The Avalon Mall Turns 50

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Apr 20, 2017 11:53 AM

In the days long before big box stores and online shopping, the opening of the Avalon Mall was an exciting time for shoppers in the province’s capital city and the surrounding area. When the Mall first opened, on April 24, 1967, it was a shadow of its current self; at one-storey tall, it housed just 35 stores. 

Just about everybody hailing from the Avalon Peninsula (and in many cases, much farther afield) has memories of “the Mall.” And as planning is underway to mark the shopping centre’s 50th anniversary, marketing manager Donna Vincent is one person who is harking back to the past.

As thoughts drift down memory lane, Donna says she and her co-workers find themselves remembering long-gone stores like Birks and Ayres, once mainstays in the Mall. And while browsing through photos of the Avalon Mall’s past, she came across some surprises. 

“Some of the photos were amazing. I was actually flipping through…and found a photo when Mr. Dressup was in the shopping centre,” she says, adding she also came across aged Polaroids showing crowds of people gathered at the Mall to catch a glimpse of visiting soap opera stars.

“There’s some really interesting, different people that have come through the shopping centre over the course of 50 years,” Donna says.

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Inside the Avalon Mall in 1969 (City of St. John's Archives)

Employees Remember
Joyce Crewe was among the first employees of the Avalon Mall. At age 22, she began working as a secretary for the shopping centre before its construction was even complete. Fifty years later, she can still remember the opening day, which was a big attraction at the time. 

“It was the most gorgeous, beautiful day, I can remember that. But in saying that now…I was spending all my time in the office with the phones,” says Joyce.

As a secretary Joyce fulfilled many roles, including making announcements, picking up cheques from renters - even ordering exotic-sounding cheeses (to her outport ear) for Sobeys. For that latter duty, she wasn’t paid in cash - but she wasn’t about to complain.

“I would order the cheese for them and they would give me two porterhouse steaks for it,” reminisces Joyce. “So [with] my husband going to university, it was a real treat for us.”

Joyce worked at the Mall for about three years, before she and her husband moved to Port aux Basques. But whenever they travelled to St. John’s over the years, they’d be sure to drop by the Mall. They’re now living back in St. John’s and although the Mall has undergone so many, many changes since she worked there, for Joyce walking those halls is still a trip down memory lane. “I enjoyed that place so much,” says Joyce. “And when I go back to it now, it just feels like going back in time, really.”

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People line up to see the latest films on the silver screen at the Avalon Mall's old movie theatre. (Avalon Mall photo)

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Remember when the Avalon Mall's food court was called "Intermission"? (Avalon Mall photo)

Anna Kearney Guigné was a teenager when the Mall opened its doors, and, like Joyce, she recalls those early years well. That year her father, Gerard Kearney, opened Kearney’s Watch Repair - one of a handful of stores that has stood the test of time.

“That was a big deal, to have the Mall built,” recalls Anna, adding it shifted shoppers’ focus away from the downtown area. “The whole notion of indoor shopping was quite unusual for the time.”

Her father’s store, which Anna now owns, started out as a little storefront with a pull-down gate. She says her father used to drop by the long-gone Strand Lounge, a performance space for musicians, where he would grab a beer after work, before hopping on a bus and heading home.

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Gerard Kearney was the original owner of Kearney's Watch Repair, a business that has stood the test of time at the Avalon Mall.

While the business hasn’t always occupied the same spot, it’s been in the Mall since the very beginning.
“It’s amazing we’ve been there that many years,” she says. In the early years, Anna recalls there were many more local stores at the Mall instead of the big chains seen today.

“That’s why I laugh at us: Fifty years later and we’re still there,” she says, adding she serves customers who still remember being served by her father years ago.

Mall Makeovers
The Avalon Mall building has undergone numerous facelifts to keep up with the times - notably a major upgrade in 1977 that saw the addition of a second storey (making room for 75 new stores), and another in 1987, when the second half of the upper level was built. In time escalators and elevators were installed to help modernize the building and make it more accessible. Today there are around 140 stores.

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The Mall has always been used to host events, like this fashion show from decades ago. (Avalon Mall photo)

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The Strand was the place to enjoy drinks, live music and dancing. (Avalon Mall photo)

While talking with some older hands at the Mall, Donna got an inside scoop on some quirks arising out of the building’s evolution. 

“They were talking about how there’s a hallway [from the old Sobey’s entrance] where you can actually see the exterior of the building. So that’s where the shopping centre ended, I guess, and now it’s sort of a services quarter. But it never got changed over from the exterior brick-look of the building. So if you walk down that corridor [off-limits to the public] you can still see the exterior brick,” says Donna. “I think there might even be sort of one stairway in a service area right now, it doesn’t really lead to anything,” she laughs. “It’s sort of a stairway to nowhere.”

