Bruce Beresford’s latest movie ‘Ladies in Black’, based on a novel by Madeleine St. John, features an upmarket Sydney department store staffed by attentive women in black attire.
Launceston once had a store with its own ‘ladies in black’.
McKinlay’s of Brisbane Street began as McKay, Sampson and Martin’s drapery, established on the site of an old grocery in 1886.
In 1887 the business changed its name to McKay, Sampson and McKinlay with proprietors Robert McKay, Richard Sampson and Gilbert T McKinlay.
From the outset the store focused on quality merchandise.
An 1887 circular noted its buyer drew on the ‘most famous points of production in Great Britain and on the Continent’, allowing the store to offer ‘choice goods at medium prices’.
Business flourished and stores in Devonport and Queenstown opened in 1896 and 1897, but in 1907 there was a setback.
The Brisbane Street premises was gutted by a fire and thousands of pounds worth of stock was damaged. Crowds descended to snap up fire sale bargains.
The firm hired prominent architect Alexander North to rebuild, and his elegant façade featuring three great arched windows and concrete spheres atop Art Nouveau finials still graces the Brisbane Street Mall.
On the retirement of McKay and Sampson in 1913, Gilbert T McKinlay and his son George took over the running of the business, which became McKinlay’s Pty Ltd in 1921. The firm’s reputation for quality and service endured.
Wilf Pickerell, merchandising manager in 1984, started with the company in 1935 when he was 15.
He could recall McKinlay’s golden age.
Customers were greeted at the door and guided throughout the process of choice, fitting and sale by smartly dressed assistants.
Women wore black frocks in winter and black skirts in summer and men sported three-piece suits.
Chairs were provided for customers to sit to consider a purchase while teams of seamstresses turned out made-to-measure evening dresses, bed linen and a house range of apparel.
The work had to be just right. The firm’s motto was ‘If it comes from McKinlay’s it’s good’.
In time, mass production and self-service ushered in a new era. McKinlay’s became G. P. Fitzgeralds and Launcestonians flocked to closing-down sales.
When the doors shut for the last time on April 5, 1984 the store had completely sold out.
Now just the façade remains, as a bittersweet reminder of a bygone age.
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