He’s been a fixture of the downtown business scene for nearly five decades, but on Friday, June 26, Richard Boileau retired.
Boileau was hired on to McTaggarts in downtown Fort Frances in June of 1974 and has worked for the company ever since, rotating through a handful of roles across the franchise’s northwestern Ontario stores over the course of his career, but beginning and ending right here in Fort Frances.
“I started when I was 16 in high school,” he said on the Thursday before his retirement.
It was mid-morning and the store was quiet, something that many shops in the downtown core have likely become familiar with over the past few months, but aside from everyone sporting masks, it was business as usual.
“I was on the football team and one of the guys who was on the football team would have been graduating that year,” Boileau continued.
“He worked for McTaggarts and his mom worked for McTaggarts and he suggested that I call Gord McTaggart and ask him, because this guy was quitting, if I could get a job with McTaggarts.”
That first job, Boileau explained, wasn’t a sales position, but rather a job working in the head office and dealing with a literal mountain of blue jeans.
“At the time McTaggarts was just getting into central buying and just starting with the warehouse,” he recounted.
“My first recollection of working was, there was a basement which is underneath what is now Curvy Chicks, that building was owned by McTaggarts, and the basement was full of boxes of jeans. It was stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes and Mrs. McTaggart told me that in the middle of the room somewhere there was a table and that I could dig my way to that table.”
Boileau said he did eventually make his way to that table and from there he began the work of unpacking the boxes, making sure that orders of stock had been filled correctly, pricing and then sending that stock out to the various stores. There was also a good deal of manual labour involved, since the freight companies at the time wouldn’t pick up from the basement he was working out of, so Boileau was also responsible for hauling the stock up to the main floor.
The process of working with all of those jeans would also leave him with a unique souvenir at the end of the day.
“I’d go home after work during the day and I’d have a short sleeve shirt on,” he said.
“At the time jeans were not pre-washed, so my arms would be blue working with the blue jeans, from the denim. The indigo would come off of my arms.”
Over the next few years Boileau got the basement sorted out and eventually moved over to working at the new head office located at the corner of Scott St. and Crowe Ave. Before long he had graduated form high school and went to work at a short lived summer store McTaggarts had in Sioux Narrows, eventually working in Atikokan, then Kenora for several before another opportunity came knocking.
“I was in Kenora for about five years and then the buying job came up at McTaggarts so I moved back to Fort Frances,” Boileau explained.
“I took over buying for the chain and I bought menswear, boyswear, luggage, I did the advertising, until the managership at this store came open, and so then I came back to working in the store. That was about 14 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Working in so many positions and locations over such a long period of time, it’s no surprise that Boileau has an extensive knowledge of the region, having travelled across it uncountable times in the course of his work, but it’s also afforded him the opportunity to travel well outside this corner of the province.
“I thought about it one day and I was thinking, you know, I grew up with McTaggarts and I’ve grown old with McTaggarts,” he said.
“I’ve been my whole life with McTaggarts. I started when I was 16, so I’ve seen a lot of things. As a buyer for McTaggarts I travelled all over Canada. I spent a lot of time in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg. I know pretty much every curve in the highway between here and Kenora and Dryden, and somewhat Red Lake. I’ve got fond memories traveling with John McTaggart, we did a lot of traveling together. He’s the only employee,that’s still around that was with McTaggarts when I started.”
Of course, over a storied career working in a clothing store, he’s seen trends come and go, and then come back again.
“Don’t let you surprise yourself that you’ve invented this, because you didn’t,” he said of one of today’s fashions.
“I’ve seen it before.”
But if there are any particular trends that stick out in his mind? He’s not sure.
“Platform shoes were really nice because I suddenly became 5’10”,” he offered.
“Wide wide pants that were wide enough to hide your shoes. It all just blends together. I can’t say that I liked them all. Some things haven’t been very fondly remembered.”
One item that has certainly seen its fair share of trends has been the formal suit, and Boileau has long been the face of tuxedo rentals for high school proms and weddings alike, and he noted that it was a perk of the job that he would often get to see the same people come in for a prom tux and then return a handful of years later for their wedding.
“It’s funny, I’ll measure a young guy for prom and he’s a scrawny little guy and then he comes back five years later to get measured for his wedding and suddenly he’s a man,” he shared.
“He’s got the same shoulder size and you know, it’s kind of funny when you measure; the shoulders don’t change but they suddenly become a man. The hardest thing is when they come in for prom, they come back five years or six years later saying, ‘Hey Mr. Boileau, remember me?’ No. I wish I could remember everybody. I remember faces. Seeing so many people, it’s really been wonderful working at the store.”
“Working in office is a pretty solitude position,” he continued.
“Yeah, you see people, but you don’t see people. So when I came to the store it was like a completely new job. I was still working for McTaggarts but it was refreshing, to come and work in the store and deal with the public again and talk to people. I would joke with gentlemen, they come in with the wife shopping and my job was to keep them talking. As long as I could keep them talking the wives would shop. I enjoyed that part of the job a lot, just visiting with people.”
Even so, all good things must come to an end, but banish the thought that Boileau will be sitting idle when it comes to his newly gained time in retirement.
“I will have five grandchildren by the end of July and [my kids] all have houses, and we have a cabin out on Rainy Lake and there’s always lots of projects to do there,” he said.
“As a matter of fact I got a new saw for my birthday, new big table saw that I’ll make good use of. My passion is fishing, so I plan on fishing an awful lot. I hunt and we used to travel, I don’t know if we’re going to do that again, but travel would be a big thing on our list of things to do too. Everyone says, ‘oh you’re going to be so quiet. There’s nothing to do,’ and I say no, I got lots to do. Got lots of projects to do.”
But even with a full slate of family time and projects in the future, Boileau said he’ll miss his time at McTaggarts, the people he worked with and the customers who would come in the door, even as the ongoing impact of the coronavirus makes the conditions around his retirement less than ideal.
“I just want to thank everybody for dealing with us, for dealing locally with McTaggarts,” he said.
“All the staff that I’ve worked with over the years, they’ve all been wonderful to work with. I will miss them... They’re work friends, but you come become really close to your work friends. You may only talk to them at work, but it’s amazing how close you can be with somebody that you only talk to at work. I’ve made a lot of really good friends through work and I’ll probably miss a lot of them, not seeing them here anymore.”
“But I’ll see them on the street when we can take our masks off,” he continued.
“I just wish that I could see people again. It’s hard to recognize people, especially trying to recognize people with a mask on. Some people you know right off the bat from their eyes, but not everybody.”