To mark the Mall’s golden milestone, Donna says events and activities will kick off this month and continue for the remainder of the year, “including contests for customers to share their memories with us and maybe share some old photos of the shopping centre with us as well,” she says. 

Specific events will be posted on as plans are firmed up.

“We’ll be giving back to the community for their support over the last 50 years. So it’s a pretty exciting time,” she says. - By Elizabeth Whitten

In honour of the Avalon Mall’s golden anniversary this year, we reached out to Downhome Facebook friends, and our own staff, for favourite mall memories. Here is a sample of the responses we received:

Accidental Shoplifter
“I remember my aunt telling us the story of when she took my mom to the Mall for the first time. Mom was going from store to store picking up school clothing for us eight kids. The security guard was chasing her while my aunt was watching and laughing so much she couldn’t speak. Finally the security guard caught up with Mom and told her she had to pay for her purchases. Mom said, ‘My son, I’m not close to finishing my shopping yet.’ Lol. She didn’t realize she had to pay in each store. She was so mad at my aunt when she saw her doubled over laughing.” - Wanda Murphy, via Facebook

Who Ya Gonna Call?
“I remember the old Empire Theatre where, in 1984, I went to see the movie Ghostbusters with my older teenage friends. The movie was rated 14+ and I was only 13. My friends, who were ahead of me in the line, bought their tickets and went inside. When I got to the window, the lady asked me how old I was and, being too honest, I told her. I remember standing at the ticket window, cheeks flushed and on the verge of tears as the lady looked at me and said, ‘I’m sorry, honey. I can’t sell you a ticket.’ All was lost until my friend came back out and convinced a random stranger to buy my ticket for me because I was too shy (and too upset) to ask. And so, with that, all was right with the world again.” - Heather Lane, Downhome Inventory Control Clerk

Escalator Excitement
“I lived in Placentia and my first memory of the ‘HUGE store,’ the Mall, was when we were visiting my aunt and cousins one day in the early ’70s. My aunt took us all to see the Mall. It was my first time riding an escalator and when we got on it, I was so exited that I was shivering uncontrollably…Also, there was a bus that ran weekly from Placentia to the Mall and back every Saturday. We paid $5 return trip from Placentia. In the mid-’70s, my friend, Edith Murphy Careen, and I travelled that bus a few times to go shopping in the Mall. We had such a good time all day long until 5 p.m. came around and we caught the bus back home.” - Karyn Nash Collins, via Facebook

Slumber Party
“In the late ’70s, when I was a young teenager, I dropped into the Avalon Mall after basketball practice when a sudden winter storm blew in. Many businesses in the city closed immediately, including the Mall. About 20 shoppers, myself included, wound up spending the whole night there. I remember late at night snacks were handed out and some of the stores re-opened to give us stranded folks something to do while we waited out the weather. Me? I wiled away the time dribbling my basketball around the corridors. Does anyone out there remember getting stuck at the Mall that night?” - Robert Saunders, Downhome Senior Account Manager

Identity Crisis
“The Strand! The first place that made me feel old - when the bouncer didn’t know what an NLC ID was and wouldn’t let me in. I was like, 25 or something. The coat check lady came to my rescue as she was older than me! I watched the Blue Jays win the World Series upstairs in Sherlock’s, and wore out the dance floor whenever Biscuit played. And I think it’s the first place I ever had a White Russian (definitely not my last). LOL. - Janice Stuckless, Downhome Editor-in-Chief

A Good Gamble
“I spent every Thursday night at The Strand in my late teens/early twenties. I don’t gamble as a rule, but I had a few coins left over after buying a drink and put them in the video lotto and won $200. Yippee! When you are a poor student that is like winning the Lotto 649!” - Tina Bromley, Downhome Chief Financial Officer

Woolco Bargains
“I remember as a child saving my money to go to $1.44 Days at Woolco. Great memories.” - CyrilandDorcas Dooley, via Facebook

“Went to the Strand all the time. On my Nineteenth birthday, I didn’t have my ID and they wouldn’t let me in. My boyfriend, who was actually not quite 19, was allowed in. Got a good laugh out of that.” - Dodie Crawford, via Facebook

Brian Walsh

I remember paying 10 cents to pee!

wayne osmond

I first visited the Avalon Mall in 1968. Went to St. Johns by train from Port Aux Basques for an eye appointment. My Doctor was Cyril Walsh and he had his office there at the time. I was 12 and fascinated by the whole place.