Louis Toban: Drug Store Tycoon and Philanthropist


Louis Toban was born in 1901 in Lithuania to a Jewish family. His father, Samuel Toban, came to Vancouver in 1910. The following year, Samuel’s wife and six children joined him and they were all naturalized as Canadian citizens in 1914.i

It took a while for the Toban family to settle down; between 1914 and 1919, they moved addresses every year. It wasn’t until 1919, when the family moved into 578 E. 8th, that they had a long-lasting place to call their own. Samuel Toban was first identified as a “second hand dealer” in 1914, and later as a shoemaker, a designation he kept for many years. The two oldest sons, Harry and David, followed their father in the “second hand/shoemaking” business, sometimes at 119 Main Street, sometimes at 163 Powell, and finally at 2440 Main Street.ii

The third son, Louis, was to follow a different path. He went to school at Central, General Wolfe, Mount Pleasant and King Edward Schools. Later, to pay for college, Louis sometimes helped out with the family business — in 1921, he and Harry were listed as “junk dealers” — and for several years he was a clerk and then “druggist” at Cunningham’s Drug Store #2. In 1923 he passed the exaination as a certified pharmaceutical clerk, amd he graduated in pharmacy in 1925.iii

Reliable Drugs began life at 1850 Commercial, trading for a while under the name of the original founder, Allen E. Davis, and then under Reliable Drugs. After graduation, Louis Toban purchased the store in September 1926 and he retained the name. Business expansion appears to have been on Toban’s mind almost from the beginning: he had opened a second branch at 902 Commercial by 1929. The store remained there until 1933 when it moved up to the 1100 block. A third branch was at Commercial and Broadway in 1935, and by the spring of 1938 there were four stores in the chain, including one at Broadway & Alma. Toban said he said he was “very optimistic about business prospects” and his company reported “a very substantial gain over the previous year.” Later that year, they opened another branch on Davie Street in the West End.iv

Toban was a leader in understanding the ways that merchandising had to change from its stodgy 1930s character to meet modern demands. His three stores on the Drive were pioneers and leaders in updating and style throughout his business life. An entrepreneur of a modern stripe, he was never one to keep old buildings the way they were, and this store would see a great deal of changes in the years ahead. In the summer of 1937, Toban persuaded the owner of the building that included 1850 Commercial to spend a reported $10,000 making 1848 and 1850 into a single store, putting new stucco on the entire building, and fixing up six apartments above.v

With business success came an active family life. In 1937 he married a Grandview girl, Eva, and they had two daughters. During the summer of 1939 he and his wife took a motoring tour of the States, visiting Chicago and Oklahoma. In June 1944 the Tobans took a month’s trip to New York, Montreal and Toronto. In December 1953 the Toban family returned from a drive to and from Florida via Wisconsin and Edmonton. While in Florida they flew to Cuba for some R&R. Louis Toban and his family spent a month every summer in these years motoring on the Coast or elsewhere in the Western States.vi

By at least 1947, the Tobans were living at 1726 W 32nd. They had two daughters, the elder of which was Arliss June Toban, and the younger was Myrna. Arliss June in spring 1951 married Tevie Harold Miller, a newly-minted lawyer in Edmonton AB. They honeymooned in Hawai’i. Myrna in July 1953 married Hyman Mitchener. They moved to Madison WI where he was a PhD student in chemistry.vii

Louis Toban was a man with a deep community spirit which he showed during the Victory Bond campaigns of the early 1940s and later with the establishment of the Vancouver East Lions. He was appointed vice-chairman of the Grandview section of the 1943 through1945 Victory Loan campaigns. During each of these campaigns, Louis Toban paid for the back page of the Echo to urge people to contribute. His own employees certainly helped: by October 1943, 97% of Reliable’s employees were investing 18% of their incomes in payroll-deduction war bond savings. As a result, the drug store at Commercial and 2nd proudly flew the first 3-Star Honor Pennant that the Drive had seen. When all the figures were in, Grandview had exceeded their quota for the fifth loan by 122%, winning the Trumbull Cup for best performance in Vancouver. And still they went on: More than fifty local stores signed an ad for the seventh Victory Loan, and more than sixty for the eighth.viii

