Shopping Downtown – on Princess Street in Kingston

I love shopping downtown. Especially at this time of year. What a cliché really. But how can you not be nostalgic at this time of year?

I suppose I am getting a bit cynical in my old age, like when I hear the Christmas song lyric about “children listening to hear sleigh bells in the snow,” which sounds pretty awesome until you realize that if you lived in a time and place where people got around in sleighs in the winter, you probably wouldn’t have any time to celebrate Christmas because you’d be spending all day feeding animals and cutting firewood to try and not to starve and freeze to death, and trying to avoid getting polio and TB and based on the mortality rate, well, you’d be dead by now anyway. But other that, ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

I don’t really ‘shop’ anymore, but Michelle and I do spend a bit of time on Princess Street in downtown Kingston. We’ll get a few photos of our grandson developed (Hey Cam, 1983 called and wants it’s ‘non-digital actually printed color photos that you can put in album’ back!). We’ll visit “Tara Healthfoods” and hope they have some of those Montreal style wood oven baked bagels that aren’t necessarily healthy but are awesome anyway.

Photo courtesy of Downtown Kingston! BIA

Photo courtesy of Downtown Kingston! BIA

Forty-five years ago I actually did ‘shop’ on Princess Street. I was just a kid. I had a Globe and Mail paper route which was a morning paper. So I’d be up early (in the dark in winter) ride my bike to the mailboxes (or pull a sled), load up 40 or 50 papers and deliver them. The subdivision was really spread out so it seemed to take a long time. The Globe actually published on Christmas Day, so after we opened our presents I went out and delivered papers. It wasn’t until later in life when I started reading enjoying the Globe myself that I realized how much people must have liked getting it, because I got lots of $5 and $10 tips, which in the 1960s to a 10-year-old seemed like an awful lot of money. Apparently I wasn’t charging enough for home delivery. If I’d have known then what I know now…

One year I came up with the perfect gift idea for my mother. She had a few souvenir spoons, like the kind you’d get when you went to Niagara Falls. So I realized that she ‘needed’ a souvenir spoon holder. I trudged up and down Princess Street in pursuit of this, the most perfect Christmas gift, EVER! I found one and I purchased it with my own money, that I earned, getting up at the crack of dawn to deliver papers. So it seemed like a pretty big deal. Since Mom would have driven me downtown I’m not sure how I hid it to get it home, but she seemed to like it. It looks tacky as hell to me now, but hey, I was 10.

There is something very special about strolling on Princess Street with its Christmas lights and decorations, in cold weather, and if we’re lucky, with snow flurries. It really harkens back to another time. A time when “main street” was the life of a town or city. Where merchants lived in your community, served in government, or local service organizations, and gave back to the community where they earned their money.

Most North American cities have had the life sucked out of their downtowns. There has been a giant sucking sound as big box stores vacuumed shoppers to the outskirts to buy stuff made in other countries. I get it, it’s how capitalism works, but it’s doesn’t mean I have to think it’s necessarily getting any better.

Princess Street in Kingston though is an anomaly. It has a vibrant downtown for a number of reasons. I think it has a lot of people who think like I do and like patronizing stores where they know the owner. Kingston is a popular tourist destination so the downtown gets very busy in the summer with tourists. And Queen’s University, with it’s 22,000 students, is within walking distance of downtown, and since most students don’t have cars, they walk to where they can shop.

It’s interesting to watch the metamorphosis Princess Street continues to experience. The Zellers and Woolworths where I shopped as a kid have been replaced by dollar stores. The higher end and more fashion centered retailers like American Apparel, H&M and the Gap have moved further north on the street, closer to the University.

When we moved back to the Kingston area almost 20 years ago I had been listening to a band called “Weeping Tile” on CFNY in Toronto. I knew it was a local Kingston band and couldn’t find the record anywhere because the record label had just gone under. So a record store called “The House of Sounds” got Sarah Harmer to drop some CDs into the store so I could buy them. It’s hard not to have a connection to Princess Street.

I just read a book called “Trash” written by a woman who grew up in Kingston around the same time I did and she talks about going to a smoke shop on Princess Street so her grandfather could buy tobacco and she could buy comic books. I bought comic books at that store! And I saved them, later in life hoping that someday they’d be my retirement fund. Then eBay came along and it turns out lots of people saved their comic books, so apparently none of us are going to retire on what they’re worth today. I still have them for sale if you’re interested!

The holidays remind of us connections with people and places. Princess Street reminds me of my mother. I remember her dropping me off at the Stafford Music Center once a week for my trumpet lessons. I can’t smell cigarettes today without thinking of Stafford Music Center, because apparently musicians like to smoke. And I stopped playing trumpet as soon as my parents let me, another career door slammed shut.

