In Retro T.O., we revisit key moments and places in recent Toronto history that still reverberate today. This week: While discount stores continue to proliferate across the city, they’ve abandoned what was once their most attractive feature—the lunch counter.
While modern successors of five-and-dime stores like Dollarama expand across the city, they lack certain attributes their ancestors possessed. You won’t find the mingling of odours from parakeets, popcorn, and rubber boots. You won’t find the latest chart-topping records. And, in the chains at least, you won’t find a classic lunch counter.
While the dining areas in Toronto’s branches of cross-border chains like Kresge and Woolworth didn’t have the society-changing impact like those that served as focal points of the American civil-rights movement, they did provide a gathering place for the surrounding community. Sitting on a stool or leather-padded seat along the counter, patrons could catch up with friends or enjoy coffee, a light meal, and a slice of pie on their own. Before fast-food chains took over, the counters were ideal for a fast economical meal or a treat to calm down the kids.
When the Star profiled the “venerable east-end oasis” that was the Kresge outpost at 265 Coxwell Ave. in 1988, its counter seemed like a relic from another age. Despite the store’s yellowing shelf stock and creaky wooden floor, the 28-stool counter remained vital for its aging clientele as a place to socialize as their neighbourhood evolved into Little India. According to veteran clerk Vi Podmor, “We have the same old people showing up for coffee at the same time they have for years. I think they need this place to stay in touch.” Regulars like Moe Chandler recalled how busy the counter, which opened in 1942, was in its heyday, when it was patronized by streetcar drivers. “But they go to the doughnut shop on the corner now,” Chandler noted, “and a lot of people who used to shop here are going to Bargain Harold’s across the street.” While many of the other patrons he knew had passed on, Chandler, described as a “spry” 86-year-old, felt the counter was a “not bad” cruising spot.
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from the October 11, 1988 edition of the Toronto Star
Adding to the atmosphere was the vintage restaurant and soda-fountain equipment used to prepare the lunch counter’s culinary delights. Top sellers were classic snack bar fare: burgers, hot dogs, toast, and western sandwiches, at prices that only survive at Gale’s Snack Bar; few menu items topped four dollars. The classic milkshake machines likely saw less use than they did during the 1950s and 1960s, when local teens flooded the store every week to pick up the weekly CHUM Chart and enjoyed a drink while scanning the latest chart-toppers.
The Coxwell lunch counter outlived Kresge, whose last five Toronto stores were closed by Kmart in 1994. The new store owner, Super Dollar, retained the vintage aura of the dining area by retaining the “Dinette” sign, now with “Dollar” in front of it. But the decision to retain low prices proved unprofitable and the counter was closed in April 1996. The community’s ire expressed itself in a petition signed by 425 people. Combined with a substantial sales drop overall following the counter’s closure, store owners reopened it a few months later. The store would change names again, but the counter continued to feed the neighbourhood, under the banner of Liquidation World, until it closed for good in April 2007. Some seats were quickly removed to make space for a rack of dish cloths that once might have cleaned the counter. The store site is currently vacant, despite interest in remaking the space.
Additional material from the April 18, 2007 edition of the National Post, and the October 11, 1988, April 26, 1996, and September 11, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.