In January 1944, the Vancouver East Lions Club had been formed as a chapter of the community service organization, Lions Club International. Activist Frank Braidwood was elected the interim president, with several Commercial Drive heavyweights — Louis Toban, Gordon Hamilton, Peter Lakes, Fred Steacey — among the founding executive. By March, under the organizing influence of Louis Toban, they had decided upon their kick-off fundraising activity: a first-of-its-kind concert to be held at the Grandview Theatre featuring a John Barrymore movie, shorts and comics, and an opening sequence of vaudeville acts selected with care from the downtown night clubs. This was the first time that professional vaudeville had ever been allowed on Commercial Drive and there was a great deal of concern about how it might be received. But they needn’t have worried: Headliner Gene Field was an impressionist (“another name for an impersonator,” the Echo suggested helpfully) and he was supported by “America’s Gracie Fields” singer Dorothy London, Ray “King of the Banjo” Wheeler, and the cute little Olafson Sisters as the Melody Maids. Together they provided forty-five minutes of safe family entertainment. With the rest of the evening shared between movies and the fine incidental music of Dick Benz and his 5-piece orchestra, the show was a hit. The show, however, gave the Lions just a “small nest egg”. It had not been as profitable as they had hoped mainly because they had not allowed any expense to get in the way of putting on a “first rate entertainment”. Everyone agreed that “valuable experience” had been learned, and they got ready for a second show in May. ix

By now they had a fundraising target in mind: $5,000 for a Youth House. Working side-by-side with the Grandview Neighborhood Council’s plans for developing youth programs, the Lions put their efforts behind raising enough for a dedicated building. In June 1944, the Lions agreed to be the selling agents for a $10,000 raffle that had a house and war bonds as prizes. They quickly earned $2,000 for their efforts when they sold out, putting a significant dent in the $5,000 needed for the House. In the fall of 1944, the Van East Lions purchased $12,000 of the 7th Victory loan bonds on their own behalf and in February 1945 they launched a $1.00 raffle with $11,500 of prizes backed by the bonds. The main prize was a house valued at $8,000 built to the winner’s specifications, or the equivalent in cash. The profits from the raffle were to be devoted to the purchase and building of a joint YWCA and YMCA Community House on the Drive and a location, between Adanac and East Georgia had already been selected. As always, the Commercial Drive merchants did their best to push the tickets. Kewpie’s Confectionery, a popular hangout for teenagers, for example, gave away a free hamburger for every ticket purchased at their location.x

In the early summer of 1945, the Grandview Chamber of Commerce announced their intention to host a huge party on the First Avenue viaduct in July. The party was to celebrate the 7th anniversary of the construction of the viaduct and, more particularly, to burn the bonds that had been used to pay for it. It would also do to celebrate the end of the War in Europe, with all the hope that that event brought. Now, with the Lions on board, the program would climax with the announcement of the winners of the $12,000 raffle. The Lions also brought a dedicated group of volunteers. “Every single one of the Club’s fifty members is on one or other of the different committees now busy arranging” the festival the Echo reported. “A program of entertainment has been arranged which is more comprehensive, more varied and more interesting than anything else of its kind since the Exhibition closed its gates with the opening of the war. Both sides of the viaduct are to be lined with games reminiscent of the Exhibition Skid-Road, and hundreds of dollars of prizes will go to the skillful and the lucky.” xi

A great many bands were hired and the Viaduct was fenced off each of the three evenings for dancing, and every night there was ninety minutes of entertainment, with fireworks and searchlight displays. The BCER agreed to run special buses along Main to the west end of the carnival site, and they were full on every trip. On Saturday afternoon, the parade route stretched along Hastings to Victoria, along Victoria to First and then along First to the viaduct. And a long parade it was, led by the Queen of the Carnival float, upon which 20-year old June Lock, stylishly dressed by Maurice Kantor of Dell’s Ladies Wear, stood, waved and smiled. She was followed by a float carrying the Queen of Point Grey, ten other floats, nine bands, a lot of military equipment including “trophies of war,” amateur gymnasts from the Pro-Rec centres, and colourful Chinese dragons. When the parade had wound its way to the viaduct, the inevitable speeches and self-congratulation began. Senator Gerry McGeer, who as mayor had worked out the Baby Bonds scheme that financed the viaduct, was given a silver plate. So was Charles Smith, for his indefatigable agitation over many years that had kept the viaduct project alive in the 1930s. The bonds as promised had paid themselves off over ten years and the dignitaries had fun burning the papers. And then the streets were opened for fun. There were sixty games on the “midway” on both sides of the viaduct, including several games of bingo, and dancing on the street. Various service bands had done the honors during the week, and on the bonds-burning Saturday it was the turn of the US Navy’s “Hell Cats” from Seattle. Searchlights and fireworks lit up the sky. xii

