15 ways of looking at Toronto’s best-known store.
The announcement last month that Honest Ed’s was up for sale (estimated price tag for that amazing Bathurst/Bloor real estate: $100 million) elicited mostly polarized responses, suggesting that a majority of Torontonians either love the store’s retro vibe or are embarrassed by it. But there are many other ways—15 of them, by our count—to look at the place. Here, an unsentimental but generally affectionate collection of takes on Toronto’s kitsch capital (and accompanying pseudo-scientific analysis of the impact its eventual closing will have on the city).
1. As historical tie to the postwar period
When Honest Ed’s opened in 1948, there was no such thing as a discount department store. Kresge’s, Towers, and Zellers were still decades away, and that world-straddling bargain-behemoth Walmart wasn’t founded in the U.S. until the early 1960s. In a Toronto where Simpson’s and Eaton’s served the middle and upper classes from their august outlets along Yonge, Honest Ed’s was something new. In the block of retail storefronts he’d purchased for $25,000 along Bloor Street, Ed Mirvish offered the goods he’d picked up in bulk with the distinctly non-Eaton’s promise: “Name your price! No reasonable offer refused!”
Back then, there were no suburbs to speak of, at least not as we now know them, and none of the big-box stores that currently define those areas. In postwar Toronto, the Annex was a landing spot for immigrants. (Mirvish himself was one, having been born in Virginia, then moving to Toronto in 1923 at age nine.) Along with the poor from around the city, these new arrivals found staples they could afford in Mirvish’s growing warehouse. Soon enough, there was an immigration consultant there, along with Canada’s first discount pharmacy.
Mirvish somehow made the process of lining up to buy ladies underpants seem like fun. His motto—“No service, no parking, no credit, no refunds, no frills of any kind”—was less a warning than a boast.
The store’s age is revealed through its outdated décor, but its various museum-like elements also tell the story of the city: the framed photos of celebrities who’ve visited, the news items hung outside that commemorate big sales stunts of the past. You can read the store like the rings of a tree trunk, decoding the ads for “door crasher specials” that tie us to the Toronto our parents and grandparents knew.—E.K.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 8. We don’t have a proper city museum, but Honest Ed’s comes close.
2. As comic relief
Honest Ed’s a master of corny jokes! They call him the Kernel!!
Honest Ed’s full of stale one-liners! They’re so brittle you could break a tooth on ’em!!
Honest Ed doesn’t want you to take him seriously. But seriously, someone take him!!
Honest Ed’s no Louis C.K. But his jokes are big enough for all to see! K?
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 3. We’ll miss the corniness, but the city has plenty of other comedians.
3. As tourist destination
From The Toronto Guide, 1966-67, by Andrew Hepburn:
“Honest Ed’s—581 Bloor Street West at Bathurst, west edge of midtown. One of the most famous and remarkable stores in Canada, advertising itself as the world’s wackiest bargain store. Vast assortments of marked-down merchandise, which armies of shoppers fight over to buy and enjoy doing it.”
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 4. Hey, we’ll still have Casa Loma, right?
Photo: Shlomi Amiga/The Grid
4. As unlikely source of pretzel bliss
It’s 9:30 in the morning and a woman rolls and twists dough at her window-side workspace, watching would-be customers pass by. Her name is Milka Cobanov, and from her small shop housed within the walls of Honest Ed’s, she makes quite possibly the finest soft pretzels this city has to offer: Gargantuan twists that put ballpark offerings to shame, and pillowy, buttery “bites,” each studded with salt, or dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
Cobanov, who is originally from Yugoslavia, opened Bite & Sip (571 Bloor St. W., at Bathurst) this March with help from her family. Real fruit smoothies and sandwiches round out her menu, but it’s the pretzels that are worth repeat visits. Baked from scratch on the premises with only a handful of ingredients, the made-to-order morsels are best eaten right away, but as Cobanov promises, “are good tomorrow, too.”
The occasional Ed’s customer wanders in from off the street, hungry after their conquest and bragging about bargains: “Ladies underpants! Three pairs for 25 cents!” exclaims one excited shopper. Behind the counter, Cobanov just shakes her head with a wry smile and puts another batch of pretzels in the oven.—R.F.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 6. There are countless other places to find snacks.
