- Selling Out or Buying In?: Debating Consumerism in Vancouver and Victoria, 1945-1985 by Michael Dawson
North Americans, today, shop around the clock, every day of the week. The internet has of course made almost every retail service or outlet available 24-7. Before the rise of e-commerce, however, consumers came to expect to be able to visit shopping malls, supermarkets, or big box stores whenever the need arose, every day of the week, if not at any time. And retail employees expect, and often have no choice but to work on holidays, weekends, and evenings. Michael Dawson's [End Page 221] timely book reminds us that this was not always the case. This well-researched, engaging monograph uncovers the complex debates over store-hour restrictions that shaped the retail landscape of Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, in the post-Second World War period.
In 1946, the regulatory regime banned Sunday sales, forced Wednesday shop closures, and prohibited evening shopping in Victoria and Vancouver. By the late 1980s, seven-day shopping dominated both cities and stores largely set their own hours, outside of statutory holidays. Drawing largely on newspaper evidence, Dawson explores the vivid and sometimes heated debate over opening hours during this period. In doing so, he argues for and successfully demonstrates both the contingent and contested nature of the rise of Canadian consumer culture.
One of the book's strengths is the diversity of voices included throughout, each weighing in at different historical moments on the issue, first on Wednesday half-day or full-day closures, then Sunday shopping. Thematically organised chapters incorporate a wide range of historical actors, including store proprietors but also city officials, merchant associations, clerk unions, and the retail workers and shoppers themselves. The book reveals a debate not clearly determined by retail size or organizational type. Big retailers, for example, like Woodward's and Sears, might come down on the side of traditional Wednesday closure and Sunday closure, respectively, whereas small, family-run businesses in tourist districts like Vancouver's Gastown and Chinatown wanted wide open hours. Although chains generally called for liberalization, Dawson sees no clear fault lines in the debate. Consumers were even divided at different points in time, with some favouring workers' right to leisure and family time, while others the right to shop (and sell) freely. Even employees of a firm advocating one position might support the opposing view. Mining City Councillors' Offices documents, for example, Dawson found evidence of a Woodward's store employee writing to lobby against the retailer's opposition to six-day shopping in 1969. Indeed, Dawson argues that it is the lack of consistent divisions among his historical actors that accounted for the longevity of the store-hours conflict.
Another strength is the monograph's use of gender as a category of analysis. One chapter focused on the gendered moral arguments deployed in the debate over store-hour restrictions. Appeals, for example, were made to "the community's sense of duty to protect women and the institution of the family" (p. 70). Extended shopping hours could infringe upon the home and women's domestic duties. Conversely, evening hours were framed as beneficial, encouraging "family togetherness" (p. 81).
Selling Out or Buying In? fits into a body of literature that considers the role of the state in the evolution of consumer society. Legislation with quite limited scope is shown to act as an entering wedge, opening the door to future liberalization of shopping regulations—and greater consumerism. The normalization of extended Christmas shopping and with it, extended hours of work for retail workers, for example, was the result of a successful 1950 bill suspending the current governing Shops Regulations and Weekly Holiday Act for the seven days prior to Christmas. The debate over hours also intersected with larger political and ideological forces [End Page 222] during this period, as both sides drew on the Cold War for justification of limits, as well as liberalization of restrictions.
A legislative turning point came in 1980 with the passage...