Honest Ed’s, Toronto

This post is likely not going to do justice to its subject, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. Those familiar with Toronto will know Honest Ed’s, the landmark discount store at the corner of Bloor Street and Bathurst Street, in a neighborhood called the Annex, near the University of Toronto and just north of the heart of the downtown core. Honest Ed’s, named after owner and theater magnate Ed Mirvish, closed at the end of 2016, and is soon to be replaced by a large new mixed-use construction called Mirvish Village with up to 800 residential units and new retail space. As a latecomer to Toronto (I moved to the city in 2010), I had no special attachment to Honest Ed’s, but many Torontonians had a fondness for the uniquely tacky and silly design and presentation of the store, which was lit up by thousands of electric bulbs on its facade, looking a bit like one of Mirvish’s theater marquees or a lower-end Las Vegas casino. Tongue-in-cheek advertising slogans and puns marked the window displays and appeared on signs throughout the store, stating things like “There’s no place like this place, anyplace!” and “Honest Ed is a nightmare, but my bargains are a dream!” It also didn’t hurt that Mirvish, who opened the store in 1948 with his wife Annie following a couple of smaller ventures, was an early pioneer of the “loss leader” concept with affordable goods ranging from canned beans and small kitchen appliances to clothing and children’s toys, often sold at prices below wholesale. Mirvish quickly figured out how to leverage local television advertising and other forms of (usually free) publicity, and endeared himself and his store to Toronto shoppers with numerous public events and promotions, most famously the annual free Christmas turkey giveaway that began in the late 1980s. By the early 2000s, though, numerous factors brought the store to the brink of closure: gentrification and increasing rent and condo development in downtown Toronto eroded the store’s core customer base while driving land prices and taxes higher; loss of business to big-box chain stores and internet retailers; and the death of Ed Mirvish in 2007, with his son David preferring to focus on the family’s extensive theater business instead of the store.

I write about all this now because I happened to be near the Honest Ed’s site this past week, and the storefront looks increasingly shabby and derelict as the redevelopment gets underway. The iconic store sign was removed in late May, and the building now stands locked and covered by a growing tangle of graffiti of no remarkable artistic quality, and I overheard a gaggle of new security guards discussing the issue of graffiti on their training run as a I walked past. One guard then sat on a lonely and uncomfortable plastic chair in a small alley between the two main buildings of the store complex. The interior space of the store is now empty, its uneven floors, narrow stairs, and strangely mirrored rooms awaiting the wrecking ball and bulldozer. In late February I was lucky enough to attend the final public event in the space, which had been converted for a couple of days into an art gallery, with several local artists taking different sections and reflecting on the history of Ed’s, and on Toronto and urban change more generally. Three exhibits stood out most for me. The first was a tangle of balloons through which one could walk with small ribbons and cards attached on which people had answered questions about where they were from and their memories and experiences of specific Toronto landmarks or neighborhoods. A photo of one of these is included here, filled out by someone who lives in the Queen West neighborhood (which might mean West Queen West, an area between Bathurst and Gladstone streets along Queen Street West, or potentially Parkdale, a neighborhood undergoing intense gentrification and, earlier this summer, a rent strike) who felt that “you will miss all these hipsters when they’re gone.” That may very well be, especially if the “hipster” crowd of young people, students, artists, musicians, and the like are replaced by others moving into neighborhoods like Parkdale (this is for a later post as there’s a lot here that needs to be discussed). The second was a small-scale version of Toronto designed by children and meant to be interactive, tactile, and movable, a glimpse into how children perceive and use urban space.

The final one was a sort of story-telling performance by one of the last employees of Ed’s, a younger man, mid 20s maybe, in the office formerly occupied by Ed Mirvish as owner and manager of the store, recounting the myths and stories of the store’s history, his own experiences working there, and the store’s place in the Toronto cityscape and public imagination. At the end of his performance, a voice on the store’s PA system announced that it was time to close, and that all had to leave. So I was lucky enough to be among the final members of the public not only in Honest Ed’s, but in Ed’s office, with its ratty carpet and cheap wooden shelving.

The site redevelopment is now underway, under the direction of the real estate company Westbank and Vancouver-based architects Henriquez Partners. Three towers of 20-plus stories each are planned for the site, which has some Torontonians on edge, as the downtown core is already marked by a number of recently-constructed and not particularly attractive or interesting glass-and-steel towers, many with hundreds of condos (a symptom and cause of the slow but steady erosion of affordable housing in the city) or providing office space that sits largely empty after 5 pm and on the weekends. But Westbank’s commitment to rental units rather than condominiums has eased some fears, and the integration of new retail and a holistic approach to the design will (hopefully) maintain and expand pedestrian and bike friendly spaces at a busy urban corner where major public transit lines intersect and traffic is already fairly congested, and where numerous other small businesses might otherwise be forced out with escalating costs driven by constantly increasing condo prices and the incursion of more upscale shopping options. This would be a marked improvement over other redevelopments in the city, but the project is likely to take several years to complete. If successful, it will be a visual upgrade in the heart of a bustling neighborhood (in my opinion – Ed’s was definitely really tacky, even if it was a kind of lovable, goofy tacky), and perhaps a model for mixed-use planning and development in a city that badly needs to re-examine the trend of throwing up enormous condo towers at the cost of affordable rental housing, usable green space, and walkable retail. I’ll save a more in-depth examination of gentrification and urban change in Toronto, looking especially at Parkdale, for a later post.