5. As typographical pioneers
Honest Ed’s manager Russell Lazar knows it would be cheaper to just print off signs marking products and their prices, but the hand-painted placards were such a point of pride for Ed Mirvish that Lazar could never bring himself to make the switch. So on a typical day, full-time sign painters Doug Kerr and Wayne Reuben create 70 or 80 signs in their office on the second floor of Honest Ed’s.
The store is the only one in the city that still paints its posters one by one, but by now, the iconic red, yellow, and blue slash lettering has taken on a life of its own and made minor celebrities of Kerr and Reuben. Handcrafted signage used to be the status quo, but all it took was a bit of stubbornness in the face of change for Honest Ed’s to establish itself as a typographical landmark.—L.Z.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 7. Ed’s hand-drawn artistry is a classic Toronto font.
6. As a place to buy stuff
Hey, bargain hunter—what did you just buy? (Photos: Shlomi Amiga/The Grid)
James, 14, student: I’m from Mississauga, and I thought I’d check Honest Ed’s out. I ended up buying dumbbells, olive oil, and a bag of chips.
Rafael, 28, student: A raccoon souvenir. I’m from Brazil, and it’s for my friend. He feeds raccoons.
Jim, 65, retired: Pear drink, rice, fabric softener, and a baguette. Honest Ed’s is like a walk through the past. It’s like walking through old Toronto.
Isabella, 8, kid: I bought a toy cat, silly straws, and a bag. The cat is my favourite because it’s really soft and cute.
Natalia, 19, student: A shoe rack, shirts, and a beaded necklace. I love Ed’s because it’s cheap. They have good prices for students.
Nana, 22, office assistant: Batteries, blush, and a pair of earrings. I come here because the store is really cheap and the stuff they sell is really different.
Donna, 47, singer/songwriter: A holograph of The Last Supper. It’s a birthday gift for my nephew.
Aaron, 42, behavioural teacher: A pasta maker for $35. I’ve always wanted one.
David, 18, pianist: I decided to splurge $3 on a tie. I’m from Ottawa. I’ve never been to Honest Ed’s, but apparently it’s a famous landmark.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 6. Reasonable prices, wildly eclectic selection.
7. As celebration of retail randomness
Elephant figurines? Why, there’s a whole wall-spanning shelf of them. Canada-themed fare? There are piggy banks, picture frames, clocks, mugs, and much more. File under “inexplicable”: a “Toronto” mug with a painted-on face featuring a protruding red nose and, attached to the handle, one of those red horns that clowns are always honking. And I’ve barely gotten past the entrance. “Honest Ed’s, I love your randomness,” a woman behind me squeals, just as I’m examining a shelf filled with statues the size of candlesticks, each made to resemble a man wearing a tux; instead of heads, the men sport little jewellery racks on top of their shoulders.
Honest Ed’s is arguably known more for its gloriously tacky wares than the out-of-this-world bargains on which the store built its reputation. The experience of navigating your way through the aisles itself is gloriously off-kilter: The floor slopes down steeply along one wall of the housewares section on the main floor, decades’ worth of yellowing theatre posters paper the walls, and the hardware section in the basement is lined with framed hologram posters of lions, kittens, and puppies, their eyes following you as you snake through the aisles.
File under “literal”: A ceramic toilet brush holder shaped like a toilet, and a piggy bank made to look like a giant loonie. Looking for something a little more abstract? Salt and pepper shakers in the shape of roosters—bam. How about candle holders in your choice of rooster or duck? A steal at 49 cents apiece! Come to Honest Ed’s, where the Elvis busts are just the tip of the rhinestone-crusted iceberg.—L.Z.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 7. People always knew where they could find an Elvis bust.
8. As retail bummer
I won’t miss Honest Ed’s. The truth is that I haven’t shopped there in years. Ed’s stopped being anything more than a literal storefront quite a while ago. Its 23,000 light bulbs are no longer a beacon calling us in—they’re the warning lights that tell us to stay away.
Lost in all of this nostalgia about the store’s potential passing is the simple fact that by modern standards, Ed’s isn’t a very good store at all. We can argue over the historical merits of the building, but we can’t forget that it isn’t just the signage at Ed’s that’s trapped in the past—it’s the entire retail experience.
We just don’t want (or need) to shop this way anymore. The cheap merchandise that used to be available only at Ed’s is everywhere: at a Walmart just a couple of kilometers away, at dollar stores scattered throughout the city, or in greater quantities, and even cheaper prices, at warehouse stores. Ed’s is providing the same sweatshop goods and throwaway knickknacks we can find anywhere else. (Except at Ed’s, we wander through a maze to get to them.)
