Genser's Furniture of Winnipeg

originally posted Feb 13 2008

This post came about after seeing an old "Genser's Furniture" sign on the back of a building in the Exchange. I thought I would dig around to find out more....

Genser Comes to Winnipeg

Morris “Moe” Genser was born in Austria in 1880 and came to Canada in the 1890's with his family. Initially, they settled in Montréal where Moe continued his study of the violin and clarinet. Soon the family would
move to Winnipeg and Morris went to work as a cigar maker, eventually becoming the manager at the Regal Cigar Factory in 1904.

Moe Genser
Manitoba Free Press, Sept. 4 1920

Moe's true love, though, was music and he left his regular job to play professionally with the bands and orchestras that made up the Winnipeg music scene at the time.

Interior of the Walker Theatre, c 1907
Archives of Manitoba N132721907Remove Formatting from selectionImage: Interior of the Walker Theatre, c 1907. Provincial Archives of Manitoba N132721907

In the days before the Winnipeg Auditorium and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra the city's theatres were the mainstay of orchestras. The Walker, crown jewel of C. P. Walker's ' theatre empire, was Winnipeg’s premiére performing centre.
Genser worked his way up to the prestigious job of house conductor at the Walker, a position he held for 30 years. During his tenure he would play with the likes of Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor.

Genser’s position atop Winnipeg’s music scene is further evidenced by the fact that he was chosen to organize and conduct the 60 piece orchestra that played at the opening of the Manitoba Legislature in 1921.

Winnipeg Philharmonic Orchestra and Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
(a forerunner to today’s WSO)
February 1933 Library and Archives Canada e006608777

Genser's Retail Store

With his music career in full swing, Morris opened a sheet music store at Portage at Fort in 1926 (where the RBC tower is today). Within two years he added radio sales and two years after that expanded into home appliances.

The leap into the furniture business came 1931 when he amalgamated the furniture, appliance and radio business into “Genser and Son's” at a 28,000 sq ft building at 291 Portage Avenue.

Genser's Furniture in the middle with the Eastman Kodak block to the right and the Capitol's Portage Avenue entrance to the left
Western Canada Pictorial Index
Photo taken from the City of Winnipeg Historical Building Committee's “1991 The Year Past”

The “sons” in referred to Percy, Lawrence and Harold who all joined in the family business at the new location.

Manitoba Free Press Aug 14, 1931

The Gensers were a close knit family. In a biography Bonnie Genser, who married Harold in 1937, recalls that the brothers and their families all lived within blocks of each other “and at one point all three families shared one Ford Model T car !” (source)

The boys shared in their father’s musical abilities as 'The Genser Trio' was a popular group on Winnipeg radio at the time.

Manitoba Free Press Oct 1931

In the final year of World War II Genser’s opened a number of 'satellite stores' around the city to serve the new waves of immigrants in their own community and their own language.

Genser's Selkirk and Powers location.
University of Manitoba Archives
Winnipeg Tribune Collection PC 18/3246/18-2499-001

In 1956 the store took over the Kodak Eastman block to the east. In 1959 they opened a 28,000 sq ft store at the new Polo Park shopping mall. When asked about Genser’s popularity Morris said it was because they always “guaranteed and serviced every item that they sold”. In their warehouse on Ross Street they employed cabinet makers, finishers and appliance specialists to “look after all complaints”.

Genser's Warehouse on Ross Street (Cassidy)

On December 23, 1961 Morris Genser of 270 Montrose passed away at the Misericordia Hospital at the age of 81. Aside from his musical and business success he was also remembered for his work in the community. He was a lifelong member of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, serving as its president for a decade.

Moe Genser
Winnipeg Free Press, December 31, 1961

The Winnipeg Free Press called him “…the man credited with the creation of the Winnipeg symphony Orchestra”.

In his early days Winnipeg's music scene was made up of dozens of small orchestras including: The Men’s Musical Club; Women’s Musical Club; two different Winnipeg Symphony Orchestras; Winnipeg Choral and Orchestral Society; the Winnipeg Orchestra; Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir; the Summer Symphony Orchestra. On February 13, 1947, with Morris Genser as the driving force, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra was incorporated.

A New Era
Winnipeg Free Press August 1955

Genser’s carried on with son Lawrence as President, Percy as VP and Harold on the board.

In 1965, the brothers further expanded by purchasing the Portage Ave portion of the Capitol Theatre. This brought their store to a total of 40,000 sq ft – one of the largest furniture stores in Western Canada.

Genser’s spent $500,000 on renovations to bring the three buildings together into one unit with interesting results - the store was stretched over 8 levels and mezzanines. When it reopened on May 29, 1966 to a guests-only reception the Free Press ran the headline: “Genser & Son Unveils new Portage Avenue Store”. Percy said that it was a sign that they had confidence in Winnipeg and the downtown “would we otherwise spend half a million on these renovations ?

The Gensers were very active in the community.

Percy Genser appears in the newspapers regularly for his community work. A few of his roles: the 1962 chairman of MTC’s fundraising campaign; treasurer of the Bombers in the mid 1950’s; board member and president of the Downtown Business Association; Manitoba Chair for the Canada Centennial committee in the late 60’s. Percy was a board member of the Winnipeg Auditorium for six years but resigned in anger after the province made a successful offer to purchase the Auditorium for $1m to turn it into office space (today it's the Manitoba Archives). Percy felt that the Province 'stole' the building at that price.

Bonnie and Harold Genser

Son Harold was president of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, the vice-president of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and president of the International Consumer Credit Association. His wife Bonnie was president of the WSO’s women’s committee and, for many years, the chair of the sisterhood of Shaarey Zedek.

Winnipeg Free Press April 16 1965
With the 70’s coming cracks began to appear in the Genser empire. In 1969 Polo Park was ready to start a major redevelopment and Genser’s announced that they would not renew their lease on the 8,000 sq ft main floor and 20,000 sq ft basement space. Percy explained that there was simply not enough new business generated from the Polo Park outlet and that their downtown store could handle the volume created by both.

By 1971 there was a new generation involved in the business. David Genser, grandchild of Morris, was now the general manager. By this time, however, the Genser furniture empire was in poor shape. In September 1971 David announced that Genser’s would be closing their downtown store. He cited the retail trend toward larger, 'showroom style' furniture stores requiring a change in focus. In its place, Genser’s would set up four showroom stores in the suburbs.

City of Winnipeg photo from the City of Winnipeg Historical Building Committee's
“1991 The Year Past”

The family retained ownership of the Portage Avenue property and in short time it was home to Le Chateau’s first Winnipeg store, a restaurant and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

David did not get a chance to bring about the new era of a 'suburban-showroom' Genser's. On February 14, 1972, after 46 years in business, Genser’s was ordered into receivership. The only furniture location at the time was the Ross Avenue warehouse.

1 comment:

fimex said...

Thanks for sharing, it was an interesting read!