As the evening entertainment reached a peak, Louis Toban and the Lions Club held the draw for the big fundraising raffle. With a main prize of an $8,000 house for the price of a $1 ticket, the Vancouver East Lions, assisted by ten other regional Clubs, had sold enough tickets to make a substantial profit on their $12,000 investment. Enough profit, indeed, to give substantial donations to organizations helping crippled children and to put aside a great deal of money for their proposed War Memorial Community House at Georgia & Commercial. Amid cheers and laughter, a ticket was ceremonially drawn and John Cummins of Surrey was the big winner.There must have been many others, tearing up their losing tickets on the bridge that night, who looked up into the starry sky and wondered what a world without war was to bring.xiii

By then, the Lions were hooked on the raffle as a primary fundraising mechanism and even while they were still selling the original house raffle, they bought another $25,000 of bonds from the 8th Victory loan. Almost immediately thereafter, Louis Toban and the Van East Lions joined forces with the Vancouver Kinsmen to raise another $350,000 for a paralysis unit to be built near VGH. By the following year, Toban was chairman of the provincial Easter Seals appeal. “Helping crippled and disabled children,” he said, “is as worthy an appeal as any British Columbian meets with from one end of the year to the other.” The Lions under Toban were also funding “blue baby” heart operations, and early trials with streptomycin, and they gave $5,000 to the Vancouver Preventorium for treatment of children with tuberculosis. When the new wing at Childreen’s Hospital was opened in early 1948, Toban endowed an entire ward.xiv

Louis’ wife, Eva, was also engaged in good works as a member of the Vancouver Lions Ladies Club. The organization held their annual garden party in 1947 at the Toban’s house on W. 32nd. She was also prominent in raising money for medical aid for Israel, and in addition to his charity work, Louis Toban was also deeply involved in raising funds for the new $150,000 Schara Tzedeck Synagogue at 19th & Oak. Louis’ brother Harry, as president of the congregation, gave a speech at the dedication in January 1948, and Louis was appointed treasurer.xv

1948 also saw the culmination of one of Louis Toban’s key projects — the construction of a $60,000 community centre for the YWCA and YMCA at Commercial & Adanac. The Lions retained ownership of the property and had rights to hold meetings in the space. It included large and small activity areas, a lounge, games room, offices, and a full kitchen. It opened in November.xvi

* * *

When the 20th anniversary of Toban’s first store rolled around in September 1946 the Echo gave the chain a Special Supplement. Toban noted that “we have had no particular philosophy … we have been fortunate in having a loyal and efficient staff,” several of whom had been with the company almost from the beginning. He particularly highlighted the role of Vernon Reid, now the Supervising Manager for the chain and manager of the 3rd Avenue store, who had been with him for seventeen years. He added: “we realized that the average person would respond to our efforts to make their shopping both pleasant and easy.” As part of the celebrations they arranged a free matinee show for kids at Grandview Theatre.xvii

In the summer of 1947 the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association (CPA) held their first post-war meeting. Held in Vancouver, with more than 500 guests from around the country, Louis Toban was vice-chairman of the organizing committee. The CPA returned to Vancouver in 1955, and once again Louis Toban, as treasurer, was front and centre in organiing the event.xviii

In August 1947 Toban began giving an annual $100 bursary to a third year Pharmacy student “who is need of financial assistance” at UBC.xix

Elsewhere, Louis Toban was, as ever, improving the look and service at his Reliable Drug outlets. His main store at 3rd and Commercial had an entirely new lighting system put in during the early summer of 1945. It involved a lowered false ceiling and was said to be the most modern in the country. In April 1947, Toban purchased the building at 1150 Commercial on the corner with William that housed his Reliable Drugs Store No.2. The price he paid “fully reflected the present inflationary tendencies,” but it was the start of a whole new corporate policy whereby he would buy buildings rather than lease them, giving him the ability to make renovations and changes as he saw fit. By the following April, Store No. 2 had been completely renovated, with displays and mirrors and excellent lighting. To celebrate the reopening, every lady shopper was given a daffodil by manager Cecil Munro, a relaxed young man with thick black hair combed back, who wore rimless glasses like those favored by his boss.xx

The late 1940s was a particularly busy period for the Reliable Drug chain: The store at 1850 Commercial was renovated yet again, the sixth store in the chain, at Oak & Broadway, had recently moved into their own building “erected by Mr. Toban according to his own advanced merchandising ideas and specifications,” and the company added a seventh store at Clinton & Hastings. In addition, there was a change in senior management. Vernon Reid, already supervisor of all stores, was relieved of his day-to-day responsibilities at the 1850 Commercial store. Hazel Collison (nee Hamilton) was made store manager. Reid was formally named General Manager in October 1949, and Douglas Brown, another 20-year veteran, was appointed General Supervisor.xxi

