On December 31, 2016 — yesterday — Honest Ed’s closed its doors forever. In the new year, the building and possibly some neighbouring historical buildings on Markham Street will be demolished to make way for a large condominium project.
A Toronto institution for over 60 years, Honest Ed’s was famous for its building (actually two buildings joined by a catwalk) covered by a giant light bulb-infused store sign that covers the top two stories, making it at one time an uptown companion to the neon-infused buildings at Yonge and Dundas (Sam the Record Man and A and M Records, anybody?)
But Honest Ed’s was a throwback to an older, small-town Toronto. It was the hand-painted red-yellow-and-blue signs (“Honest Ed is nuts! His prices are for the birds.”) It was a throwback to a Toronto when people shopped at only a few stores in their neighbourhood (fewer people had cars then). It was a throwback to a time when Toronto-area department stores had only one location (Simpsons and Eaton’s were once single-location Toronto entities). It was a throwback to an era when the Annex neighbourhood — which the Honest Ed’s building dominates — was a working-class and immigrant neighbourhood (where else could you buy those hokey dishes with the Virgin Mary’s picture, anyway?)
It’s quite remarkable that the discount department store, which sold everyday products at cheap prices and cheap products at even cheaper prices, lasted virtually unchanged since its opening in 1948, given the rise of multi-chain competitors. And it’s especially astonishing that it remained open its last nine years, for since his 2007 death, “Honest” Ed Mirvish’s business interests have fallen to his son David, who seemingly has grander aspirations.
It was a throwback to a Toronto when people shopped at only a few stores in their neighbourhood…
Four days before the store’s scheduled closure, I took a short trip to the Annex neighbourhood for one last visit to Honest Ed’s.
The Annex and its Haunting Grounds
The Annex has seen a remarkable change of demographics in the last decade. The students and artists are still there, but the Edwardian homes, once largely boarding houses, are now single-family homes that sell on the market for artificially high prices. I used to live in the Annex, and although I lived on a beautiful, tree-lined street, I had a crammed one-room apartment. So I moved to a bigger space in midtown Toronto. I miss the more walkable Annex neighbourhood, with its quaint shops, although the big chains are slowly but surely sneaking in.
I took the subway to Spadina Station and walked west on Bloor Street. I noticed the Shoppers Drug Mart expanded into a big-box format. When did that happen? How will this affect the neighbourhood? Walking on, I stopped at my first destination, BMV, a used bookstore that also sells heavily discounted publishers’ overstock in an old four-storey building (I’m not sure if it’s Victorian or Edwardian). I wanted to find a good book to read, but I didn’t have far to go, as I found one by the main door. (The book? Norman Mailer’s The Fight, his journalistic account of Ali and Forman’s fight in Zaire). BMV is a newer addition to the Annex, perhaps in the last decade, but it’s a business that’s both found a niche and contributed to the vibrancy of the area. And if you feel like people watching, go hang out there for a couple of hours and watch couples, students, and Saturday-night drunks from neighbouring Lee’s Palace. Speaking of Lee’s Palace, Brunswick House, the famed watering hole, closed down earlier this year. I didn’t check to see what replaced (or is replacing) it, but I hope it’s not another chain. Chipolte, the large-chain burrito joint, just opened on Bloor. Is it in the old Book City location or the old Sobey’s? I loose track of what stores were where.
After making my purchase, I headed to Future Bakery, a restaurant offering moderately priced meals and a large bakery of cookies, pies, and cakes. It caters to an eclectic clientele, but it’s seemingly students (the UofT is close by) and weekend crowds not necessarily looking for the bar scene. It’s not the place you go for an extravagant meal, but if you’re looking for a quick bite, it’s classier than fast food, although noise carries loudly there, so it’s not necessarily a relaxing environment. Despite the noise, I read the first ten pages of my new book before my chicken schnitzel is ready.
After lunch, I headed further west on Bloor and approached the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, although it’ll always be the Bloor to me.
They haven’t updated the building’s front sign — Ted Rogers’s name hasn’t appeared on the banner yet. A few months ago, Rogers donated money to the Hot Docs film festival to buy the building, thus ensuring that it’ll be saved from demolition. A noble act, yes, but is it really necessary for Rogers’s name to be a part of the cinema’s name? It’s not like Rogers needs the publicity.
I stood at the northwest corner of Bathurst and Bloor. It was about one in the afternoon, and the day was bright yet grey. I looked around me and a crowd of about five people surrounded me, all of them taking pictures of Honest Ed’s.
