Honest Ed's sits far down Bloor Street from the currently exploding culture cluster near Avenue Road: the rebuilt Varsity Stadium, the Royal Conservatory of Music, soon to launch, and the new ROM. I've made my peace with the ROM, but it's self-conscious and self-congratulatory. As a cultural institution, Honest Ed's puts every one of 'em in the shade. It's always been as much a concept as a store. We're talking conceptual art.
Take the garish signs. They run from self-send-up corny ("Danger: Beware of falling prices") to challenging interactive ("Come in and get lost") to interactive hostile ("Don't just stand there: Buy something!") to Zen koan ("Honest Ed's an honest man. People look at him and say, Honest, is this a man?) I've pondered that one for years. It doesn't seem to mean anything, yet I keep wondering what it means. I've often taken foreign guests - writers, artists - there, if they were really sophisticated.
The name itself was a concept, full of wit and self-parody, along with an assumption of smarts on the part of customers: that they'd get it, including new immigrants still learning English, who lined up each morning for the door-crasher specials. Ed Mirvish provided not just bargains for them but a sense of cultural entitlement, jokes between him and them, built on the persona of the owner, also embodied in an Ed-drawing based on a local deadbeat called Dirty Dick. You weren't being hustled; you were being entertained in the belief that you had a sense of humour and place - in other words, culture! Like a true artist, he built his art (the store, or store concept) on his sense of self. Ed could never resist a bargain. A rabbi I know said he saw a sefer Torah - the Hebrew scrolls - in Ed's office. He assumed Ed got a deal he couldn't turn down. When he put up the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto with his own money (which no one does), it was because "I had the feeling that the fastest growing trend in theatre was bigness!" That's the creative formula: Be a human being and trust your gut. Sometimes it works, and sometimes, as with his purchase of the Old Vic in London, it doesn't. Everyone tells artists they're allowed to fail until they go ahead and do it.
He ran an anti-big box, local and specific, like most art. It fit a transparent economy where you know the merchants, even honchos like Ed, as opposed to those with impersonal names such as Blockbuster. Martin Knelman wrote that Ed created "public-interest giveaways disguised as business operations." That seems to me the impulse in most small business; they're a form of public service. That's why people get into them, like the other merchants on Bloor: Graz at Dooney's, Wiener's Home Hardware, Factor's (former) pharmacy. Ed's was a small business despite its size; the fact he stuck to one location proves it. It's why the name rang true; it wouldn't have worked had he expanded. It was Honest Ed's because Ed was there each day, as he couldn't have been with 50 stores. He was the essence of the kind of local that could some day be the core component of a true global society, versus fake, money-grubbing globalization.
As for making pots of dough: "I don't think it's important once you are not hungry. After a while, you're nothing but a caretaker or a custodian." What an incredible statement. It's worthy of Marx or William Morris, the 19th-century socialist who designed beautiful things for ordinary people. I wish they'd slap those words in neon on the vast storefront, now that he's gone.
It was his work of art. The theatres etc. were spinoffs, housing road shows, local versions of foreign hits and the odd Canadian play. The store was an original. His theatres "also helped transform a stolid Tory town into a cultural destination," said one obit. It's the "also" I disagree with. The store was already a cultural destination, and the people who shopped there got it.