Once again, it was Louis Toban’s Reliable Drug stores that led the way once again in modern merchandising. When he remodeled his store at Commercial & Broadway in April 1950, the Echo swooned that “[f]eminine shoppers will be irresistibly drawn to the toiletries department” designed with “a thorough understanding of the weaknesses and foibles of the sex.” In addition, at all of his stores on Commercial Drive, Toban pioneered bringing the pharmacy closer to the customer by moving the drug dispensary from “obscure and dark corners” into full view. In July 1950 they “purchased an English car and will give free delivery.” In December 1953 they opened their 9th store, this time at Pierce’s Pharmacy, 41St. & Main. By 1957 they had 10 stores in the chain. xxii

Meanwhile, a retail counterweight to the Drive at Broadway & Commercial, was beginning to be redeveloped and modernized. Louis Toban was instrumental in this development. The intersection already had the advantage of east-west traffic flows and, in February 1939, the northeast corner was being demolished to make way for a brand new building for stores and restaurants. By April, the new buildings were completed and the stores began to fill. Canadian Windows Bakery, a Drive fixture for more than a decade, opened a branch in the new building, as did Superior Stores. The big attraction, though, was the new restaurant called Toot’s Fountain Lunch that enjoyed the wraparound corner location. It was rumoured that Toban was behind the deal and that $10,000 had been spent on the fixtures and fittings alone. They advertised “electrocuted hot dogs, sizzling hot!” for a dime and they were an immediate success as a direct competitor to Crystal Dairy.xxiii

By the fall of 1950, the threat to the central role in neighborhood shopping of the blocks around Commercial & First that had first emerged with the retail development of Broadway & Commercial in the late 1930s, was heightened with the completion of the Toban Building. On the northwest corner of Broadway & Commercial, this was Louis Toban’s most impressive project to date, housing his own Reliable Drugs store, a Royal Bank and other heavy-hitter tenants on the retail level; with the upstairs designed as a Medical Dental building. All four medical practices at 1704 East First, in the bay windows directly overlooking First & Commercial, packed up and moved wholesale down to the new building. Dr Zack, who had only recently set up at Clarence Webber’s medical-dental building at 1338 Commercial, also moved. In August 1951, continuing its competitive race with the Crystal, Toot’s closed for three weeks before re-opening completely redecorated inside, to be, in the words of the Echo, “the most elaborate and pretentious eating place in the city.”xxiv

In 1957 Louis Toban bought out the lease on the building at 3rd & Commercial, forcing Esson’s Bakery to close. By October, major renovations had begun. His drug store would stretch the entire building and would be redeveloped into “the most modern real estate in Vancouver,” and as the “finest drug store in the country.” In June 1957 it re-opened with great fanfare on 23 Nov 1957 under the management of William Jackson with Fred Lemay as druggist. xxv

In 1954, the NPA quietly approached Louis Toban to run in Syd Bowman’s place as the eastside’s city councillor, but Toban preferred to stay running his businesses. And, frankly, that was probably best for the district. While it is true that Toban had three of his drug stores on the Drive, including his flagship operation at 3rd Avenue, and that he had worked diligently for the Vancouver East Lions and with all the War and Victory Bond fundraising, it is equally true that, by 1954, Louis Toban had another six stores that were not on the Drive, that he had lived on the Westside for a long time, and that he wasn’t part of any of the social collectives – the lawn bowlers, the Legion, the old guys that hung out at Sparky’s Smoke Shop chewing the fat – that superimposed themselves on the Grandview Chamber of Commerce and other leadership groups looking for a candidate. xxvi

In January 1969 Louis Toban sold the 11-store chain to Cunningham Drugs. No price was publicized but the transaction was “mostly cash”. The president of Cunningham told the 110 employees that management and personnel would stay the same. Louis Toban was 67 years old.xxvii

Having enjoyed a long, successful, and purposeful life, Louis Toban died of a heart attack on 15th September 1977, aged 76. He and Eva had recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.xxviii

The future of our neighbourhood was secured by the individual actions of forward thinking entrepreneurs such as Louis Toban rather than by the collective activities of the Chamber or the Ratepayers. It was individuals acting together who changed Commercial’s view of highways in the 1970s, and who created the groundswell that brought about the Britannia Centre and the Cultural Centre. It was individual Italian merchants who developed and promoted the concept of Little Italy which was to dominate the Drive in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and it is the thousands of individuals from scores of countries who have moulded the multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-lingual Commercial Drive that delights us today.

