By Katherine Govier
Yes, that little shack is a rare fusion of brisk commercialism and cloistered learning. There the atmosphere of erudition is diffused over a sordid traffic in food-stuffs vehicles, and periodicals. Theories of time and space are wafted about cheek by jowl with quotations in butter, shoe laces and washing compounds.
The Crystal Gazer of Tuck, Evergreen and Gold, 1922
Scarcely an alumnus of The University Of Alberta fails to remember Tuck.
Tuck, for over fifty years the coffee-mecca of students, Tuck, the enduring dining hall with personality painted over its mirrors, Tuck of the thick smoke and tinny juke box.
Soon Tuck will exist only in these memories — in old student newspapers, in the recollections of staff and students. An insignificant notice in FOLIO (the staff bulletin) on May 7, 1970, read: "Installation of this sewer requires that the sewer and water serving the Tuck Shop be cut; for this reason the Tuck Shop will be closed permanently." A sad epitaph for a dead tradition. What was the magic in Tuck? A most unassuming shabby shack to the outsider, it had a mythic history shaded with uncertainty.
It was Bill Smith, a crafty Londoner who set Tuck on its road to renown. He had the idea that a canteen would be of good service to the convalescent soldiers housed in what is now St. Stephen"s College. And his canteen was a very good service — he sold not only books and candy over the counter, but provided extra little services like taking bets on the horse races and providing the odd bottle of whisky for the needy. He called his establishment 'Tuck' — a comfortable old English name for a little snack.
This was 1917. In two years old Bill Smith was on to a new scheme and had sold his establishment to Eyrl and Warren, two of his best customers. Tuck was about to present its second face. In October, 1919, when the University re-opened after the war with a greatly increased enrolment, there appeared in The Gateway, a fledging gossip-sheet, a new advertisement. "The Varsity Tuck Shop, opposite the Convalescent Home (Alberta College). See us before going to town, and save time and money. TRY OUR COFFEE — Eyrl and Warren, proprietors." Whether because the campus, swollen with returning soldiers to 1,500 students, was ripe for a coffee house or whether there was a magic in the building itself, Tuck as an institution was well launched.
Proprietors Eyrl and Warren immediately became popular with the students. Warren was tall and lean, is said to have been a cowboy before coming to Edmonton, and had the most cheerful face to see behind the counter. Eyrl, his cohort, had a lame leg, but was as active as any he served. The proprietors sat around their tables jawing with the coffee drinkers, while students rang up their own purchases on the cash register.
By now the building was twice its original size, and Eyrl and Warren kept adding. Enlargements were made to the inside area in 1922 and 1924 to make room for the growing crowd of students.
In 1928, Eyrl and Warren sold out. This time it was Sam McCoppen, 'the Jolly Undertaker,' who took the business in hand. Mr. McCoppen made Tuck Shop into the distinctive structure it was until this summer. It was he who extended the front right to the property line, and in fact. just a bit beyond. One of the many rumors extant. about Tuck is that a city bylaw says it should never have been built in the first place, that it was too close to the street. Legally, if it were torn down, it could never be rebuilt. It could only be added to or built around, and it was.
Close observers of Tuck Shop's growth would attest to the truth of this rumor. It is a good explanation for the weird construction of the building. One professor who had a student who lived next door to Tuck swears that this family"s chicken coop was incorporated in the south end of the building. Any one could see where, at the north end of the building, about one foot above ground level, the ends of a set of street car rails protruded. An inventive builder had improvised on his reinforcement beams. The attic, according to the Honourable Edgar Gerhart, BSc(Pharm) '48, LLB '60, Attorney General of Alberta, and one of Tuck's former owners, was a forest of vertical siding, and from underneath Tuck looked like an old warehouse full of packing crates which bent and groaned when the herds of students galloped in.
A second undertaker took charge of Tuck Shop after Mr. McCoppen sold. He was Cliff Roy, later a city alderman, and in 1941 he purchased the building. He made his name remembered by his amazing ability to produce rationed chocolates. He had a 'chocolate priority list' for his customers.
One of these sweet-toothed customers was Edgar Gerhart, at that time a pharmacy student. When Mr. Roy left the business in 1947, Tuck Shop came into the Gerhart family.
"I was in second year Pharmacy at the time. It looked pretty much a different place then. There was an old dance hall downstairs, hardwood floors, and Spanish pillars in front. We separated the pharmacy from the restaurant and remodelled the dining room and the kitchen for cafeteria-style service," Mr. Gerhart remembers.
The owner made more changes in the appearance of Tuck. He had the roofers put its name in colored shingles in the roof when he had the dormer cut out and the flat roof made. He had the pillars cut off the front — discovering that they had been built with steel car wheel rims around the bottom. All the aging bentwood chairs and tables were removed from the dining room, and booths were installed.
The rag-tag structure, which, as Mr. Gerhart says, "grew like Topsy — piece by piece," had a corner for every permissible University activity, and then some. There was a dance hall in the basement, 'The Rainbow Room,' which served as well to hold the meetings of many campus organizations. Marathon bridge games went on here in the basement — the kind of games which sometimes made academic and financial failures. Students made reservations months ahead of time to paint advertisements for campus functions on the mirror-walls in the dining room. Kick-lines for promotions and political campaigns were likely to give diners a floor show with their meal. Yet amidst all this activity there must have been quiet moments, romantic times. Mr. Gerhart recalls being visited by a couple, married ten years since the husband proposed to his future wife over the table in Tuck.
The Tuck Shop gave incomparable service to the University community. "We were open 362 or 363 days a year, from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. As a non-University business we served as a good yardstick on prices. And we aimed at individual service — we did what we could to give each customer what he wanted even if it weren't the most profitable practice. In the long run, we built up a good business."
One professor from those days remembers Gerhart's service. The Tuck owner ordered Pelican paperbacks directly from England instead of the poor quality books that usually filled booksellers' shelves. To the delight of University staff, he eventually arranged to have the entire catalogue in stock.
The Tuck Shop continued its established tradition of 'extra curricular' activities. There were some close scrapes with the law — like the time when the police made a crackdown on Sunday selling.
"We sold every thing, I make no apologies for it. We were there, available. One Sunday a lady came in and bought two great armloads of things. As she left, two policemen courteously opened the door for her and accompanied her to her car. They asked to see what she'd bought. Together they went through the entire load of purchases, making a lengthy list. When they finished, the lady calmly said: 'I don't see what the problem is. What business is it of yours? Can't I go into my own store and get a few things?'" The lady was Edgar Gerhart's mother. The policemen took their leave.
Yes, Tuck has had a charmed existence. A few burglaries were attempted, but with little success. Once an armed would-be robber appeared in the kitchen. He waved his gun about trying to shush the European ladies who worked there. The more he waved, the more they screamed. His nerves gave way, he fired into the ceiling and ran out the hack door.
Mr. Gerhart gave up the pharmacy business when he began to study law, but still held the store and restaurant until 1968 when it was taken over by the University Food Services. The drugstore area was emptied but the cafeteria operated still. Law students, dents in their white uniforms, and many long-haired coffee-drinkers still crowded the round booths gesturing through the smoke.
Last winter session, 1969-70, was the final year of Tuck. It had suffered a slow decline in the past few years, dwarfed by the campus which once had centred around it.
Now it is gone, one of our best-loved traditions, and with it an era.
Published Summer 1970.