That’s the problem with Honest Ed’s. Even as the Annex has changed, its single biggest storefront hasn’t evolved at all. Ed’s is a retail dead space—so completely out of place in the modern Annex that it diminishes the rest of the neighbourhood.
There are going to be real problems in properly developing Mirvish Village (especially that charming but under-trafficked and under-marketed patch of Markham Street). Let’s not get distracted by pretending we still like shopping at Honest Ed’s. The façade may have its charms, but remember: it’s what’s inside that counts.—M.V.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 1. If you weren’t impressed by Honest Ed’s, you clearly won’t miss it.
9. As bricks-and-mortar embodiment of Ed Mirvish
Ed Mirvish had show business bred into him: He was circumcised by Al Jolson’s father and came by his name (Edwin, an Anglicization of his given name, Yehuda) at the suggestion of Irving Berlin’s future private secretary. And while he’d go on to become more directly involved in the theatre business, the purest expression of his entertainer’s instincts may still be found in the store that bears his name.
The humour on display in his signs (“Honest Ed attracts squirrels! At these prices they think he’s nuts!”) is as broad and cheeky as his visual aesthetic, and his publicity stunts (a “Wild West Girl” once travelled to Honest Ed’s from the Yukon by dogsled) as
brazen as his prices.
In 1999, journalist Michael Valpy expressed fear that the store would one day close. “Never,” Mirvish replied, definitively enough that one might actually believe him. And as long as he lived and breathed, he kept Honest Ed’s running on pure energy.—E.K.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 9. Ed Mirvish: Much-loved, much-missed.
Photos: Shlomi Amiga/The Grid
10. As architectural labyrinth
There are three things every Torontonian knows about Honest Ed’s: It has a giant, garish sign; the inventory is dollar-store cheap; and the building’s design is so convoluted that finding your way out can be near impossible. It seems the late Ed Mirvish himself was actually aware of this last fact, since the phrase “Come In and Get Lost” graces the store’s front entrance—another one of his creaky puns, yes, but also an accurate take on the labyrinthine layout. Consisting of two warehouse-sized buildings connected underground and by an above-ground overpass, Honest Ed’s in its current 160,000-square-foot incarnation is much more maze than mall. The reason? The complex never had a coherent architectural plan; rather, it grew out of a series of adjacent storefronts along Bloor Street that Mirvish acquired and amalgamated after opening his first shop, Sport Bar, on the site in 1940.
Major construction took place in 1958, a decade after Honest Ed’s opened. Walls were knocked down, stairs and sloping ramps were used to merge floors, and new storeys were added to the primary building at Bloor and Markham. In 1984, Mirvish added an extra 50,000 square feet of space at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor, and installed the now-iconic 636-foot long, 23,000-bulb sign. As visitors (frequent and occasional) have no doubt noticed, the lack of grand planning has resulted in very little retail coherence: souvenirs sit next to toiletries, groceries are stocked near patio furniture in the basement, and there’s no way to get between the two buildings at street level.—J.R.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 3. If you want to get lost you can still head to the PATH.
11. As Hollywood-film location
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): Comic author Bryan Lee O’Malley and director Edgar Wright’s love letter to all things Toronto would not be complete without a shot of the store, as seen through the window of the Pizza Pizza on the other side of Bloor. Alas, the movie does not use it as the location for Scott’s battle with his vegan adversary, Todd, as O’Malley did in his original comic. The fight ends with Todd causing the building to tragically implode—could any potential real-life demolition ever be so dramatic?
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996): Seen immediately after Geena Davis’s character completes her transition from amnesiac brunette housewife to bad-ass blonde assassin, the shop’s glittering signage lights up the night as our heroine walks the streets of “Atlantic City.” Since the production was infamously involved in a fire that destroyed a historic hotel in the Muskokas, Honest Ed’s was probably lucky to survive its encounter with director Renny Harlin unscathed.—J.A.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 2. It never featured in Hollywood films as prominently as Sam the Record Man.
12. As Canadian indie-film location
Holy Ed’s (2010): The flashing lights, window displays, and corny slogans take on a menacing air in this minute-long, black-and-white Super 8 short by Toronto artist Eva Kolcze, which was shown on subway screens by the Toronto Urban Film Festival in 2010. If the building ever gets a proper funeral, this could play on a loop next to the floral arrangements and a sign that says, “Honest Ed’s all wet!! But he never soaks you!!”
