The end of an era: Toronto bids farewell to iconic Honest Ed’s store (2022)

Goodbye, blue pygmy Christmas tree in the window($7.99).

Goodbye, cushion cover embroidered with mustaches for $8.00 ("Discontinued – No Refund – No Exchange – FinalSale").

So long, humble Tea-Making Cup ($5.99) and Krazy Karnival Mirror($425.00).

Ninety-nine-cent egg timers designed to look like strawberry cupcakes –Godspeed.

David Mirvish wasn't the only person to make a forlorn tour through the esoteric merchandise still on sale at Honest Ed's in the past few weeks. The store printed 10,000 commemorative T-shirts for its home stretch and soldout.

But among the mourners and souvenir hunters who have wandered its brightly lit aisles this holiday season, Mr. Mirvish was the most significant. He owns the grand, garish bargain basement. And on Dec. 31, he will closeit.

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To Mr. Mirvish, the store is practically flesh and blood: His father, Ed Mirvish, founded Honest Ed's nearly 70 years ago and raised his son amid its crooked floors and byzantine stairways. In its terminal weeks, David has been trying to avoid the place and the flood of nostalgia it triggers. But he hasn't been able to resist a few fond, parting glances. On a recent visit, he bought about 100 of the cupcake-shaped egg timers as keepsakes for his employees at Mirvish Productions, the behemoth theatre company that supplanted discount retail at the heart of his business empire a long timeago.

"I wanted them to have a memory of Honest Ed's," Mr. Mirvishsaid.

Memories, and a husk of a building, are all that will be left at Bathurst and Bloor Streets by the new year. Eventually, a complex of apartments and modern shops will stand there, every sleek pane of glass mocking its predecessor on the corner. That will be sad for heritage boosters, inconvenient for the shrunken cadre of Honest Ed's shoppers and painful for the surrounding Mirvish tenants who faceeviction.

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But Ed's heir casts the move as something else: inevitable. Since its launch in 1948, with fire-sale stock and screaming signs, the store hardly changed. It only grew, for nearly half a century. Then it stopped growing and started doing the opposite. Wal-Mart and its big-box imitators were culprits in chief, but they had accomplices: Internet shopping, a spruced-up downtown and the diffusion of Toronto's working class amongthem.

"The world changed," Mr. Mirvish said, sitting at a glass-topped boardroom table in his King Street West office, the week beforeChristmas.

The words might be carved on Honest Ed's tombstone if it hadone.

Honest Yehuda's doesn't have the same ring, so it's just as well that a member of the Mirvish clan changed the boy's name to Edwin at a young age. The homely handle was an important legacy of Ed Mirvish's early life in Washington. So, according to Honest Ed's Story, by the journalist Jack Batten, was the time he contemplated running away from home to join the circus, early evidence of a taste for showmanship that would never leavehim.

But his story began properly at age nine, when his father, a Jewish immigrant from Kiev, moved the family to 1920s Toronto. Here was a place stiff enough to be rattled by Ed's insurgent energy. The elder Mirvish had been dispatched by the Masons to sell the organization's encyclopedias in Canada, a job he failed at. Later, he would fail as a Fuller Brush salesman and then, at greater length but with equal abjection, as a grocer. Honest Ed's was inspired in part by that failure. Ed would not give credit as his father did. Ed would not skimp on lighting as his father did. Ed would not be meek and bookish as his father was. Ed would notfail.

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When his father died, Ed dropped out of high school and took over the family store on Dundas Street West, just a few streetcar stops south of where he would build Honest Ed's. The Mirvishes were part of a rough-hewn and pungent downtown that barely exists any more: brawls between Jewish and Italian gangs, bookies on every block, bootleggers dragged into paddy wagons, kids nicknamed Baby Yack and Mishmellow. Years later, even as the family grew rich and moved uptown, Honest Ed's went on catering to this world of immigrant hustle and thrift.

Ed opened the store after years of running a successful women's clothing retailer in the same spot with his wife, Anne. He bought his first stock for the new venture at a Woolworth's fire sale and kept the wares in a basement, Mr. Batten's book reports. Honest Ed's merchandise would never lose the random and dishevelled quality of thathaul.

Its first newspaper ad contained the store's personality in full bloom: "Our Building is a dump! Our Service is rotten! Our Fixtures are orange crates! But!!! Our Prices are the lowest in town!" This humble-brag had the virtue of being true. At the time, manufacturers determined what prices their products could be sold for. So at the end of a season, department stores often returned huge quantities of merchandise to the factory. Mirvish bought up this unwanted stock for pennies on the dollar and sold it for a fractionmore.

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As a business model, it was tough, grubby and frowned on. It also worked. By 1952, the store was selling $2-million worth of goods a year. To get shoppers through the doors, Ed dangled loss leaders. In an interview, former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman remembers sparring with Mr. Mirvish over the price of a frying pan when Mr. Lastman ran the Bad Boy chain. "That fry pan was Teflon and things would never stick to it and so on. And I put it on special. And he put it even lower! … And then I sold them for less. And he called me and said, 'What the hell are you doing? We're both losing money on this. Let'sstop.'"

