Once open for nine years at the corner of Robson and Burrard Street
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
The large bright red “Virgin” sign located above the entrance was an “eye-catcher” for passersby shopping on Robson Street.
In the 1990s, Vancouver saw an increase in prominent businesses opening shops in the downtown core. Planet Hollywood opened on Robson Street in March 1997 but only lasted two years. In 1995, The Hard Rock Café opened on West Hastings Street but closed in 2000.
But one store that operated during the same period, outlasted both Planet Hollywood and The Hard Rock Café: the Virgin Megastore. It opened in December 1996 at the corner of Robson and Burrard Street. Prior to the Virgin Megastore moving in, the location at 750 Burrard Street was the former site of the original Vancouver Public Library from 1957 till 1995.
Virgin owner, Richard Branson, appeared in Vancouver on opening day to help kick start the festivities. The Richmond News reported in November 2011 that Branson was “rappelling down the front of the building before thousands of cheering onlookers.” A plethora of television cameras and reporters were also in attendance. The Vancouver Sun reported in November 1996 that singers, Chris Isaak and Sarah McLachlan performed at the store to the delight of fans.
Writer David Look, in an October 2015 article he wrote for Vancouver Is Awesome about Vancouver in the 1990s, remembers the Virgin Megastore very well: “Then I hear the word, ‘mega’ and my memory of the [1990s] is rekindled with familiarity. Nothing says [the 1990s] more than ‘mega,’ and nothing represents the height and power of tangible media in mid-90s Vancouver more than the Virgin Megastore!”
But the Richmond News stated Branson’s opening day appearance at the Vancouver store would not have any lasting effect: “The stunt generated valuable publicity but didn’t kick-start the kind of sales the company expected, and Virgin never opened another store in Canada.” In addition, Catherine McLean, in a 2006 article she wrote in The Globe and Mail stated that Branson was not willing to risk expanding his store in an uncertain and ever-changing market: “While the Vancouver outlet, open for nearly nine years, was profitable, Mr. Branson wasn’t ready to take the next step and build a country-wide chain. Music retailing was just getting too tough as cellphones and Apple’s iPod competed for young consumers’ dollars.”
Nevertheless, the Virgin Megastore lasted for close to a decade. The store made effective use of its massive space that encompassed 40,000 square feet (3,700 m²) with three levels. The large bright red “Virgin” sign located above the entrance was an “eye-catcher” for passersby shopping on Robson Street. Inside the store, the ground level contained the main cashier desk—along with the latest CDs. Some CD display stations had headphones so customers could listen to tracks before deciding to buy the album. The bottom level contained more music, LPs, videos, LaserDiscs and DVDs. Finally, the upper level contained books, magazines, graphic novels, games, toys—along with a small coffee shop—and washrooms.
The Virgin Megastore closed in September 2005 after deciding to exit the Canadian market. The company issued the following statement: “It is not feasible to continue to run a single store in Canada any longer.” The Vancouver store was sold to HMV who operated the location until it closed in January 2012. Today, the site is a Victoria’s Secret store, which opened in August 2013.
In November 2005, Jeffery Simpson, a blogger who lived in Kelowna, posted his memories after the closing of the Virgin Megastore. His insight offers a unique perspective and perhaps his sentiments about the store are shared by many regular shoppers: “[One] of the must hit stores on any trip to Vancouver was the Virgin Megastore on Robson. Back in Kelowna we just had a crappy little HMV in the mall and an A&B Sound, so I loved the selection Virgin offered. Even now during what we might call the iTunes years where all my music shopping happens through Apple’s music store, I still took a weekly trip into the Megastore to pick up import singles, DVDs, graphic novels and all sorts of other pop culture goodies.”
“Then Richard Branson’s empire rode away on his balloon and closed down shop. HMV took over the space, opening a [sic] HMV [‘Megastore.’] I use quotations because it’s really just a big version of their mall stores. More selection? Nope, just more of the same. Virgin obviously was never a [Vancouver-based,] Mom and Pop record shop, but it was still part of the Vancouver experiance [sic]. My heart breaks a little [every time] I walk by it, which maybe means I’m a wuss.”