When David Mirvish was 10 years old, he helped the cashiers at his father’s discount store put purchases into bags. And sometimes, the little boy would hide under the counters so his supervisor would have to look for him.
All the time spent at the cash registers – and hiding – gave Mr. Mirvish the chance to listen as Torontonians from all over the city, and of every imaginable background, shopped and chatted. The employees too spoke many different languages, something his dad, the late Ed Mirvish, welcomed. “I think my father found it stimulating to work with the people he worked with,” Mr. Mirvish says now. “He just found people interesting.“
The interesting mix of people and cultures at Bloor and Bathurst streets was crucial to the success of Honest Ed’s, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this Sunday. Through the decades, new arrivals to Toronto from across Europe and around the world settled close by. With limited incomes and working long hours, they wanted one-stop shopping for bedding, dishes, clothing, shoes, hardware and even decorative items. Honest Ed’s was able to provide it.
Ed Mirvish came up with a lucrative formula that attracted people who needed to buy a lot, all at once, at an affordable price. “Over the years, different waves of new immigrants to Canada would come and shop at the store and would have different names for the store,” Mr. Mirvish says. “In the Chinese community, at one point it was called the House of Three Floors.”
When the news broke this week that Mr. Mirvish is selling the store, many people who had outgrown Canada’s first discount store or moved farther away returned to relive their memories.
It’s a unique shopping experience, many of them agreed, as they walked through the labyrinth of the store and squinted at the numerous black and white photographs.
Liz Noh, 52, recalls one of her most vivid memories from her childhood days: It was 1968. She was seven. She had just arrived in Toronto from Seoul with her grandmother. Her parents had moved here about six months earlier and prepared her bedroom for her arrival.
“All the toys and stuff in it were from Honest Ed’s,” said Ms. Noh, 52, remembering dolls that closed their eyes when laid down, a toy camera with pictures when you looked inside the lens, and a toy television that played nursery rhymes.
“I haven’t been there in more than 10 years, but Honest Ed’s was a really big part of my childhood. … Most of the people who shopped there were new immigrants,” she said.
During a visit to Honest Ed’s this week, Ms. Noh looked at the families rooting through large bins of assorted children’s clothing. “It still looks the same,” she said. “There are still a lot of immigrants here today.”
Hathairat Chanphao, 39, browsed through dishware. Since she came from Thailand last year, she has visited the store about twice a month. She and her husband, who is from Romania, bought their blankets, pillows, cutlery and other essential items needed to start their new lives here.
“You can always find a good thing here which is more expensive in the other places … The dollar store doesn’t have so many things as they have here. And some things in those stores, they don’t have such a good quality,“ said Ms. Chanphao, adding that she doesn’t always have a target in mind for what she wants to buy, but likes to spend time browsing in Honest Ed’s.
While Mr. Mirvish’s formula – buying closeout merchandise and offering an unpredictable selection at unbeatable prices – was echoed by other retailers, he did not expand it beyond this store, and its many oddities have added to its charm.
The stairs, the bridge connecting two different parts of the store, and the circus-like lights on the storefront make it just that much more fun to pick up a bar of soap here than in the giant, spread-out space of a regular department store, said Andrew Furman, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Interior Design.
“Come in and get lost!” is one of many enticing invitations on the store’s sign.
But the business has changed. Today, Toronto’s newcomers are dispersed across the region. Dollar stores, big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and online stores offer competition. Mr. Mirvish says that Honest Ed’s continues to be profitable, but the store’s customer base has been declining since the 1990s. “Every business has a lifespan,” says Mr. Mirvish. “We’ve come to see great changes in retailing. We recognize them and we have opportunities to grow in our other activities.”
This includes development: The Honest Ed’s site could fetch $100-million, and Mr. Mirvish wants to redevelop Mirvish-owned properties downtown as a condo and cultural complex with architect Frank Gehry.
Mr. Mirvish said it is nice to hear people recounting their memories of Honest Ed’s, but the sale doesn’t seem to be as dolorous an event for him as to many of his customers, who would like to see the store live on. Change has always been a part of the Mirvish business, he says, just like the family’s ice cream parlour that is no longer at the corner of Markham and Bloor streets, or the “coffins for pets” store at the same location before it.
A constant in the Mirvish world has been the business of serving new immigrants, and Mr. Mirvish hopes that he will be able to do something that honours new immigrants with his new development project on King Street. (He has been in discussions with a university about this, he hints, but won‘t say anything more specific about the nature of the project.)
“The underlying story is that you can come with nothing to Canada and you still have a chance to end up taking care of your family, having a good life and giving opportunities to yourself and other people. And that’s the heritage that I want to move downtown and consolidate with everything we’re doing,“ said Mr. Mirvish.
David Mirvish’s memories
On the famous sign
There have been three signs, and before the three signs, there were slogans painted on the building. Honest Ed’s was written on the building. At one point, for a very short period, it was painted white with a dagger painted on top and blobs of blood coming down the side of the building and on the street. And my father wrote, ‘At these prices, what do you want? Blood?’ But my mother wouldn’t let him leave that up. So, it only lasted four weeks.
The sign I remember the most is the Readograph sign with big plastic red letters on it. It was all back lit, and it went all around the building. And that was the sign that Mayor Nathan Phillips pulled the switch to turn on and it drained all the power off of the grid and blacked out the entire neighbourhood. That’s the sign I remember because we had the clown band of 33 clowns playing trombones that day and we served roast beef sandwiches to everybody.
On Ed Mirvish’s bargain buys
I remember my father bought 10,000 ball-peen hammers. It’s a hammer that only an electrician can use because it has a round head. Now, if you have 10,000 of those, where are you going to find 10,000 electricians? It’s not easy to do.
On working with his grandmother, Anna Mirvish
My grandmother worked in the store all her life. People would say, “Are you Mrs. Mirvish?” And she’d say, “No, I’m Annie. Mrs. Mirvish is over there.” She didn’t want to be seen, but we watched people, we watched the store. People would say [to each other], “Try this one on.” We didn’t have dressing rooms. So, people stood behind the holding racks in the corner and changed into the clothes to see if they would fit. So, that was a different era that people would do that. I didn’t look because after all, I’m not a peeping Tom.