honest ed's

Honest Ed’s forever preserved on a postcard.

Nobody has bothered to change the lightbulbs for years. Still, the marquee on Honest Ed’s always gave Bathurst and Bloor the atmosphere of a side show, like a piece of the Ex preserved out of season. But now that the lights are off for good and the wrecking ball is on its way, a big piece of Toronto’s self-image is missing from the Annex.

The discount department store is lamented now, as just about everyone who has ever moved here as a broke student has gone there to furnish their living room, equip their kitchen, or do some grocery shopping in an area where No Frills are scarce. But as The Guardian put it, the store “didn’t just sell cheap formal wear and ironic birthday gifts to hipsters, but was central to Toronto’s proud history as one of the great immigrant cities.”

Honest Ed’s origins as the department store for the newly arrived is the image where Corrado Paina focuses his lens when he writes, “can’t you see the fear of poverty / the steps of a second life / slippery from sweat?” The poem, “Honest Ed’s,” (accompanied by a truly awful piano in this popular YouTube video) begins about “the races,” buying up hundreds of pounds of meat, sugar, bread, gold, leg of lamb, between anticipation of war and queuing up for buses bound for suburban factories.

John Oughton hits some of the most cringe-worthy notes of earnest anti-capitalist poetry in “Edville”:

Circus lights shout Honest Ed
over and over, three stories high
and two blocks long, a legend built of tiny bulbs
that burn all night in buy-buy-binary code

But it hints at how, with a bit of character, a business someone started to earn some money (enough money to start a theatre empire and eventually spawn David Mirvish’s luxury development schemes) can imprint itself on the city’s soul. The lights aren’t just a legend to capitalism’s code; they’re also the legend of a place and a man whose “bargains creep into your heart, your soul, and your brain!”

Toronto has lost another kitschy piece of its more colourful past, something imagined and preserved in film, poetry, and Scott Pilgrim, but it’s also losing a part of its living literary scene. Between The Central and Victory Café, the block of Markham Street beside Honest Ed’s has held down the eastern limit of literary Toronto with countless reading series and book launches. As that block closes along with the discount emporium, Toronto’s literary world shifts ever-further westward.

… the marquee on Honest Ed’s always gave Bathurst and Bloor the atmosphere of a fun show, like a piece of the Ex preserved out of season.

Mirvish Village is a collection of quaintly independent businesses and artist studios housed in older townhomes. It’s remained eccentric while the rest of the Annex has moved steadily toward franchises, losing businesses like Sonic Boom, Book City, Brunswick House, and plenty of others. After the city kiboshed Ed Mirvish’s plans to demolish the houses for a parking lot, he decided to convert them into artists’ studios, and he charged his creative tenants below-market rent. Even though the buildings themselves will be preserved, sprouting glass outgrowths as heritage buildings in this city often do, the merchants interviewed in the CBC don’t expect the townhouses to stay eccentric:

But many question whether the space will be affordable for younger generations—once encouraged to move to the area by the Mirvish family, who set rents far below market value in order to attract creative entrepreneurs.

Like 401 Richmond, an industrial complex rented out to arts and culture organizations by Margaret Zeidler at below-market rates, Mirvish Village exists not because city hall planned it, but because an eccentric landowner saw value in charging below-market rents. That’s a pretty precarious way to keep creativity in the city—and now 401 Richmond, too, is being threatened by a provincial property tax regulation that will levy it as though it were already a condo.

But Margaret Zeidler, unlike David Mirvish, wants to keep operating as she has been. Mirvish is reinventing his family brand as a developer, and the same name that lit the Annex up like a pinball machine is still reshaping Toronto. Higher and denser residences, bland as so many of them are, are a necessary part of the city growing up and losing its conservative attachment to houses and yards, but growing up also means less room for the tacky and weird—not to mention the creative.

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