One summer’s day I am on my usual afternoon walk to downtown Peterborough to visit my favourite café for coffee – taking a necessary break from my so-called working day at home in East City. I spend too much time in my small office, editing manuscripts that always seem to be 500 complicated pages long, or doing my own research and/or writing, which seems equally complicated. I need to get out for a walk and a coffee.
I walk along the south side of Hunter Street, across the historic – and huge – concrete arc bridge over the Otonabee (always glancing out to admire the spectacular view of rapid water and railway bridge and spires down the river). I get to the corner of Hunter and Water Street – the Scotiabank building: I know there was once a fine local stopover place there, the Munro House (or Hotel), and later the Examiner building. Both in turn were demolished and replaced by this rather nondescript modern bank.
When I cross Water Street I go by the St. Veronus Café and Tap Bar (a swell place to eat and drink). At one time the primary occupant of this heritage “Braund Building” was the Imperial Bank of Commerce. I walk along – there is Catalina’s (a hair salon for a while, then a combination vintage store and music venue and now, sadly, gone). In 1924 (just to take an example year) it was home to Robert J. Soden and his “books, etc.” Next door, at 135, is the Food Forest (and Maggie’s Garden not long before that) – in 1924 Sami Ray sold cigars here. I pass no.137. A hundred years ago a man named Higgins sold his hardware there, but now it is the Sapphire Room, a welcoming place to meet for drinks.
At the corner of Hunter and George is The Patch, a clothing store – and now (in 2017) the building as a whole is being renovated, turned into “Luxury Lofts” above ground level. But for an amazingly stable 109 years – from 1891 to the year 2000 – the ground floor was home to the Bank of Toronto (later the Toronto-Dominion Bank). A century ago a young would-be writer, Cathleen McCarthy, worked there as a stenographer. In her later years in Peterborough she described what it was like working at the bank for a woman in the second decade of the twentieth century:
The old Bank of Toronto, corner of Hunter and George streets, was heated by a large wood-burning stove, and the Head Office’s board of Scotsmen were so parsimonious that they decreed that all incoming correspondence envelope[s] should be slit and used as memoranda sheets. The tellers were always of the male sex. Shocked eyebrows would have been lifted if suggestion were made for female keepers of the cash.
She got bored by the job at the bank – “I grew weary of the monotony,” she said – and went on to work for a while as a cashier at the Grand Opera House further down the street. Then, around 1920, she succeeded in getting employment that more adequately reflected her goals and literary desires: she became a reporter at the Examiner, ended up (not surprisingly, as the only woman on the reporting staff) editing the Women’s and Society pages – and soon after manoeuvred her way into becoming a pioneering movie reviewer.
But I am getting ahead of myself: before I get to Hunter and George I pass by Hobart’s Steakhouse, wherein hovers the greatest ghost of all for me along this strip. That address, no. 139, was for decades (1920 to 1949) the site of the Regent Theatre. If I’d been walking along here in 1924 I might have been tempted to check out the movie posters, perhaps even take in the afternoon matinee (and it would have only cost a dime, if I didn’t sit in the balcony): perhaps Fred Thomson (and his horse Silver King) in North of Nevada – “Just one thrill after another!” – and (“Extra! Extra!”) The Telephone Girl – which I couldn’t “afford to miss.” Even better, if I could go there on Monday evening, for a few more pennies I could also take in the live performance of “Ken Blood and his Musical Artistes.”
I’m too young to remember going to the Regent – someone I know recalls sitting in that theatre in the 1940s with mice running over his feet, I hate to say – but I do remember going in the early 1950s to the Centre, Capitol, Odeon, and Paramount, all on George Street. All now, of course, gone. But the ghosts of those theatres linger . . . and float around me here and there as I wander around the streets of downtown Peterborough.