Discounts and marketing gimmicks were Ed's weapons and his toys, and he could get carried away with both. The store's PR stunts over the years included painting an elephant pink, giving out turkeys at Christmastime, inducing dozens of clowns to play trombone outside the store and inviting a radio DJ to broadcast an overnight show from the Honest Ed's display window, as a model served him coffee inbed.

Toronto's WASP establishment was not always amused. Ed didn't care. In the late 1950s, Ontario's College of Pharmacy refused to register the store's pharmacist because of his discount drug prices. Ed went to court and won. In the same decade, he flouted a city bylaw that required variety stores to shut down sales by 10 p.m., a bit of defiance that led to the law's retirement. Ed's doggedness livened up a stretch of downtown that could, like much of the city in those days, be dour and grey. "At 7 o'clock, they used to roll up the sidewalks in Toronto," Mr. Lastman said. "He brought people walking on BloorStreet."

He had no ideology to speak of, but an instinctive – not to say self-interested – belief in free markets made him a minor culture warrior at a time when the city was run by stuffed-shirt Anglicans and stiff-necked Presbyterians with a distaste for the mad dash of unregulated commerce. "He was [a rebel], but he wouldn't think of himself as a rebel I don't think," said Mr. Batten, author of the Honest Ed'shistory.

For all his money sense, Ed was not rapacious. He could have been richer. When his store was in the full flush of its success, he received an offer to put an Honest Ed's in every Loblaws store across the country, David Mirvishrecalled.

"I said, 'Sounds okay, Dad. What do you think?' And he said, 'Well, I'll be looking at a bunch of figures in a book. And counting money. And I won't know any of my employees because it'll be too big. And I won't know my customers. And I'll be up and down in airplanes all the time, and I'll never see my family. It doesn't sound like fun tome."

Instead, Honest Ed's retained the feeling of community property – the world's biggest bodega. It was an energetically democratic place. Ed developed a reputation for hiring seniors, people with disabilities and recent immigrants. When he was strapped for corny ad slogans, he started the Ed-Line Club, which encouraged customers to send marketing copy – e.g., HONEST ED'S FOR THE BIRDS (His prices are cheep! cheep! cheep!) – and get their names in thepaper.

When Ed bought the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963 with a promise to restore it, his new-found reputation as a patron of the arts lent the store a certain cachet among the city's elite. David Mirvish remembers one grand dame of Toronto driving to Honest Ed's with her chauffeur to buy toothpaste. For decades hence, well-heeled residents of Toronto saw the place as an emporium of the weird – a vast, kitschmuseum.

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But the immigrant women who were its most devoted clientele loved Honest Ed's unironically. The store became a populist symbol, as did Ed himself. As Maria Cabral scanned the bargain bins for what might have been the last time in December, she reflected on her more than 40 years of shopping there since emigrating from Portugal. The store's "very good deals" and "very nice prices" drew her in, but Honest Ed's meant more to her: She once met Ed through an aunt who worked as his maid, she said, and was impressed by his humility. "Very simple people," she said. "Likeus."

Esther Kecskes, who has been shopping at Honest Ed's since 1955, was not only sad about the store's closing, butangry.

"How could the son do such a thing?!" she said, rifling through a bin of Honest Ed's baseball caps. "If it was his father, he would have thought of us middle-classpeople."

It's true that Ed loved the store more than his son ever has. "The store was his creativity," David said. Mr. Mirvish never felt the same way. As a young man, he became an avid art collector, and threw himself into the family theatre business. Retail "wasn't where my heart was," he said. "In the end, I would have had to decide that's where we should have put our resources and grow. And I had other opportunities in fields I understoodbetter."

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As David was losing interest in the store, Canadian retail was entering a belated revolution. Wal-Mart opened its first Canadian outlet in 1994. Honest Ed's had reached its peak sales volume four years earlier. It has been in gentle decline eversince.

The city was turning over, too. A woman came up to Mr. Mirvish at the theatre recently and said she was sad to see Honest Ed's go. When he asked her the last time she shopped at the store, she said it was eight years earlier. The woman is in Agincourt now, miles from the store – like so many of the low-income immigrants who used to supply Honest Ed's with its customer base and now live in Toronto's innersuburbs.

Mr. Mirvish says the store never had a losing year. But margins have been shrinking steadily and the Honest Ed's work force has dwindled over the years from 400 to just 75. Mr. Mirvish believes even his father would recognize the futility of keeping his beloved store open muchlonger.

"I think he would have been a realist and said, 'Look, if we aren't serving the public and serving a purpose, we don't deserve to keep going,'" Mr. Mirvishsaid.

