Everything must go. But who will buy the lonely harmonica, the stray stethoscope above an emptied showcase, the inexplicable belt buckle that features an elephant towing two crocodiles on skis, the bundle of 1994 newspapers (slightly gnawed), the 550-piece puzzle of an Elvis stamp gathering dust on the floor?
BJ Antiques & Jewellery, where the crammed quarters of dusty disorder were designed to inspire dreams of buried treasure, will shut its doors on Friday. The pack-rat’s paradise of improbable possibilities – where a zebra skin rubs against Polish military medals and Marcel Dionne hockey cards, where Harley-Davidson timepieces keep company with vintage Nikon lenses – has been winnowed down to the barest of inessentials.
After 30 years on Toronto’s buy-and-sell strip – “the Mecca of second-hand,” he says, with a respect both religious and mercenary – Benny Javitz is clearing out, his business a casualty of the shift to digital buying and selling.
Almost everything has gone, though not soon enough to leave the stoic 72-year-old with a final sense of contentment. “The 1980s and 90s were good, but this isn’t a business any more.”
Face-to-face trade has been his life, a vocation in which his practised eye constantly evaluated strange objects and unlikely people as they passed through his door. In the past few years, online shopping sites have superseded his retail model.
“This business is dying,” Mr. Javitz says, resting his weary hip on a stool as scavengers pick over the surplus treasures he has tossed onto the sidewalk. “It’s been killed by kijiji, craigslist, eBay, shmeBay. People sit in front of a computer, buying and selling anything they want. It’s completely crazy.”
Normality for him is sitting in a messy shop equidistant from Toronto’s high-rent and low-rent districts, surrounded by curios that navigate the fine line between trash and treasure. His simple task for 30 years has been to turn the disposable into the desirable.
“If the price is right and and I can make a profit,” he says, “then I buy everything.”
There’s the bronze elephant in the depleted window, one of a pair Mr. Javitz held onto for five years – the other just sold for $1,100. And with a cry of “What’s this thing?” a customer unearths an old mahogany box that turns out to be a 19th-century quack-medicine device: a “patent magneto-electric machine” that promises to cure all kinds of diseases and distress.
“What does this say?” Mr. Javitz asks, peering at the box’s Victorian testimonials with an entrepreneurial squint. “It says, ‘Buy me.’”
The electric-age panacea goes unsold, even as the shopper periodically raises his lowball bid. Mr. Javitz bides his time, examining an angle grinder as if it might be another pre-modern medical device. When the shopper peaks at $60, he decides enough is enough.
“This is worth at least $200,” he insists. “It’s a historical piece.”
Something of a prized relic himself, Mr. Javitz will be missed by hundreds of regulars who weathered the tart observations and clouds of cigarette smoke essential to his idiosyncratic art of the deal.
“He’s an institution around here,” says Jamie Cooper, who remembers Mr. Javitz persuading him to trade in his briar-wood pipe for an antique clay model. “Some people think he’s a little out there, but deep down, he’s got a good heart. The knowledge he has is going to be missed.”
That wisdom, freely dispensed to buy-and-sell colleagues who revere his quick-calculating brain, was acquired the hard way. Born in Latvia between the Soviet occupation and the Nazi invasion, he escaped to Moscow with his mother, lost his father in the war, and ended up playing the drums in the Russian army, moonlighting at funerals and jazz clubs. He immigrated to Israel in 1972, but didn’t care for the heat or the religious climate.
“I’m a bad Jew,” he says. “Religion and politics are the same: They both wash the brain. The only true religion is this.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a loonie.
He followed his faith to Toronto in 1982, knowing just four words of English, two of which can be printed: “How much?” He set up shop with a more eloquent used-furniture dealer, worked the garage-sale circuit, and in his spare time haunted camera shops, studied equipment catalogues and drained the expertise out of customers who knew more about his business than he did.
A professed loner surrounded by kibitzers, he’s been on his own at the seen-it-all corner of Queen and Church streets since 1984, providing the relief of quick money to people who operate outside the corporate rulebook. When a man walks in and asks $30 for the wheel of cheese he’s toting, there is no double-take. Mr. Javitz coolly offers $20. The man hesitates, tries a counter-offer of $25, then gives in with a nod at a nearby bottle of vodka.
“Okay, brother, $20 – and a shot.”
The business has a rough side, but Mr. Javitz claims to be fearless. “They know me in jail. I have a reputation.” As a nice guy? “As a good fighter.”
The essence of buy-and-sell is that anyone can walk through the door – his shop’s clientele is as miscellaneous as its contents. A nearby hospital supplies two women taking time off to assess his antique rings. Mr. Javitz turns on the salesman’s charm. “I give you this ring for $200; you go over to Yonge Street, it will cost you $700, $800.”
A scruffy man wheels in a new women’s bicycle. Mr. Javitz isn’t buying. A more solvent customer rests his Dolce & Gabbana frames on the counter while assessing a Rolex, and Mr. Javitz takes note. “I could sell those,” he says appreciatively. “Italian.” He reminisces about an Orthodox patriarch who admired his icons. A little later, a man offers his watch because he’s hungry. Mr. Javitz pulls out his jeweller’s glass. “Made in China,” he says. No sale.
This is what’s missing in an eBay world: the slice-of-life randomness, the serendipity of the marketplace, the humanizing side of stuff – and , of course, the gently abrasive personality of the man behind the counter.
Everything must go, says the sign on his window. His rent has doubled, his hip needs replacing and his personality can’t adapt to have-a-nice-day salesmanship.
But as even eBay proves, the second-hand business remains eternal, an endless loop of bought and sold that withstands modernity’s advances. A man who can brag about recycling the same point-and-shoot camera six times – “a cheap camera, but I made a lot of money out of it” – still has work to do. His store is closing, his grandchildren want some of his time, but Mr. Javitz can’t let go. His suburban home is filled with the cameras, watches and audio equipment he couldn’t bring himself to sell low.
“As soon as I get my hip replacement,” he tells a customer, “the moment I wake up, I’ll start selling again.”