[dropcap]I’ll[/dropcap] NEVER FORGET MY DRIVE to Toronto on move-in day for my first year at U of T. Heading down Bathurst towards campus in my family’s car, I can recall every sight from that fateful day: the enticing independent restaurants, the grand and glamorous street art — all the usual trappings of a big city. When we hit Bloor Street, however, the scene changed. I stared out the window enchanted by the monolithic light show that was Honest Ed’s: the shining beacon of Toronto’s Mirvish Village.
For nearly half a century, the neighbourhood surrounding Honest Ed’s discount store has sheltered an eclectic array of local businesses. From restaurants to vintage clothing stores and comic shops, one of Honest Ed’s celebrated slogans says it best: “there’s no place like this place, anyplace.”
And yet, in the wake of a $100 million buyout in 2013 to make way for purpose-built rental housing development, Honest Ed’s, along with the bulk of surrounding businesses, are set to close their doors by the end of 2016. More than simply the loss of a handful of retailers, the closing represents the loss of a limb for the cultural body of Toronto.
As a businessman, arts advocate, and humanitarian, the late Edwin “Ed” Mirvish was Toronto’s quintessential multi-tasker.
After opening his eponymous discount store in 1948, Mirvish promoted his business with late night television advertising. He attracted locals with oddball ads and showcased products marked down far below the suggested retail price. His charm paid off, and the flagship Mirvish business was a success.
In 1962, with over a decade of fiscal success behind the bargain house, Mirvish purchased the Royal Alexandra Theatre, saving it from demolition. In 1993, Mirvish oversaw and funded the development of the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Turning a profit was never the sole motivation for the city’s favourite bargain man; every Christmas, Mirvish would give thousands of pounds of free turkeys to Toronto citizens outside of Honest Ed’s. In 2007, Mirvish was recognized posthumously for his contributions to the city of Toronto’s cultural scene when Yonge Street’s Canon Theatre was renamed Ed Mirvish Theatre in 2011.
The spirit of a neighbourhood
While today the carnival-style discount store is as likely to inspire a passerby to snap a photo as head inside to shop, the diverse range of Mirvish Village’s businesses that surround Honest Ed’s have resonated with students for a variety of reasons.
Daniel Konikoff, a criminology major at U of T, recounts visiting Sonic Boom, a record shop that occupied the east end of Honest Ed’s until 2014. Konikoff says that upon entering the independent record store for the first time, he felt, “some sort of sensory overload.”
“I was inundated with culture, with important works, with art of all kinds, many of which I hadn’t heard of before,” shared Konikoff.
Fourth-year psychology major Denise Salazar also has fond memories of Mirvish Village. “Passing by the giant Honest Ed’s sign and the fairy lights in its alley way — night or day — feels comforting in a way,” she explained. “There are even a few vintage clothing stores I like to go to where some of the workers recognize me.”
In the summer before my third year, I made sure to take my subletting roommates — one from Waterloo in town for a co-op term, the other from Japan staying in Toronto to learn English at U of T — to Honest Ed’s, believing it a tourist’s dream. We bought tacky, matching bathrobes for $3.00 and then, on a dare, walked home in them looking like a bizarre bargain cult. We were weird, but so was Ed’s — and that’s why people loved it.
Many students may be familiar with The Beguiling Books and Art, an independent comic book shop that’s been on Markham Street since 1992. Due to a partnership where the store sold comics used in U of T’s graphic novel class at discounted rates for enrolled students, the shop became not only a sanctuary of comics culture, but also a reference library contributing to students’ academic lives.
Although businesses like Sonic Boom were able to find new homes in other areas of the city following the news of the Village’s redevelopment, not everyone was as fortunate. Suspect Video, a mainstay in Toronto’s niche video and arts scene since 1991, announced earlier this year that they would be closing their doors in 2016.
When asked whether Suspect Video could find a new home, owner Luis Ceriz told Torontoist, “The reality is, the rents are just insane.” The concern is that the era of on-demand digital entertainment has removed the average entertainment seeker from physical video stores. Without the tight artistic community found in Mirvish Village, Suspect Video struggled to stay afloat in another location. “There are options… but it does point more towards closing than anything, and just doing conventions and going online,” said Ceriz.
The impending future
2017 is set to see an abrupt change to what has been a celebrated Toronto neighbourhood for over half a century. A number of loose ends regarding the Village’s legacy and influence may still, however, be salvageable.
