Northern Hardware's legacy

In a very real sense, the business which came to be known as the Northern Hardware & Furniture Co. Ltd. has been an economic driver in the development history of Prince George. The extent of its reach in shaping our society deserves to be known and remembered for two reasons: its story defines the city's history and it is truly a gripping tale.

Company founder, Alexander Bohannon Moffat, established the business and ran the company with a strong work ethic and a commitment to Christian principles of fairness and kindness. He lived and practised what he believed and quickly established a reputation for leadership. At a time when some segments of society were shunned and not allowed even to have bank accounts, A.B. Moffat made sure they knew there was a welcome at his store. He allowed them to barter for things they needed and even granted small loans - all done on a handshake and with just a note kept in the accounting ledger until the debtor returned and repaid. Later on, during the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, that courtesy was extended to the broader society because very few people had actual cash available. They could buck up wood and bring it in to the store's woodlot in exchange for whatever goods and supplies they needed. Those who had an income source were allowed to charge their purchases and take up to a year to pay - with an initial 90-day interest free period.

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In addition to all the work and responsibilities of running a department store, A.B. Moffat also turned his attention to community service. He served as a school trustee and later as an alderman on city council. In addition, he took on active involvement in the Chamber of Commerce and in Rotary. That dedication to community set the example for his son and successor, Harold Moffat, who served almost a quarter century on the school board and a decade as mayor.

Harold played a prominent role in the Downtown Businessmen's Association raising money to research and produce a report focused on the city's future. All of his community involvement occurred while he managed the store from 1955 to 1993 when heading the store was passed to his son, Ted. Well into what would have been retirement years for anyone else, Harold continued to work every day. He held forth at the back counter on the ground floor. Any day he could be found there engaging with customers, giving advice and keeping current with what was happening in Prince George. On many occasions, he actually talked customers out of making an expensive purchase and recommended a just-as-good alternative.

Modern retail management systems of the mid-1990s were brought in with Ted Moffat as president. He modernized not just the appearance of the store but updated to computerized inventory and accounting systems. It was a huge responsibility which required his full-time attention and long hours spent at the store. Ted was there at store's opening and could be found there any time friends or customers came in looking for him. He would good-naturedly get up from his desk and come out to sit on the comfortable couches in the furniture department to visit. Conversations were sometimes fun, sometimes serious but always entertaining. Some of his most spirited discussions seemed to revolve around civic, provincial or national political issues.

Somehow, Ted found the time to continue serving this community as he was sought out by organizations wanting his expertise in serving on their boards. Outside the business community, he served the Child Development Centre, the Golf and Curling Club, Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Old Time Fiddlers, the Railway and Forestry Museum and Theatre NorthWest. His considered opinion and guidance also benefitted the boards of BC Rail, the BC Forest Alliance and the national Home Hardware network.

All of the foregoing examples of community leadership had their beginnings at The Northern Hardware. It was there that people in this community and beyond recognized the values of a strong work ethic and dedication to community service embodied in the succession of owners. Each developed a loyal staff which helped make shopping at the Northern such a wonderful experience. Through long service and by caring about doing a good job, store employees contributed enormously to the store's reputation as the place to go for product advice or how to fix or repair just about anything. That kind of genuine caring and attention to customers is central to what made the store so successful and, in turn, the business benefited from an unshakeable loyalty. There are many homeowners proud to say that all their appliances and furniture were bought at the Northern.

The Northern Hardware has become a much-loved business. Apart from being a destination whenever people come downtown, it is fair to say that crossing the threshold of the entrance doors is entering a state-of-mind. It always felt good to go into that atmosphere. You were always bound to stay much longer than you expected. Sometimes that was caused by the cast of characters working there who had something new or different to show you or to alert you about different products coming in or just to remind you that there was something you wanted to check. How they managed to remember that level of detail about people's circumstances was really remarkable. It's something that just does not happen in big chain stores with lots of staff turnover.

There has always been something else compelling about the Northern. Because it was rare ever to go there without running into someone you know the store became a meeting place. People actually stopped to engage in conversation. The shopping experience at the Northern will be remembered as conducive to witty conversation, hearty laughter and extremely fond memories.

-- Dr. Valerie Giles is the author of Harold Moffat and The Northern Hardware: Prince George Icons.

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