i   Canadian census 1921; Echo 1969 Feb 13

ii   City Directories 1914-1926. They were joined in the business later by the fourth brother, Alfred, later.

iii   Vancouver Sun 1923 May 10, p.1

iv         Echo 1937 Oct 28; 1938 Mar 3; Sep 8

v         Echo 1936 Mar 19, 1937 Jun 24, 1938 Mar 3; Sep 8

vi         Echo 1939 Aug 31; 1944 Jun 29; 1949 Jul 14; 1953 Dec 3

vii         Echo 1947 May 22; 1951 May 31, Jun 28; 1953 Jul 2; Vancouver Sun 1951 Jun 16, p.24; 25, p.19; 29, p.20

viii         Echo 1941 Jun 19, 26,; 1942 Feb 12; Oct 20; 1943 Mar 25, Sep 23; 1944 Nov 11; 1945 Apr 27, 26; Vancouver Sun 1943 Oct 12, p.24; Nov 1, p.7; 1944 Oct 14, p.3; Province 1944 Apr 15, p.7; 1945 Apr 16, p.22; The 5th loan was for $1.2 billion, of which 10% was allotted to BC: Echo 30 Sep 1943. “considerable margins”: See for example Echo 5 Nov 1942, 29 Apr, 28 Oct 1943. Toban’s ads are at Echo 12 Feb, 3 Sep, 29 Oct 1942, 29 Apr, 21 Oct 1943, 13 Apr, 19 Oct 1944, 19 Apr, 24 Oct 1945. “pennant”: Echo 28 Oct 1943. In the next loan cycle both Reliable Drugs and Brown Brothers Bakery won pennants: Echo 4, 18 May 1944. For the 7th loan cycle, Grandview Theatre won the first pennant, with 100% of employees contributing 300% of quota: Echo 2 Nov 1944.

ix         Echo 1944 Jan 27; Mar 30, Apr 13; Vancouver Sun 24, p.29

x         Echo 1944 Apr 27; Jun 8; 1945 Feb 8; Vancouver Sun 1944 Nov 9, p.20; Province 1945 Jun 29, p.2

xi         Echo 1944 Nov 9; 1945 Jun 14 ; Jul 26

xii         Echo 26 1945 Jul 26, Aug 9

xiii         Echo 1945 Sep 16, Oct 4

xiv   Echo 1945 Ap r 26; Province 1947 March 7, p.8; Vancouver Sun 1946 Jan 7, p.18; Mar 5, p.10; 1947 p.11; 18, p.9; Province Apr 3, p.11; 10, p.15; 1948 Mar 15, p.13

xv   Province 1948 Jan 26, p.5; 1955 Aug 29, p.20

xvi   Province 1948 Nov 12, p.2; ; Vancouver Sun 13, p.35

xvii         Echo 11 Sep 1946 Special Supplement

xviii   Province 1947 Aug 9, p.3; Vancouver Sun 1955 Aug 8, p.18

xix         1947 Aug 22, UBC Senate Minutes at http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/senate/UBC_Senate_Minutes_1947_08_22.pdf; Province 28, p.5; Vancouver Sun Oct 23, p.11

xx         Echo 1945 Jun 14;1946 15 Apr ; 1947 Apr 17

xxi         Echo 1946 Sep 26; 1948 Oct 7, 14, 21; 1949 Nov 3; Vancouver Sun 1949 Nov 2, p.17; 1950 Oct 28, p.17

xxii         Echo 1950 Apr 27; Jul 6; 1953 Dec 3

xxiii         Commercial & Broadway developments: Echo 9 Feb, 30 Mar, 27 Apr 1939, see especially the excellent coverage and pictures at 8 Jun 1939; “hot dogs”: Echo 3 Aug 1939. It seems probable that Louis Toban of Reliable Drugs was behind Toot’s.

xxiv         Echo 24 Nov 1949, 17 Aug 1950, 31 Jul 1952. The doctors moving from 1704 E 1st were Drs Agnew, A.P. Brown, A.W. Greenius and O.W. Greenius; Echo 9 Aug 1951

xxv         The opening was covered in detail in Echo 21, 28 Nov 1957; qv Jul 4; Oct 17

xxvi         Echo 23 Sep 1954

xxvii         Echo 9 Jan 1969

xxviii          Echo 1969 Jan 9; 19677 Sep 22, p.1; Some genealogical details from Ancestry.com; Vancouver Sun 1977 Sep 16. p.18