I crossed the intersection and entered through the store’s Bloor Street door. To my astonishment, the store is virtually empty. The bins, which were always dumpy and pathetic looking, were virtually empty, save for three of them. One was full of clothes hangers. Were they for sale? I’m not sure, because I didn’t see a price tag. Another bin contained the ugliest lamp posts I have ever seen. They looked like something utterly poor people would buy if they wanted something that slightly resembled chandeliers. Even if they hadn’t been broken — and these were in such bad shape that I had a pain of disgust — they were an odd presence. The sign said “$45 – AS IS” I stood for about a minute looking at the lamps, when a couple in their 60s approached the bin and picked up a lamp. I was baffled. Was I shocked that Mirvish was trying to make every last cent possible? Or was I astonished that somebody would consider buying them? I shouldn’t have been astonished. It was, after all, Honest Ed’s. (The third bin contained drinking glasses, and the sign said they were wine glasses with stems. They weren’t. They were ordinary drinking glasses.)
I walked to the back of the first floor, to the stairs. The basement was roped off, closed. The stairway walls — once covered with Mirvish Productions’ theatre posters, were barren. I took one last look at the ground floor and realized what a dump the building was. Would it really be sad if the building disappeared?
Another bin contained the ugliest lamp posts I have ever seen. They looked like something utterly poor people would buy if they wanted something that slightly resembled chandeliers.
Beside the stairway, there was a back room, and I eyed some theatre posters there. The first one I saw was for the 1993 production of Crazy for You, which my Aunt Linda had taken me to for Christmas. I noticed it was for sale and wondered if I should buy it. I didn’t, and I now think it’s too bad I hadn’t. I really should have.
The Second-Floor Bin Sale
The second floor was where the action was. There were two things that I noticed. The first was the hair salon, which if I recall correctly, was called Audrey (why didn’t I take notes?) It was a sad-looking, bare-minimum salon that had none of the equipment you’d associate with a hair salon. No mirrors for the customers to watch their hair getting cut. An office chair substituted for the rising haircutting chair. There was a sink to wash hair and a portable table for the hairdresser to keep her tools. At the front of the hair salon was a hand-written sign that looked like it had been hastily cut from a wine box. It listed the salon’s hours. Two women, who looked like they were straight out of the 1950s (one was wearing a bonnet!), were there to get their hair cut. One of the women was having her hair dyed. I was at a loss for words.
To the left of the hair salon, the store was selling their signs. Dozens of people were going through the bins in hopes of finding one of Honest Ed’s creative signs.
I took a look, but all the creative signs were gone; presumably they had been sold long ago. I saw only signs with prices on them. They’re old, stained, and crumpled. I decided not to buy any, but astonishingly, may people were still buying. As I was going through the signs, I started listening to the music blasting through the store speakers. It was a Traveling Wilburys hit from thirty years ago. Not only the store but also the music was stuck in a bygone era.
Across the Catwalk
Taking the catwalk, I walked over to the store’s other building; its upper floors were roped off, the lights turned off. I went down to the first floor, and noticed that among the few things for sale were four bins’ worth of Crest toothpaste. It was only 77 cents, but they weren’t in the regular Crest box you see at the grocery store. I wondered if it really was Crest toothpaste in there. They had one fridge running, and it had three plastic jugs of juice and one package of a dozen eggs. They were literally trying to sell everything in the store! I looked at the clerks at the cash registers by the Markham Street exits. They were all women of colour; I think they all spoke with accents. I wondered how they felt being on their last week on the job. How did they feel to be in a store no longer with merchandise? How is it to see the building for what it really was: worn down, dirty, and on its dying days? Would they successfully transition from one minimum-wage job to another? I felt for them, knowing that they had to perform their job with professionalism and a happy face, despite the hardship that many would face in the coming weeks and months.
I head home confused and baffled. It’s a shame we’re losing the building, a sentimental part of Toronto’s history. I’m even sadder that many of the historic buildings on Markham Street may be lost. And I’m saddened at how the new development will impact the Annex neighbourhood.
Yet walking through Honest Ed’s, I realized what the store represented: a Toronto that’s gone, a Toronto before it was Canada’s number-one city, a Toronto before it had aspirations of becoming a world-class city. My grandmother, who grew up in East York in the ’30s and ’40s, often talked about how depressed she was being stuck in that era, when the city shut down on Sundays and how old and tired the Toronto of that time looked.
Honest Ed’s was a hold over from that era, and for better or worse, it no longer fits into the modern Toronto. Personally, I’ll miss the free turkeys on holidays, the hand-made signs, and the uniqueness of the store. I’ll regret that another piece of Toronto’s history is lost. I fear the loss of Mirvish Village. Yet I look forward to a revitalization of one of Toronto’s key intersections. Let’s hope the transformation is as organic and natural as the evolution of Honest Ed’s. Unfortunately, I have my doubts.