By Jonathan Naymark
Cities are, by their very nature, dynamic beings. They wax and wane with the fortunes of their residents, economies and, as last Monday reminded Torontonians, they are beholden to Mother Nature.
This somewhat frightening sense of dynamism is perhaps why very little of Toronto’s built form, much of which was built for a city meant to be smaller than the one it has become, seems permanent. It is probably why many of downtown Toronto’s buildings, even iconic ones like Sam the Record Man’s twirling records on Yonge Street, or Honest Ed’s flashing neon, are overwhelmingly innocuous in their physicality, iconic not because of their construction, but because of the flamboyancy of their retail tenants.
Honest Ed’s, as a retail business, is a dinosaur. It was a dinosaur ten years ago and will be a dinosaur ten years from now when ShopLaws (or whatever Galen calls the merged Shoppers and Loblaws) sells and ships everything we need direct from our mobile phones.
And while the interior of 581 Bloor Street West is hardly noteworthy, unless misaligned floors and dark tunnels are your thing, the sum of its parts means more to most Torontonians than just a dank building festooned with 23,000 light bulbs proclaiming: Honest Ed’s a freak, but his prices ain’t so weird. The exterior of Honest Ed’s, decorated over the last 60 years by deceased family patriarch and store namesake Ed Mirvish, is, however, a psychological and emotionally important landmark for Torontonians. For many years, especially preceding the construction of the CN Tower and SkyDome, Honest Ed’s yellow, orange and red signage was a visual clue that screamed Toronto. In the late eighties and nineties when Hollywood often staged Toronto to look like Chicago or Anywheresville America every hidden peek of Honest Ed’s that made it briefly to the silver screen as a backdrop felt like a secret wink to Torontonians, a small acknowledgement of the fact that Toronto, in fact, wasn’t Metropolis Unknown, rather Toronto was a city that housed Honest Ed’s. Toronto had its own identity. It was Honest Ed’s which allowed the audience to jab their elbow into their seatmate and whisper with glee: Short Circuit 2 was totally filmed here.
As Ed Mirvish himself noted, “New York has Macy’s, London has Harrods, Chicago has Marshall Fields, and Toronto has Honest Ed’s…”
Ed’s self deprecating humour said more about provincial Toronto then it did about his store’s long-term viability. With Ed’s own ironic and defeatist notion, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise when it finally leaked that Ed’s son David, was looking to sell what must likely be a money losing enterprise.
One of the greatest knocks against Toronto is our poor history of protecting our heritage buildings. And for every building saved like the recently restored Dineen Building, or the proposed restoration of the Canadian Commerce bank on Yonge Street (as part of the Massey Tower condo development), preservationists point to the destruction of the art deco Concourse building on Adelaide, soon to become Oxford’s latest commercial skyscraper, or to the 1972 destruction of the Toronto Star Building, torn down to the become the tall, but much unloved First Canadian Place.
The hue and cry surrounding Honest Ed’s is of a different sort because we’re not protecting an elegant old bank building fallen on hard times — we’re protecting a retail business that has long since gone past its best before date.
The dialogue we’re about to have over Honest Ed’s is really suggestive of the fact that Toronto is entering a funny time in its development. Downtown Toronto is teeming, thousands of new condo buildings now house thousands of new Torontonians many of whom work in reclaimed loft buildings in downtown Toronto’s former industrialized fringe or the glittering office district mushrooming in the aptly named South Core district. Yet, Toronto struggles to reconcile the needs of its new residents who need to buy toilet paper and groceries, with our wannabe bucolic feelings of a small provincial city where people shop at the nearest local establishment (except on Sunday).
The original motto of Honest Ed’s — reflected a burg whose iconic retailer was a discount department store at the corner of its Hungarian and Korean ghettos. The Toronto that Ed joked about no longer exists. And probably because of Ed, we can now sensibly, list Toronto, Chicago and London with a straight face.
But if we protect Honest Ed’s we reject much of Ed Mirvish’s city building hypotheses.
First of all – we disallow an entrepreneur the ability to liquidate a business for profit. Whose right is it of any of us to tell Mr. Mirvish that he can’t sell his families land holdings just because we want a dusty old store to remain as a testament to a city that no longer exists?
But just as importantly — we do something else that is equally nefarious — we freeze a landmark in a period of time, thereby removing it from the very dynamic nature of the city that ironically is what Honest Ed’s is known for. Long before Honest Ed’s stood as a testament to kitsch it was a store that actually sold stuff for the sake of selling cheap stuff to surrounding immigrant populations. It was an establishment with prices so nutty — customers were told to: Look at the cashew saved.
Protecting Honest Ed’s because it is iconographic does not really save it as a dynamic business — it cryogenically freezes it as a monument stuck in time, a Disney main street, a wax statue replica of a store that we used to patron. And if we freeze Honest Ed’s in the way that the royal “we” want to remember it, as a retail dinosaur, or a kitschy shop that no one frequents, we are doing so because we want to shelter it as the last hedge against what will be another point tower with a Starbucks and Shoppers Drug Mart at its base.
This need of ours to protect (and romanticize) the past is the opposite of urban and the opposite of the entrepreneurial (of which Mr. Mirvish very much was).
As a joke — I wrote to a friend that we should rebuild Honest Ed’s at Exhibition Place — as part of a Main Street Toronto, where we can remember Toronto as it once was. Jokes aside, however, the For Sale sign on Honest Ed’s, poses a very pressing question: how do we then reconcile the changing and dynamic needs of a city with reverence for its past without reverting to stasis?
There is no easy answer. Torontonians should rightfully lament the passing of Honest Ed’s as an institution, but protesting its demise, destroys the very nature of its entrepreneurial past. Rather than simply lamenting what was once, we should, however, be concerned with what new generation of retail establishments, or entrepreneurs will create the next generation of urban icons. You don’t have to be as honest as Honest Ed to admit that saving a retail dinosaur for the sake of it sounds like Jurassic for trouble.
Jonathan Naymark is a Toronto-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @naymark.