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Luis Ceriz would dispute that the store no longer has a public role. He owns Suspect Video, a store on Markham Street that specializes in renting and selling cult horror films. Like so many residents of Mirvish Village, a cluster of art galleries and restaurants lining the western edge of Honest Ed's, Mr. Ceriz paid the Mirvishes submarket rent for years. The bohemian bastion, so long sheltered by the viability of Honest Ed's, will be wiped out when the area isredeveloped.

"This used to be a hub for idiosyncratic artists and now it's going to be a magnet for Gaps and coffee shops," Mr. Cerizsaid.

Anxiety about the neighbourhood's flattening character is perhaps most concentrated around the fate of the Honest Ed's sign. For the large majority of city residents who don't shop at the store, the sign is Honest Ed's. Its carnival-esque swirls, ketchup-and-mustard colour scheme and complement of 23,000 light bulbs dominate a drab intersection. (Mr. Mirvish thinks of it as "the Las Vegas" sign, but its spiritual home is surely closer to a boardwalk idyll such as ConeyIsland.)

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Iconic as it has become, the sign had predecessors, some of them even more eye-catching. Ed once had the store's façade painted with a dagger trailing drops of gore down to the sidewalk, along with a tagline reading, "If these prices don't satisfy you, waddya want, BLOOD?" Anne Mirvish thought the concept was in bad taste and had it paintedover.

In 1959, after a big expansion bulldozed a stretch of Markham Street, Ed installed a fittingly imperial sign: the 135-foot long Readograph, a neon-lit expanse adorned with Snap-Lok letters that spelled out the day's bargains and a border that read "Save $ Save $ Save $." Nathan Phillips, then mayor of Toronto, presided over the Readograph's unveiling, an episode recounted in Mr. Batten's book. When the mayor pressed the lights-on button, power went out for blocks. Hydro workers deemed it a coincidence, but Ed relished thepublicity.

After about a decade, that sign was replaced by a mirror fronted by spinning, candy-striped balls. The current sign went up about a decade later still. Mr. Mirvish says it's unlikely he will salvage the whole thing. Finding a home for the old relic is one challenge. "It's not going to fit into my backyard," Mr. Mirvishquips.

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But his deeper qualm is philosophical: Cities change, he says, and eventually sentimental reminders of the past lose their meaning, as their original purpose fades into the past. He said he dreads the sign becoming like Ozymandias, the majestic but fragmented sculpture of a forgotten king surrounded by desert sand in Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem of the samename.

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"In the end, what do these things mean, if we can't understand them?" Mr. Mirvishsaid.

"I think the legacy of the store is in each family that shoppedthere."

FAQs

Why did Honest Ed's close? ›

Although the store never had a loss, its staff dwindled from 400 to 75 over the years. Another factor in the store's closure was David Mirvish did not have his father's enthusiasm for the store, preferring the family theatre business. David Mirvish said: Retail "wasn't where my heart was.

How much was Honest Ed's sold for? ›

project is $350 million. Real estate developer Westbank Corp. bought the Honest Ed's land from the Mirvish family in 2013. The discount store closed in 2017.

What replaced Honest Ed's? ›

The new development, dubbed Mirvish Village, has been under construction for several months now, following the 2017 demolition of Honest Ed's, which had occupied the southwest corner of Bathurst and Bloor for nearly 60 years.

When did BiWay stores close? ›

BiWay was a chain discount store that sold surplus goods from other well-known brands that closed down in 2001, following Coven selling the chain in the late 1990s, according to Retail Insider.

Who owns Mirvish Village? ›

Owner Robert Massoud: "I think The Mirvishes really did a great service to the city in the 60's. I think that really helped make Toronto, in the early days, into a cosmopolitan kind of environment. What I like to say is 'character follows cheap.

Is BiWay coming back to Ontario? ›

It looks like BiWay may not be making a comeback in Toronto after all. The iconic discount store that thrived in the 1980s was initially set to return in the fall of 2020 with a giant 15,000 sq ft space on Orfus Rd, but amid the founder Mal Coven's passing last October, it never came to be.

Is Zellers coming back to Canada? ›

Hudson's Bay Company is reviving the Zellers brand, and Windsorites are feeling nostalgic about its return. The focus of the revival will be e-commerce, but there will be a brick-and-mortar footprint within select HBC stores.

What happened to Towers department store? ›

In April 1991, 47 of the Towers/Bonimart stores were rebranded into the Zellers banner. The remaining stores held closeout sales under their original name, some of them lasting until the fall of 1991.

Who owned BiWay? ›

Dylex Limited was one of Canada's largest retailers during the 1970s and 1980s, where it operated a number of specialty retail stores, including women's wear, men's wear, and family stores, including BiWay, a large, and now defunct, Canadian discount chain. NBO Stores, Inc.

What happened consumer distributing? ›

They closed in the mid-1990s. Consumers Distributing was bought by the Quebec-based grocery retailer Provigo in 1987, then was sold in 1993 to a group controlled by Ackermans & van Haaren, a Belgian holding company.

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