The Tape (2012): A pick for TIFF’s Short Cuts Canada program last year, local filmmaker Matt Austin Sadowski’s charming short about a man’s quest to find a player for a much-cherished VHS tape unites two of the city’s most distinctive landmarks. You probably guessed the first one, but the other is the marvelously gaunt face of Julian Richings, whose hunt for a VCR somehow doesn’t yield a find at Bathurst and Bloor.—J.A.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 1. Not a local-film landmark.
13. As indie-culture incubator
The selection of bargain-bin VHS videos and best-of compilation CDs that used to reside in the audio/visual section of Honest Ed’s basement might not have been the go-to source of inspiration for Toronto’s aspiring filmmakers and musicians, but the flickering lights of the discount super-store have long served as a beacon for indie artists of all disciplines. The building itself, and many of the properties within Mirvish Village, have housed countless studios and shops catering to both high- and lowbrow artistic tastes.
In the mid-1960s, the neighbourhood bordering Ed’s was dubbed the Markham Street Art Colony when the Mirvish family bought up the Victorian houses and turned them into a parking lot, but ended up making the street-level floors available as storefronts, galleries, and studios. They even provided a home for the first comic-book store in Canada, when Viking Bookshop relocated from Queen West under its new name, Memory Lane. By the late 1980s, the Markham Strip featured what would become an even more iconic comic-book shop, The Beguiling, as well as the impeccably stocked and gallery-esque David Mirvish Books on Art. And tucked into the southwestern corner of the Ed’s building itself since 1991 is Suspect Video’s unbelievably diverse and subversive collection of films for rent—even Quentin Tarantino has been known to hang out in the movie-nerd haven.
These places, along with eventual tenants like alternative book store A Different Booklist and yet another comics store, Little Island Comics—not to mention the antique shops, fashion designers, and short-lived retro boutiques—all benefitted from affordable rents and presence in an area where the concentration of culture seemed to spill out onto the street. Most recently, the east side of the Ed’s building became a safe haven for beloved indie record shop Sonic Boom, which moved out of its former home to make way for a Dollarama. It took a Mirvish Village to raise an art colony, but that initial support for indie artists has proven as enduring as the store itself.—C.B.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 8. Made a valuable contribution to our cultural life.
14. As charitable hub
After Ed Mirvish died, plenty of words were spilled about his giving nature and his contributions to the city. Even today, the small cultural businesses around the store are thankful for the reduced rents he gave them. In 1984, an Honest Ed’s employee told The Globe and Mail, “I think this is the best store in all of Toronto for poor people—100 per cent.” Each year in July, on his birthday, the showman/retailer would throw a massive street party, offering up free food. And at Christmas, he’d personally hand out thousands of pounds of free turkey and fruitcake, giving his customers a chance to thank him in person—a tradition his son David has maintained since Ed’s passing in 2007.
His empire—through its cultural works, neighbourhood-defining buildings, and, notably, its sense of charity—helped to define Toronto in a way few others have.—E.K.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 8. Who’ll give out free turkeys when the store closes?
15. As example of Toronto’s disappearing kitsch aesthetic
The city once glowed and pulsed with vibrant, unsubtle storefronts: the rotating neon discs of Sam the Record Man, the towering pink and purple façade of the Imperial Cinema, the two-storey-high letters spelling out “Pinball Games” near Yonge and Dundas. But the 636-foot-long sign at Honest Ed’s—the largest in the world, its owner claimed—is the granddaddy of them all. When Mayor Nathan Phillips flipped the switch to turn on those flashing lightbulbs for the first time in 1958, it caused a blackout in the surrounding Annex area. The store was intentionally, shamelessly corny in a way few businesses dare to be anymore. But as much as Honest Ed’s is one of Toronto’s few remaining examples of a retro-retail kitsch that once dominated the city, it has always been something more than that.
The store itself is the city’s original big-box retailer, but it defined outside-the-box thinking decades before that phrase came into use. One-of-a-kind places are an increasingly rare commodity in the globalized world. And when Ed’s eventually closes, to be replaced by a Loblaws or Walmart, or a glass-walled condo, there will be nothing like it left in the city, or in the entire world.—E.K.
How much will the city miss this aspect of Honest Ed’s (out of 10)?: 7. It might not be pretty, but it’s pretty distinct.
What will you miss—or not miss—about Honest Ed’s? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.