Honest Ed Retail King : Iconic Toronto Landmark To Close on Dec 31
Honest Ed Retail King
David Mirvish looks back at all those Honest Ed’s memories
Its time is past, David Mirvish agrees. But as the days tick down toward closure on Dec. 31, he deals in memories of his father’s relentlessly colourful retail institution.
Honest Ed’s is set to close on Dec. 31. (MARCUS OLENIUK/TORONTO STAR / TORONTO STAR)
He was a dreamer and his store was the dream.
After dinner at home, served at precisely 6 p.m. by his wife, after the dishes were cleared, Edwin Mirvish would sit at the table writing slogans — “Honest Ed’s is for the birds, cheap, cheap, cheap” — and as he pushed down on the pen with a new idea it would carve itself into the dining room tabletop.
Forty clowns playing trombones, roller derbies, dance contests, free turkeys for free publicity. People had to line up for those turkeys and the queue snaked through the store, across three floors of tchotchkes, kitchenwares, clothing, boots, toys. Buy low, sell cheap, but to thousands of people.
On weekends the streets around Bloor and Bathurst were choked with so much traffic that drivers would get out of their cars and into fistfights.
The neighbours complained. The store was too brash, too bright, too noisy.
Honest Ed was pulling in $14 million a year — in 1968.
“My father didn’t want to be dependent on one fancy client, he’d rather make a little bit of money from each sale,” said his son David Mirvish, in an interview with the Star ahead of the store’s closing on Dec. 31.
A new residential and commercial complex is planned for the neighbourhood by Westbank Corp., the same developer that did the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto and redeveloped the old Woodward department store in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The new complex will have an Honest Ed’s alley and a Mirvish Village Market.
David Mirvish has no regrets. He didn’t want to let go of the store while his mom, an artist, was alive — she died in 2013 — but he knows his dad, who died in 2007, would be fine with his decision.
“My father was not sentimental. My father thought that businesses should fulfil needs, people’s needs, and if they didn’t, they didn’t deserve to survive,” said Mirvish, 72, now a theatre producer, father of three and a grandfather. He has been married nearly 50 years, to a woman he went to high school with.
He feels that until about the 1990s, Honest Ed’s lifted the neighbourhood it grew up in, drawing foot traffic for other businesses in the area. Then the Internet happened, and the world began to fundamentally change — perhaps especially the retail world.
“I just don’t think that there’s a great future in the model that we had at the time and if we had wanted to continue in retailing, we had to make very different decisions than the ones we did, and I don’t think that I was willing to give my time and energy to it,” said Mirvish.
“Retailing is all coming under one umbrella, which is called Amazon.”
Now in its final days, the store that was an icon of the city looks like a relic.
The Krazy Karnival Mirror, which makes everyone look short and dumpy, was priced, on a recent visit, for $600. The main floor was a jumble of merchandise: “I love Canada” mugs, cake stands, decorative roosters, elephants and hippos; a 3D version of The Last Supper for $6.99 The floor still slopes alarmingly at the rear, like the deck of a ship in bad weather.
Upstairs, in ladies’ wear, $50 parkas vaguely suggest Canada Goose coats. Shoes are $9.99.
It’s decorated for Christmas in tired garlands. Framed signed pictures of forgotten celebrities still hang on the columns supporting the floors: Violet Farebrother, Diana Adams, Judith Anderson. Hitchcock actresses. (All of them?)
Fabricland has taken over the basement.
A 828-ml container of Palmolive was priced at $3.29. It was $2.50 at the Dollarama store down the street, which is firing on all cylinders, with spiffy new fixtures and a growing number of items selling above $1, letting them sell more diverse and better-quality merchandise while still offering deals.
“All the kids go to Dollarama,” says Rui Zhong, who owns the Pay Less for Everything Store, on Bathurst between the subway and Honest Ed’s.
There is pushback against the density the development project will bring to the site and there is also relief that something new and hopefully better will rise up.
“I’ve been waiting a decade. I think our neighbourhood will welcome a little bit of a change and I think it will improve the area,” said Jennifer Klein, owner of the bra-fitting boutique Secrets from Your Sister, on Bloor St., facing Ed’s.
Mirvish feels similarly about the businesses on nearby Markham St. that benefitted from below-market rents for decades while the Mirvish family owned them. They were given three years’ notice. And while he couches what he feels by saying that he wishes them well, he also points out that low rents can lead retailers into complacency.
Ed Mirvish was never complacent, but he never wanted to get Dollarama-big, streamline everything, report to shareholders. He had offers and he’d bring them home for discussion around the dining-room table before rejecting them all.
“My father liked to know who his employees were, and his customers,” said Mirvish.
“He didn’t want to be looking at figures in a book and adding up money all the time, that wasn’t what was interesting to him. He wanted to be independent, make a good living, but I think he enjoyed going to Peter’s Lunch at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst at 7:30 in the morning and people in the neighbourhood or people who worked with him would slide into the booth with him and buy him a coffee for 25 cents and tell him about what they were interested in, about what they were doing and ask him — those people that were smart enough — for advice.”
In the beginning, Mirvish had success but not respect. In 1948, when he began selling discounted dresses from his store, selling off-price simply wasn’t done, said Mirvish.
It was considered somehow not nice, not right.
“Things shouldn’t be sold for less — that was the ethos of the ’50s, that is how retailing was done,” said Mirvish.
Buying the Royal Alexandra Theatre on King St. W. in 1963 and restoring it changed all that. Suddenly shopping at Honest Ed’s made you a patron of the arts. The Mirvishes were rubbing elbows with Buddy Hackett, Sir John Gielgud and Shirley MacLaine.
Today those King St. properties are at the heart of a controversial development projected partnered by Mirvish and architect Frank Gehry.
Would Ed Mirvish have tried to keep the store going? His son thinks probably not. As much as he loved the store, Ed Mirvish believed that things were only safe if they were profitable, that if they needed to be subsidized, there was something wrong at the core of them and they needed to be made profitable or it was time to move on.
Mirvish now owns four theatres in Toronto and the great surprise is that theatre, in decline when Honest Ed’s was launched, now seems like the better bet. Retail was his father’s calling — everything else was an acquired taste. But his son, just returned from the opening of Dear Evan Hansen in New York City, is immersed in collecting art and building theatre in Toronto.
“It’s strange that we began in retailing and we still are in retailing of sorts, but what we retail now is ephemeral, we sell memories,” said Mirvish.
“When the show is over, that’s all that you really have.”
Honest Ed Retail King