A slogan, cleaning with a feather-duster twice daily, acting like a supermarket, hiring a celebrity, employing skilled pharmacists and taking over other drugstores were all part of the prescription to Tamblyn’s success.
Tamblyn in the Early Years
Gordon Tamblyn was born in Simcoe County, north of Toronto, in 1878. As a teen, he decided to be a druggist. After attending and graduating as a pharmacist from Ontario College of Pharmacy in 1901, Gordon apprenticed for three years in a Whitby drugstore. He later clerked for a year at Burgess-Powell Pharmacy, once at Yonge St and King St W in downtown Toronto.
In 1904, with $400 in savings, Gordon rented a building on the southeast corner of Queen St E and Lee Ave in The Beaches and opened his first store. Like other dispensaries at the time, Tamblyn’s gas-lit shop was long and narrow and lined with tall glassed-in counters from end to end. The storefront window had “G. Tamblyn, Cut-Rate Drugs” in white lettering.
Having no spare money to employ staff, Gordon worked from morning until night dispensing, displaying, selling and delivering. Mr Tamblyn paid a neighbourhood boy 5¢ each time he dropped off his meals and helped deliver prescriptions. That first year, Gordon even set out tables and chairs in a nearby orchard under apple trees to sell ice cream sundaes and cool soft drinks. The sales in his first year were $7,000.
Gordon had a constant drive and was ambitious. He once cut the price of Baby’s Own Soap from 10¢ to 5¢. When his competition matched him, he lowered the price to 1¢. Even though the business absorbed a heavy loss on the soap, the sales of other products more than made up for it because customers flocked to buy it.
In 1907, he opened his second shop at 133 Yonge St, opposite Temperance St. Two years later, the business was incorporated with Gordon Tamblyn as president. By this time, there were four locations in the city.
The drugstore’s slogan was “Tamblyn Saves You Money.” Gordon Tamblyn bypassed the wholesaler and bought in bulk directly from the drug houses and manufacturers to keep prices low and make a small profit. The products were repackaged in smaller amounts at the company’s warehouse under Tamblyn’s label and then sold in the chain’s stores. In 1911, some of the Tamblyn’s-branded products included talcum powder, hair tonic, blood purifiers and cold remedies.
By 1916, sixteen shops had opened across the city. Advertising in local newspapers let readers know that Tamblyn’s had “high-quality merchandise,” “biggest and cleanest stocks,” “quick service,” “lowest prices,” and “satisfaction or money refunded.”
Independent drug stores could not compete. Since Tamblyn’s had so many stores, they could give manufacturers’ products a prime space in all their locations and get products at a reduced rate.
Along with the original location at Queen St E and Lee Ave, some of the other stores were located at College St and Brunswick Ave, Yonge St opposite Temperance St, Yonge St opposite Shuter St, Yonge St and Carlton St, Yonge St and Bloor St E, Broadview Ave and Gerrard St E, Queen St E and Broadview Ave, Queen St W and Macdonell Ave, Bloor St W and Dovercourt Rd.
A Strict Cleaning Regimen
Gordon Tamblyn grew up in a meticulously clean house, and keeping things tidy stayed with him throughout his life.
He insisted a feather duster was to be used twice a day to keep products and shelves dust-free. Mr Tamblyn would pop into his stores unannounced and, wearing spotless, light-coloured gloves, run his fingers along a top shelf in a random corner of the store. If there was dust on the glove, he would lecture the manager and leave in a huff.
The company’s headquarters was cleaned twice daily, and office personnel had to clear the tops of their desks before leaving for the day. Once a year, the head office sent a maintenance crew to repaint and redecorate each store.
A Supermarket Psychology
Another key to Tamblyn’s was their ability to sell customers products they didn’t know they wanted, like luxuries and treats. The dispensary and popular items were placed near the back of the store, so when customers were making their two-way trip through the store, they would pass by sale and impulse items.
No longer alley-like, Tamblyn stores were more expansive. The counters were lowered, and products were displayed on low tables and islands. Customers could now see the entire store, and employees could also watch for shoplifting better.
The products sold at the various Tamblyns depended on the location’s clientele. The store at 133 Yonge St catered to the area’s female office personnel and carried mainly cosmetics, while Tamblyn’s in residential neighbourhoods sold many baby products. Also, most locations sold white toilet paper; however, stores in more affluent areas sold the necessity in four colours.
As the company grew, Tamblyn discontinued price-cutting and focused on quality, service and cleanliness.
Jarvis St Headquarters
In 1929, the company moved from their Richmond St W warehouse to their newly constructed headquarters at 225-227 Jarvis St (between Shuter St and Dundas St E, on the east side). The 4-storey building was Tamblyn’s administration office, laboratory and distribution plant. Any materials purchased from external sources would be tested in the laboratory while staff in the plant prepared and packaged goods for their stores. The building has since been demolished.
