with their sturdy newel posts are all unchanged. Even the Lamson cash-carrying system, an electrical contraption that sends money in little metal boxes along wire tracks to a central cashier, is intact.

“Luckily, they were conservative and they changed nothing, “said Philippe D’Aoust, the son of René and the store’s current owner. D’Aoust has been restoring the building since he joined his dad and uncle in the business in 1991. Both René and Jean-Charles have since died, but Philippe D’Aoust figures they’d be proud of the work he’s done.

The store was a novel concept in its heyday. Built by Guisolphe D’Aoust, a self made man with a grade 6 education, it opened a general store 104 years ago.

“Ste. Anne de Bellevue was a boom town then, “Philippe D’Aoust said. There were a lot of big summer houses in Senneville and Americans would come here to vacation in the hotels.

My grandfather loved travelling and he circumnavigated the world seven times. He would buy such things as lace table-cloths abroad and sell them in the store. He had a wealthy clientele, but the goods he offered were for a broad spectrum of consumers. This was never a strictly up market store.”

G.D’Aoust & Cie was the 1900s equivalent of a department store. In addition to hardware and groceries, it sold clothing, shoes, household items, gasoline for the few cars that were on the roads, and oil for lamps. Guisolphe also wanted to offer his customers more than one floor of goods. Knowing, however, that consumers in those days were reluctant to shop above street level, he built a store that had a ground floor and a second storey that could be reached only from a mezzanine.

To reach the mezzanine, visitors climb two broad staircases with sweeping banisters.  Directly above the staircases are large skylights that allow natural light to stream into the store’s interiors. The Skylights would pique people’s curiosity and they would venture up to the upper floor, D’Aoust said. We were always known as a store where you could buy anything. People would say: Go to D’Aoust. You’ll find it there.

The Store was extended westward along Ste. Anne St. in 1923, which added an extra 3,000 sq feet of space. That was the year Guisolphe installed the Lamson cash-carrying system, a network of electrically operated pulleys that allowed clerks at six counters to send money to a central cash.  It replaced a pneumatic system that had existed since the store opened. This was the latest technology, D’Aoust said. We’ve kept it because it’s our trademark. People remember it. The Lamson system is still in use for all cash transactions. But D’Aoust has added computer technology for credit and debit cards.

He made his changes gradually. “I started with the interiors before tackling the exterior of the building. I didn’t begin with the outside because I didn’t want people to come in, assuming I’d completely revamped everything.”

He updated the merchandise, making it a melange of hip and contemporary goods that cover the same broad spectrum as their 1902 counterparts. In addition to men’s and women’s clothing, there are toiletries, jewellery, giftware, gourmet foods, bedding and linens kitchenware, draperies and furnishings. The store still sells a kind of oil lamp that’s been in stock for the past 60 years.

All of the merchandise is housed in a restored building that looks remarkably like what Guisolphe D’Aoust would recognize.  Old windows were replaced with look-alike new ones.  The biggest job D’Aoust tackled was the roof, a reconstruction that cost $110,000.

“The second floor ceiling had dropped by a foot because the old joists were too far apart. Of course, they didn’t have the same building codes in 1900”he said. We had to replace all the joists from the outside and we put in steel beams to reinforce everything.”

The two massive skylights also needed restoration work and in a few spots where the pressed-tin ceiling needed repairing. D’Aoust found replacement tin that seamlessly blends with the old. All of the wood floors were sanded and varnished. Plywood was removed from an interior wall to expose the brick masonry.

The front façade of the building also got a facelift. The single door that gave access to the store from the sidewalk was enlarged and the 1970s-era neon sign was replace with a more elegant one. The store got a new electrical system and the fluorescent lights were replaced with a gentler halogen variety. The entrance to the store still boasts a “D” inlaid in masonry. When I arrived and started making changes, older customers would come in and say: What are you doing here? D’Aoust said. My uncle thought my grandfather would have liked what I’ve done. In fact, I know that if my grandfather could see his store now, he would not be out of his element.  He liked innovation and he’d like this.

Photo: The front façade of G. D’Aoust & Cie got a facelift, including a larger entryway. But the “D” inlaid in masonry stayed.

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