The new owner of the Honest Ed’s site is a development company called Westbank Projects Corp. In May 2015, the company released its plans for the space. The main feature of the plan is three towers each more than 20 storeys high — which is unsurprising given the city’s condo-boom. Some features of the plan might be more friendly to former Honest Ed’s regulars, including work-live space for social enterprises, a “Mirvish Village Market,” and the promise that the complex will include at least 1,000 rental units.
There is no doubt that this is a plan bent on gentrifying of the space, but it also hints at attempts to maintain some of the village’s authenticity and character. One of the most pressing questions Torontonians have been asking since the announcement of Honest Ed’s closing is what is to become of the store’s iconic luminous signs. Some have suggested, others perhaps assumed, that the rental properties would incorporate the original signage. Proponents of this might point to Toy Factory — the historic Liberty Village warehouse turned condo that was modified to allow for lofts, rather than being fully demolished and built over — as an example of worthwhile repurposing.
Westbank confirmed last year that the signs have no role in the current site proposal, citing the difficulties of having to reconfigure the antiquated light system and the sheer size of the signs being wider than the proposed buildings.
Some are hopeful that the Honest Ed’s signs may still be saved and restored, following the story of the Sam the Record Man signs. Over 1,000 feet of neon tubing wrapped into two giant vinyl records upon a red backdrop was once a staple of Yonge Street from 1961 until the record shop closed in 2007. Ryerson University bought the Yonge and Gould Street property in 2008, and the purchase included a promise to protect the original Sam’s signage. The colourful piece of Toronto’s history spent a few years in storage, but Ryerson began reassembling the sign in 2016. The university intends to display Sam’s neon records from a Victoria Street building top that will be visible from Yonge & Dundas Square.
It remains possible that the Honest Ed’s signs can go down a similar restorative path, although this may be easier said than done. The Mirvish family have admitted that one of the biggest ongoing problems Honest Ed’s faced was keeping the sign and its decades-old lighting system running, suggesting a simple change of scenery may not be feasible.
A community concerned with culture
The owners and employees of The Beguiling, and Little Island Comics — a child focused comic book store, seem to take after Ed Mirvish, at least in their efforts to involve themselves with Toronto’s cultural landscape. The co-founders of the shops are the main sponsors and organizers of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF). The free, two day convention hosted at the Toronto Reference Library aims to celebrate local and international creators in the comics scene.
Like other store owners in the Village, co-owner Peter Birkemoe of The Beguiling said that he and his team must find new homes for the shops they own in the area. In regards to how the TCAF might be affected, Birkemoe explains that, “TCAF itself is not likely to be affected, but since many of the people who work here work on TCAF in their spare time, it will put a strain on those that make the show possible.”
A lasting legacy
For the most part, the Mirvish family has stepped out of the spotlight since the buyout was announced. On the few occasions David Mirvish, owner of the store since the death of his father, has spoken publicly about the closing, he has expressed confidence in the decision and a sincere gratitude for the 70 years of business Honest Ed’s enjoyed.
“As people, we have a life cycle and so do businesses. Retailing that lasts 75 years is a very long life,” David explained in a PBS documentary on the Mirvish family that was released earlier this year. In an interview with CP24, he said he trusted Westbank Projects’ decisions surrounding the location, saying, “I have no idea what they will do but from what we know from [their other properties] is that they build quality and so I think they will do whatever they see as appropriate to the neighbourhood.”
While the fate of the iconic signs remains unknown, the legacy of Honest Ed Mirvish and his village will no doubt endure in Toronto’s collective conscience. The neighbourhood has been immortalized in pop culture: the Scott Pilgrim comic book series and movie both feature prominent scenes set in the Village, a variant cover for the first Pitiful Human Lizard comic depicting the titular hero scaling the massive Ed’s sign, and dozens of photographers and artists have captured every angle of the Bloor and Bathurst monument.
The Mirvish family’s contributions to the arts will no doubt continue to thrive: The Royal Alexandra and Princess of Wales Theatres continue to attract impressive crowds to their productions.
Regardless of its relocation The Beguiling’s TCAF will carry on as usual for years to come — featuring renowned international artists such as Bastien Vives, a French comic book artist.
Parts of the Village may be closing, but its villagers seem determined to keep its spirit alive.
Correction (April 8, 2016): A previous version of this article referred to Westbank Properties. The legal name is in fact Wesbank Projects Corp. Additionally, references to condominium development have been corrected to “purpose-built” rental housing. The Varsity regrets these errors.