When Doug Russell retires from his beautiful old downtown stone store at the end of June, it will mark the end of a family retailing era in the Scottish town.
Russell is a fourth generation merchant in Fergus, and he is the third generation to run James Russell & Sons. The James part of the name stayed simply because there were a few of them.
“My great- grandfather was James, and he was a saddler,” Russell said. His grandfather was also named James, and he started the store in the downtown in 1888. His uncle, James Monro) because a partner in the enterprise with Russell’s grandfather, after World War I.
Then Russell’s father, formally named Alexander Norman Russell, but known to most people as Sandy, came into the business in 1933.
Back in those days, the family had only the right hand part of the store, but, over the years, his grandfather accumulated the other part as well as the parking lot. Removing the wall between the two businesses allowed Russell’s to have a huge store, with three floors of goods.
In those days, Russell’s was a general store, carrying everything from groceries and fabric by the yard to kerosene for lanterns, and, as Doug Russell puts it, “stuff people needed. Everything would have been in bulk.”
By the 1920s when the store had been enlarged, it was still offering the same types of goods, but in more quantities. It was in that era that people started buying “ready made” goods such as clothing, rather than buying material and making clothes themselves.
“It got to a point we carried china, draperies, floor coverings, wall paper, paint, table linens and bedding, and bath towels,” he said. “At one point, they had toys.”
Russell said the store’s owners were flexible. “It always evolved into something different. It always depended on who was there [running it.] My grandfather wholesaled; my dad cut that out.”
The Steele Bros. store was located just down the street and it offered about the same goods as Russells. “There were always other stores,” Russell said.
Russells had one thing in common with Steele Bros., too, and it was not good. Both stores were the targets of a series of break-ins that was chronicled recently by Wellington Advertiser historian Steve Thorning.
Russell remembers that around that time the store was carrying expensive fur coats, and he said those were likely the targets of the crooks. He noted, smiling, that his uncle eventually placed steel bars at the back entrance to the store, but, “I don’t know why. The break-ins were from the front.”
In terms of crime today, Russell said it is mainly shoplifting, but that is difficult to measure.
Russell himself moved into the family business full time in 1972-73.
He said over the years he saw that retailers have to adopt to changing trends, and that is even more true today than it was then. “Now, they are more significant than they were then.”
He said that in today’s retailing world, people tend to follow brands more closely than they once did “so individual businesses have to concentrate on quality brands.
As for the clothing business, he noted “Most young people tend to follow the trends and the fads. Then, they go on to more classic items. Some will buy a brand for a lifetime.”
But, he added, with all the changes, “It would be nice to see the family name continue in Fergus. But, in this day and age, I don’t know if I’d want to” take over the family business.
Russell said the building is sold and he does not know what the new owner will be doing with it, but, “probably, renovate.”
There is 9,000 square feet of space there, and the Wellington County Museum and Archives has benefited by obtaining many machines and artifacts, such as the Russell’s old Gestetner (copy machine) that his grandfather used, and a cheese slicer from the grocery days. There are also displays of such things as furniture, and the museum got some child manikins once used in the store windows.
There are many old photos, and some things will be sold, but Russell will be taking with him many of the artifacts and family photos that deal with the town. Some of those photos are Fergus in 1914, one details his father being on the Canadian Olympic team when lacrosse was a demonstration sport one year.
There are also old sewing machines and milk shake makers, all reminders of how a family once made a living and served its community with “stuff people needed.”