Like a loud tie, Honest Ed’s has garishly announced its presence at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor for 68 years.
But late on New Year’s Eve, the 23,000 lights that festoon the creaky old building will be turned off for the last time and the iconic bargain store will close its doors forever.
When that happens, Toronto will have lost not just a piece of its history but some of its soul. And that’s a shame.
Sure, the ramshackle, rundown department store created by the brilliant and eccentric Ed Mirvish is outdated and no longer fits easily with the shiny new reality of the city’s central core. But in its day Honest Ed’s was outrageously uncommon, and provided a needed discount service to generations of immigrants who flooded into its cramped quarters for its famous “door crashers” and “loss leaders.”
It wasn’t just a store; it was a destination. It was nothing like what you’d find on the Champs Elysées or Fifth Avenue — or anywhere else for that matter. But it attracted visitors from around the world because of its uniqueness, and its heart. As Mirvish’s famous sign put it: “There’s no place like this place, anyplace!”
As Mirvish, who died in 2007 at the age of 92, explained in a column he wrote for the Star in 2002, it all began in 1948 when he went into the business of selling “bargains.”
He placed a hand-painted sign over the store’s entrance that read: “Name your own price!! No reasonable offer refused.”
Then he sat down to write his first ad: “Our building is a dump! Our service is rotten!! Our fixtures are orange crates! But!! Our prices are the lowest in town!! Serve yourself and save a lot of money!!”
That continued to be his modus operandi, writing ads and the copy for signs after his dinner, served precisely at 6 p.m. every night by his wife, Anne.
“Our prices are so nutty, look at the cashew saved.” “Honest Ed’s is for the birds, cheap, cheap, cheap.”
Mirvish could clearly sell anything, and he did — even those unmistakable hand-painted red-and-blue signs now turning up on eBay. Indeed, he was a sales superhero who garnered free publicity with stunts from free Christmas turkey giveaways to 40 clowns playing trombones.
Who could think of these things? An immigrant who started with nothing, selling items off orange crates, and grew his business to include numerous (but now defunct) restaurants — Seafood! Chinese! Italian! — and four thriving theatres, starting with the Royal Alexandra.
Honest Ed’s had a grand run. But it’s time is over, as the city and the neighbourhood around the store changed dramatically. Mirvish’s son, David, sold the building and the block around it to the Vancouver-based developer, Westbank Corp., three years ago.
David Mirvish contends that even his father would have supported closing the store and moving on.
“My father thought that businesses should fulfill people’s needs, and if they didn’t, they didn’t deserve to survive,” he told the Star’s Francine Kopun. With the likes of Walmart and Dollarama offering the kind of bargains that Honest Ed’s pioneered, it was only a matter of time until the dilapidated store would have had to close its doors.
Now, after the lights blink out at Honest Ed’s, a new project will rise to take its place at Bathurst and Bloor, including the iconic “Mirvish Village” that the family preserved a block to the west along Markham St.
Initial plans call for an ambitious development of 55 buildings of residences, restaurants and shops organized around a grid of laneways and a covered public market reminiscent of 19th-century Toronto. It is to include 1,000 much-needed units of rental housing in a city with a vacancy rate of only 1.7 per cent.
It will be an enormous change for the area, and a big test for how the city handles such major projects – covering more than a square block at a landmark intersection in the city’s core.
There’s potential for something positive to emerge, renewing a key part of the city. Westbank itself calls it “one of Canada’s great city-building opportunities” and speaks grandly taking “a holistic approach to this project combining energy and sustainability, artistry and place.”
Those are fine words, and the city should make sure the company lives up to them and respects the human scale of the surrounding neighbourhood.
In its time, Honest Ed’s expressed the energy and ambition of a city swelling with immigrants from all over the world. As the lights finally go out, what replaces it should live up to the ambition of the more sophisticated city we are now.
Source: The Star