The times I shopped on Princess Street as a kid were full of happiness and promise. My parents kept me warm and fed so I never thought about money. Life was just about possibilities. Heck, no one had even heard about carbon back then, or AIDS, and no one I talked to ever mentioned the threat of nuclear annihilation, so it was pretty blissful.

My daughter, son-in-law and grandson moved back to Kingston. When he’s older I look forward to taking my grandson shopping on Princess Street. As is required of old people, I’ll regale him with stories of what it was like when I was his age. How I used to get up at 5 am and deliver papers in weather so cold it froze my eyelashes together (true story) and then had to get home and eat Red River Cereal (which was really just what we’d call birdseed today) and then walk 2 miles to get the bus … uphill … in both directions. And like all smart grandchildren he’ll roll his eyes and give me that “Grandpa, you’re full of crap” look. I can hardly wait!

I hope you have a lovely downtown street to shop on and you can enjoy the same warm feelings about the holidays that I enjoy every year. Happy Solstice!




7 Responses to “Shopping Downtown – on Princess Street in Kingston”

  • Merry Christmas from your ‘neighbour’ in small town Canada, Eastern Ontario. So far, our downtown has survived the big box invasion with lots of forethought and support. We have several used book stores, a couple of vibrant thrift stores, and even a community grocer who’s served our town for 60 years providing local products & produce, among other businesses. Everything you could ever need can be bought downtown, including one nail (if needed) from the small Home Hardware store on the main street. I have another grandchild on the way too!!

  • A. Marie:

    Wishing a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Blessed Winter Solstice, Jivin’ Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year to the entire extended Mather family–including Jasper the Wonder Dog!

    DH and I used to nip up over the border to Kingston every now and then many years ago. (We’re about 2.5 hours south, in Upstate NY.) We haven’t made the trip in over 15 years, for multiple reasons–but since you assure us that Princess Street is still hanging in there, we may try again next summer. Hands across the St. Lawrence Seaway!

  • Hi Cam and Michelle

    Continuing the international flavour of these replies, Happy Christmas from a large rock in the middle of the Irish Sea aka the Isle of Man! No snow here, and we probably won’t get any until January, and then only for a coupe of weeks, but as usual it’s windy and rainy. People are worried about whether they will be able to do last minute Christmas shopping because the ferries to the mainland have been cancelled, see below:

    so if they’ve got any sense they will just stay indoors and enjoy a traditional family Christmas minus the shopping, but sitting round a fire drinking and playing Irish music on fiddles and accordions.

    All the best, Peter

  • Madeline and Ken:

    Hi Guys; I am sure you will enjoy having another grandchild. It really makes Christmas when your children , grand children and great grandchildren get together. We now have 20 here on Boxing day and Ken says to tell you he hardly ever shopped on Princess St. He shopped in Enterprise and Tamworth!!
    Have a Merry Christmas.
    Madeline and Ken

  • Rita M Marsh:

    Thank you Cam and Michelle for sharing your life with us. I always smile when I see your email in my in box. I am glad downtown Kingston is still weathering out the reign of the box stores! I live next to Olympia, our state capital, and it still has a vibrant downtown, but it is not without its ongoing issues like the homeless accosting people for money and smokes and violent fights amongst themselves that spill over onto innocent bystanders. The other main issue is traffic. It is always busy during working hours and parking is hard to find. But it has lovely stores and public art and so many other reasons to visit. I always enjoy a trip “downtown”! 🙂 I hope you and your family have a wonderful and warm holiday season. I look forward to more in the Saga of Sunflower Farm! Happy Holidays!!

  • Lilypad:

    I’m in the Seattle area, so I had to look up Kingston on the map and it turns out I’ve been in the general area. When I was a teenager in the late 1980’s, we took a train from Montreal to Toronto, so the train line can’t have been that far away, right? 😉 I’ve always wanted to go back to eastern Canada. I’ve spent a lot of time in B.C., since we’re neighbors. Kingston sounds lovely. If you are taking in any refugees from Trump (God, it pains me to even type the name), sign us up! Life in Seattle has changed so much too, we are besieged by hordes of workers (the people who are taking away the business from old main street stores, sigh) who have pushed up our housing costs and have thrown their (highly-paid) weight around along with the other tech workers here. Love the photo. Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a happy New Year!

  • Dorinda Duthie:

    Hi Cam and Michelle
    Merry Christmas from New Zealand. The pohutukawa trees are in blossom (bright red flowers) and we are looking forward to going to the beach for a swim.
    I will be picking beans and digging up potatoes from the garden ready for our big family gathering. The tomatoes should be starting to ripen in another month.Different memories but the same reasons for celebrating a special time of the year.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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