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The Bonanza

Sunday, December 15, 2013
Back in Times
The ornate façade of the Bonanza store on Frederick Street (1897).

The shopping mall craze which began in the late 1970s in the final golden years of the oil boom and defied the recession-crippled 1980s is still very much alive. Just take a walk in one today and see how hard the owners try to draw in customers—especially at Christmas time, when the irony of snow and sleighs in the tropics seems moot when the lighted Santas are put on display. 


In the Trinidad of yesteryear, there were no malls but there were department stores. These were based on a model pioneered during the consumerism boom of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 19th century. The famous Harrods is the best example of a London department store, while over in the United States, the business type was put to good purpose in the founding of Macy’s in 1858 and later, the lower-end Woolworth’s, which many Trinidadians think of fondly, as the now-defunct chain once maintained several branches here up to the 1980s. 


Port-of-Spain had its own department-store titan as well. Like the ones in England, the Bonanza Stores grew out of an economic prosperity brought on by high cocoa prices and an immense spike in production, which gave a wider income distribution than ever before. Whereas formerly the bulk of the purchasing power lay with the minority of the planter class, the working man now had money at his disposal. 


Founded in 1885 by John H Smith and trading under the banner of Smith Brothers and Co, Bonanza Stores was from the outset considered one of the finest shopping establishments in the West Indies. Originally at 17 Frederick Street, Bonanza was smack dab in the centre of the most highly-regarded business thoroughfare in the Eastern Caribbean. 


A raging fire in 1895 had cleared the zone of ramshackle and dingy wooden buildings which had stood for almost 90 years. In their place rose the visions of Scottish architect George Brown, whose combinations of plate glass, elegant cast iron and firebrick gave the place a signature panache. 


Foremost among these new stores was the Bonanza, since John Smith had the foresight to have adequate fire insurance (which, indeed, he provided an agency for), and thus was well-placed to recover and re-commence business in style. 


An icon of material dreams


The Bonanza was an icon. Far more than just a mercantile store, it represented the repository of the dreams and aspirations of an entire segment of Trinidad society who strove towards acquiring the trappings of comfort and achievement that the goods represented. 


The largest division of the Bonanza was its dry goods store, which seemingly offered an endless array of fabrics, accessories and ready-made clothing for all sexes and ages. 


Children must have thought the Bonanza to be the epitome of happiness, since in the middle of the main floor, there was a soda fountain, imported from the United States. This huge brass counter was a dispensary for soft drinks and ice-cream sodas, which, at a shilling or two, provided a decent means of cooling the throats of thirsty shoppers. 


The Bonanza came alive at Christmas time when there was an immense toy display accompanied by the latest gadgets. Indeed, one source recalled in the early 1900s, the Bonanza toy window had on display fascinating automata which were best described as clockwork robots. These were both works of art and feats of engineering. 


Upstairs was the Bonanza furniture showroom, where the best imported beds, tables and chairs were arrayed for inspection.


Smith Brothers maintained other branches on Abercrombie and Chacon Streets, where several departments were housed. One of the most important was the garage, which offered a range of mechanical services to the growing motorist population, including the patching and re-treading of tires. 


John H Smith retired in 1919 and the firm was sold to a St Kitts businessman, D Hope Ross, who had made a fortune in retail sales in the 1890s. Mr Ross was not content to sit on the successes of Mr Smith and pushed for a rapid expansion of the Bonanza, which saw new advertising (electric tramcars in the city carried billboards which advertised for the store). By 1925 there were Bonanza stores in San Fernando, Arima, Sangre Grande, Princes Town and Siparia. 


The Bonanza managed to stay in business during World War II but thereafter began to come under pressure from innovative competitors, which left it a veritable dinosaur of a gilded era. The Bonanza finally petered out in the 1960s and the famous name was no more.