Known now as Maison Birks, it generally is called Birks Jewellers in Winnipeg. This past week the company said it is closing the last store in Winnipeg at 191 Lombard from the Richardson Building. It has been at that location for 15 years. At the time of their move from Polo Park from a very prominent location, it seemed counter-intuitive to re-locate back downtown from the most popular mall in the province. However, Birks said that it was more profitable since they didn’t have to pay a percentage to the mall owners as they did at their last location.
Generations of Winnipeggers were patrons of Birks from 1903 till 2023. Occupying the former YMCA building next to Eaton’s for decades, it was a fairly massive presence over three floors. In 1987, as Portage Place was going up, they leapfrogged to center court of Polo Park for that mall’s expansion. The beautiful old location of Birks became Musiplex on Portage Avenue.
While CF Polo Park seemed less glorious than the three-floor posh Portage Avenue location, the trade-off was the huge foot traffic. And Birks maintained an exclusive look and feel than other jewelry stores in the mall. It always felt like a place where you’d need an appointment to discuss the family jewels. And surely, it must have been like that for generations. It is the place your great grandparents came to from the turn of the century.
By all accounts Birks did well for the next few decades at CF Polo Park. The late 1980s expansion of Polo Park had put new life in the place even when anchors like Eaton’s closed, they were replaced with stores like The Bay. By 2000, the largest movie complex in the province was built on the site and it seemed all the major retailers had to be at the mall.
The latest earning report from Maison Birks was not great. Many jewelers have been hit hard by synthetic diamonds lowering overall price. It could be that the new generation are less likely to have gold plated this or that or a silver tea service. It is unclear exactly why Birks closed. They opened a store in the CF Chinook mall the same week. Perhaps they should have never left CF Polo Park to begin with.
The now closed Maison Birks in the Union Tower on the first floor looks out to Portage and Main. Just across the street is Hy’s new patio and the Richardson Building. Kitty corner the Bank of Montreal has been under renovation for months. A branch of 529 Steakhouse will be set up there. One wonders if Birks had held on, would their business have improved at the corner?
We’ll never know. The space left by Birks departure is a marquee space and hopefully, it won’t stay empty long. Over the last few years there has been an increase in residential units on Waterfront Drive and along Main Street. Office conversions to residential and warehouse to residential along with new builds continue to take place but it is a slow process. And with 500,000 people a year moving to Canada including 20,000 or so per year to Manitoba, we have to quicken the pace.
The Associated Press is reporting that more companies are pursuing the wealthy shopper who continues to spend even in the face of inflation. For sure this might make Birks think they should have waited. It also might mean they come back. Still, it is the end of an era as a jewelry store that served generations of Winnipeg is no longer part of the Winnipeg landscape.
This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations