“The store of 1001 gifts”. By 1938, this was the slogan George Wolf used for Ottawa Leather Goods, a store that sold luggage, handbags, and tourist novelty items on Sparks Street. At the height of the Great Depression in 1931, Wolf made a daring decision: he would move his ten year old business from 92 Bank Street in the Capitol Theatre Building to the former Home Bank building at 126 Sparks, next to what would be the Hardy Arcade. And thus began what is now an 83 year connection to one of Ottawa’s most well-known streets.
There are few businesses in Ottawa that can claim to be nearly a century old. There are even fewer that can claim to be still operated by the same family. Travel is all about anticipation and dreams as much as it is about the tangible things that aid a journey. And for nearly a century, Ottawa Leather Goods has catered to selling both.
I’m in the basement of the current store at 179 Sparks, and the current owner Elayne Wolf Schwartz has just given me an old leather attaché case that belonged to her grandfather. I open it: a treasure trove of clippings and photos reveal themselves, providing a layered if not selective history dating back to the 1930s. At the bottom of this attaché case is a slip of paper, with a scrawl of handwriting that states “ If found, please return to 126 Sparks, George Wolf.”
George Wolf was described as an industrious, optimistic businessman who came to Ottawa in 1920. Born in Boston, Massachusetts to a dedicated police detective, Wolf worked in the saddle and luggage business in different parts of the U.S. before he came to Ottawa. His wife Gussie Morris was from Hamilton, Ontario. In 1921, Wolf set up Ottawa Leather Goods Company, and built up a successful business over the next 10 years. Here is an ad from the Ottawa Citizen in 1924. The business was in a building that once stood near the intersection of Bank and Queen.
In April 1931, he decided to lease the former Home Bank Building located at 126 Sparks. Nearby was the Ottawa Citizen, the Home Lunch, and E.R. Fisher. In a few years there would also be the stylish Hardy Arcade, where Youssef Karsh set up his photographic studio.
Sparks street in the 1930s was a premier banking and shopping district. So when Wolf decided to put out a 2 page advertisement (see image below) in the Ottawa Journal newspaper the day before the store opened on Sat. April 18, he decided to make a splash. This was an age when written description meant everything.
The business was described as follows: “ long been a Mecca for those in search for the newest and finest of leather goods of all descriptions”. The new store “is the most modern leather goods store in the Dominion.” It had an arcade-like entrance, and a sign that included a logo of a black luggage porter carrying suitcases. The interior had “glittering plate-glass casements…deep counters and all other fixtures of the same gleaming mahogany”. The companies producing the items for sale had their own ads, and these included Langmuir of Toronto, Wolfgang Brothers of Frankfurt, Germany, Wilmot Bennett of Walsall England, Eveleigh and Company, Montreal, and McBrine Around the World Luggage of Kitchener.
There was a new service available: if you bought a handbag, there was a guarantee against defects and repairs were offered free of charge for up to 6 months. There were also novelty items for tourists. And there were plentiful staff on hand: Miss B. Morris, formerly of Hamilton Leather Goods, was in charge of the Ladies Handbag Department; there were also Miss D. Roy and Miss. A Bigonesse, and all were said to be proud to serve customers in both French and English.
Wolf, described as one of the younger and more successful businessmen of Ottawa, was “delighted with the results so far obtained” and believed “that the period of depression…is just about over.” The article concluded that “optimism is the keynote of Mr. Wolf’s remarks.” Indeed the store was successful, selling items at between 2-10 dollars, and advertised widely in newspapers, magazines, and other publications. Riding on his success, Wolf opened a new store in Montreal In 1935 which was run by his sons Herbert and George Jr. This second store stayed open until 1941. Herbert joined the RCAF in 1940, went overseas in 1941 and was a fighter pilot of some distinction until he was shot down and killed in North Africa in 1942. The war years featured OLG in newspaper ads supporting the purchase of Victory Bonds for the war effort:
In 1948, Ottawa Leather Goods announced, again in a full page newspaper spread, its move to a new third location. This was across the street at 131 Sparks, right next to the Bank of Nova Scotia (now the Library of Parliament). We are told that the layout was a radical departure in style from the previous store, with smaller windows allowing for easier changes in displays. (see main image above) On the other hand, if you look at the following interior shot of the store (see image below), you’ll see that much of the interior design was the same, apart from a separate luggage department at the back. Apparently the floor was a green linoleum and the front entrance was terrazzo. A porter was also hired to open the door to customers and help them take their purchases out to the sidewalk. From this time through to the 1960s, the business employed as many as 20 people. (Here’s what Sparks Street looked like in the 50s.)
The Wolfs and their staff were always trying to come up with new ways to attract customers. George Jr. occasionally employed his wife, who, so the story goes, was better at her sales pitch than any other salesperson. One newspaper ad from the early 1940s ran as follows: “Something a little bit different in bags for autumn and winter –we have assembled the cream of the markets for Ottawa customers…English calf, alligator and other fine leathers and tailored bags…rich dark suedes and strikingly lovely fabrics for bags for afternoon costumes, the cocktail hour, and frivolous bags for formal evenings. It’s a striking assemblage we have to offer for your inspection. Make us an early visit.” A Christmas radio ad from the late 1940s or early 1950s declared that “a gift of luggage is the found promise of future travel pleasure…and ladies, your husband will be really pleased with a genuine leather Gladstone bag…they are designed to carry one suit and come to you for only 23.95.” Like most businesses during this era, Ottawa Leather Goods was closed on Sundays and Mondays.
During the 1960s, George Wolf Jr. was instrumental in helping to get Sparks Street turned into a pedestrian mall, and his daughter Elayne presented a bouquet of flowers to Mayor Charlotte Whitton in 1965 during the official ceremony to close off the street permanently (see image left). In 1966, the business moved again, to its current location at 179 Sparks. The front entrance looked very different to the way it looks now as this was before the building it is located in had its front restored in the early 1980s. In 1966, the brands being sold were Skyway, Jetliner, Ventura, Atlantica, Samsonite, and McBrine. Prices for most items in the late 1960s and 1970s ranged from fifty to one hundred and fifty dollars. During the 1970s, the store branched out into a producing colour advertising booklets (see images below) which give one a sense of how the flowery folk and disco movements found their way into everyday culture.
In 1967, a branch location opened at St. Laurent Shopping Centre, in 1983, another in the Rideau Centre, and 1987 in Gatineau. These three branches are now closed. From the mid-1980s until last fall, the store was run jointly by Elayne Wolf Schwartz and her husband Eric Schwartz. Eric, as some customers will remember, added a sense of mischievous fun to the business. Sadly, Eric died last fall after a long battle with cancer.
Today, Elayne – and her three staff – is proud to say that Ottawa Leather Goods has outlasted most other businesses on Sparks. Even Zellers, which opened in 1931, closed its doors in 2013. In an age when so many other businesses are run by large corporations, or seem to follow the latest trends in technology and aesthetics, Ottawa Leather Goods still operates in the quietly confident and traditional manner of an Ottawa now mostly gone. There was once a time when business owners were part of the community and operated for the community, and could be trusted to give back to the community. In the case of Ottawa Leather Goods, there is something heartening about stepping in to a place that has not only seen it all, but for nearly a century has been the starting point for so many people with vacation dreams and destinies. Today, if you walk into this store, I think you will discover something shimmering just within reach: a long and rich business heritage that is also a map to how our future can and ought to be. With Sparks Street apparently on the cusp of a makeover and a revival, it is nice to know Ottawa Leather Goods can be there to help show the way.