Akin to Barney’s and Saks in the U.S., Shoe Mart in the Philippines, Seibu in Japan, El Corte Inglés in Spain, and Selfridges in the U.K.; downtown Montreal has her own fancy department stores. Three major ones are La Maison Ogilvy, The Hudson’s Bay Company, and Holt Renfrew. I encourage shoppers and visitors to visit all of these beautifully historic “cathedrals of commerce” whose turn-of-the-century architecture reinforces the adage, They just don’t build ‘em like they used to.
Around this time of year when shopping becomes sport, stores are known to pull out all the stops to keep their customers happy. They offer services like extended open hours, free gift-wrapping, and, some, special appearances from Santa. For me, a hardcore romantic, the holiday season always fills my heart with childhood nostalgia, Christmas merriment, and, yes, the urge for retail rampage.
If you happen to be in the city and buying gifts (and even if you’re the only one on your list), here are the department store details to enrich your Montreal experience.
Ogilvy’s, as we call her, opened its five-story building way back in 1896. Known as the Grande Dame of Sainte-Catherine Street, she has a unique shop-in-shop concept where big brands like Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, Burberry, Gérard Darel, Ports 1961, Jaeger, and more (there’s also a posh men’s department), all boast their own little boutiques under the same roof.
At street level there is a collective of chic accessories, beauty products and fragrances showcased amidst shiny marble flooring and twinkling chandeliers. Downstairs is Café Romy (a nice corner for hot soups, paninis, wine and beer), as well as Lacoste, Juicy Couture, Ed Hardy, Godiva chocolates, Crabtree & Evelyn, and Essence du Papier, my favourite little nook for pretty notebooks and high-end stationary.
The fourth floor is home to O Coiffeur & Spa, which provides great view from their large windows while you get your hair done. They also offer manicures or pedicures.
On Dec. 16 and 17, as part of a regular classical music series, l’Orchestre de Chambre I Musici de Montréal performs on the fifth floor in the storied Salle Tudor (11 a.m. and 5:45 p.m., $30). This is, perhaps, a subtle way to lose your better half, if he’s not quite the shopping fan.
Another tradition (this one goes on all year) is Ogilvy’s bagpiper, a nod to the store’s Scottish heritage. Mr. Man-in-a-kilt starts on the fifth floor, makes his way down to each level, and then does a little round on the sidewalk before coming back inside.
Kiddies also love coming to Ogilvy’s to see the mechanical window, which is displayed along Sainte-Catherine Street. Created by a German company especially for Ogilvy in 1947, there are two alternating scenes. This year the “Enchanted Village” is back with countless moving parts animating stuffed animals like teddy bears, rabbits, and frogs. Directly across the window is one more (unofficial) Ogilvy landmark. For over a decade, “The Spoon Man” has been performing his unusual act to delighted passersby.
1307 Sainte-Catherine Street West
Metro: Peel Station
This Art Deco building in the museum district is shopping headquarters for the prestigious Westmount neighbourhood. The beauty wing at the entrance is a fashionable nest of Chanel, Bobbie Brown, Dior, Jo Malone, and more, that branches into Tiffany’s and the accessories area (I call it “heaven”) where It-Girl labels like Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs await. Look not too much further for Gucci, Hermès, Dior, Chanel, Max Mara, and Links of London boutiques, as well as a manly den for made-to-measure suits. And that’s only the first floor!
On Saturdays, there will be free hot chocolate from local chocolate-maker Geneviève Grandbois on the third floor. On the lower level, ladies (and men) who lunch can take in the Christmas menu at the Holt’s Café whose popular open-faced sandwiches (“tartines”) will offer a special turkey option. For dessert, you can also sample bûche de Noël, a traditional Quebecois dessert; or the “Café Mont Blanc” cocktail, which is coffee, brandy Grand Marnier, and Godiva chocolate liqueur.
Just next to the café, executive chef Nicolas Garbay will do cooking demos. This level will also house the “Happy Christmas Boutique,” a great last minute spot for quick gift ideas, including gourmet food products, coffee table books, doggie accessories, and other fun trinkets. When your list is all wrapped up, get your purchases boxed in Holt’s handsome magenta boxes, which are tied with an elegant heather ribbon.
This year, Holt’s has chosen the Christmas tree to be their main decorating theme. Look for the recycled arbre de Noel on the third floor. While you’re there, don’t miss the florist from Pourquoi Pas who will be doing Christmas arrangement demos, as well as taking orders. (Flowers are never out of style.) And to provide a holiday soundtrack, a tuxedo-ed pianist will play seasonal classics.
One very cool concept that was introduced last fall is the Holt’s Hostesses. Dressed by Canadian label Pink Tartan, these friendly folks walk around in grey suits, matching air stewardess-ish hats, and magenta scarves. Somewhere between a concierge and sales associate, they know everything about the store, as well as the surrounding area. So don’t be shy to ask anything from “Where are ladies’ gloves?” to “Is there a nice place for sushi nearby?”
1300 Sherbrooke Street West
Metro: Peel Station
The brand is quickly recognized by its iconic green, red, yellow and blue stripes. We Canadians call it, simply, “The Bay” – or “La Baie” in French. A cross-country chain (almost 100 stores strong), the Bay is the oldest company in North America dating back to the 17th century thanks to its roots in the fur trade. The red sandstone Victorian building, which dates back to 1891, isn’t hard to miss across Phillips Square.
Like most department stores, beauty, fragrances and accessories are on the ground level. Access to the other four floors is made via the central escalators. While the Bay is decidedly more accessible than Holt’s or Ogilvy’s, they have a quality selection of clothing for men, women and children; décor accessories and home appliances. There is also a travel agency, a not-so-obvious cafeteria that’s popular for soups, and a Clarins Skin Spa on the second floor (a quiet space to get a soothing facial or body treatment when it’s time to enjoy a little gift for yourself).
If you have your heart on meeting Saint Nick, the Bay holds a traditional Breakfast with Santa on Saturdays. (Ogilvy’s offers the same opportunity at their Café Romy, but it always books up really fast.) Call the store to check for openings – you know how popular the old dude is.
585 Sainte-Catherine Street West
Metro: McGill Station