The Passing of Gordon Tamblyn
Mr Tamblyn had taken up golf to help him reduce stress; however, even on the golf course, he was very disciplined. On a summer afternoon in 1933, Gordon Tamblyn suffered a heart attack on the Rosedale Golf Course. He passed later the same evening at the age of 55 and soon after was laid to rest at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
At the time of his death, Tamblyn’s had grown to 59 stores in 11 cities and towns in Ontario. With his founding principles in mind, giving the utmost service, selling quality goods and customer satisfaction, the company continued to grow under future management.
Canadian Celebrity, Kate Aitken
In 1939, Tamblyn’s began sponsoring Kate Aitken’s radio broadcast. Also known as Mrs A, she was one of Canada’s most famous radio and TV broadcasters from the 1930s to the 1950s. A culinary expert and writer, when Kate Aitken promoted a Tamblyn product, her mention could cause it to sell out in just a few days.
Mrs Aitken would also create budgeted weekly menus with recipes for Tamblyn’s published in the local newspapers.
One of the most profitable areas of the company was the drug counter. If the ingredients needed to make a prescription cost 50¢ to 60¢, the customer would be charged $1.50 and benefit from the knowledge of one of Tamblyn’s skilled pharmacists.
In the 1940s, what was known then as wonder drugs like sulfonamides and antibiotics brought about significant changes in the industry. Pharmacists no longer needed to prepare custom prescriptions. They would transfer some ready-to-use tablets from the manufacturer’s bottles, put them in a smaller container, add a label and make a 50¢ profit.
By buying out other drugstores throughout the years, the familiar pastel-green chromium-trimmed shops with uniform store fittings were springing up in Toronto and beyond. A brand-turned-household name, Tamblyn’s was once so well-known that people referred to drugstores as “tamblyns.”
In the 1950s, the company bought out other Canadian drugstore chains outside of Ontario, like the Owl Drug Company and Liggett’s, adding over 45 stores.
By 1954, Tamblyn’s yearly sales had increased to $10 million. That year, the company employed over 800 people at its 93 Ontario and ten Western Canada stores. Just eight years later, sales had doubled to nearly $20 million between its 134 stores throughout Ontario and in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
What Became of Tamblyn’s?
In the 1960s, the George Weston Ltd empire purchased the nationwide Tamblyn chain. They continued to operate under the Tamblyn name. In 1977, the drugstores, then under Loblaw Cos. Ltd, were sold to the UK-based Boots Co Ltd. The stores were renamed Boots Drug Stores.
About a decade later, the Oshawa Group Ltd bought the company, and the stores were operated under the name Pharma Plus Drugmarts. In 1997, Katz Group of Companies purchased the Pharma Plus chain, which later became part of Rexall drugstores. In 2016, US-based McKesson Corp took over the Rexall pharmacy chain.
While Tamblyn’s may be long gone, there are still a few fragments of the former drugstore giant around Toronto today. They can be found in the form of store entrance floor aprons located at 2377 Queen St E (less than a kilometre east of the original store) and at 1426 Danforth Ave.
Did You Know?
- Drugstores were also known as chemist shops or apothecaries.
- During the Great Depression (1929 to 1933), instead of laying off any of the company’s 300 employees, Mr Tamblyn preferred his stores to be overstaffed. He was also among the first businessmen to adopt a group insurance plan for his staff.
- In 1930, the company added a lunch counter to the store once at Yonge St and Hayter St. While on one of his pop-ins, Mr Tamblyn saw a cockroach scurrying across the counter. He immediately closed the lunch counter, vowing never again to serve food. However, when the company purchased the Liggett chain, which had lunch counters, only the ones showing a good profit (mainly in western Canada) continued to serve food.
- For 20 years, three nights a week and on Saturday afternoons, Mr and Mrs Tamblyn would visit Toronto stores. Gordon would get behind the counter and help if the store was busy.
Tamblyn’s Drugstore Photos
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Apr 11, 1911, pg 2
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Nov 16, 1911, pg 7
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Jun 6, 1921, pg 19
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Aug 19, 1933, pgs 1-2
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Jan 13, 1954, pg 7
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jan 17, 1968, pg B4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 5, 1977, pg B2
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Oct 12, 1988, pg B1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jul 5, 1997, pg B3
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Mar 3, 2016, pg B1
- Macleans: Tamblyn’s Ingenious Prescription for Success by Trent Frayne
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, CNE Heritage & University of Calgary
- Toronto City Directory by Might Directories Ltd 1916 courtesy of Toronto Public Library