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Honest Ed’s (1948-2016)

Memories, and a husk of a building, are all that will be left in short time after the discount retailer closes up for good. Over the years, the bargain-basement shop has catered to immigrants and the working class, reshaped life on Bloor and delighted passersby with its gimmicky signs – a testament to Ed Mirvish’s personality and business acumen, Eric Andrew-Gee writes

Entrepreneur Ed Mirvish throws his arms wide on Dec. 5, 1983 as hundreds of customers line up at his discount store on Bloor Street West for watches at five cents each.

Goodbye, blue pygmy Christmas tree in the window ($7.99).

Goodbye, cushion cover embroidered with mustaches for $8.00 (“Discontinued – No Refund – No Exchange – Final Sale”).

So long, humble Tea-Making Cup ($5.99) and Krazy Karnival Mirror ($425.00).

Ninety-nine-cent egg timers designed to look like strawberry cupcakes – Godspeed.

David Mirvish wasn’t the only person to make a forlorn tour through the esoteric merchandise still on sale at Honest Ed’s in the past few weeks. The store printed 10,000 commemorative T-shirts for its home stretch and sold out.

But among the mourners and souvenir hunters who have wandered its brightly lit aisles this holiday season, Mr. Mirvish was the most significant. He owns the grand, garish bargain basement. And on Dec. 31, he will close it.

A large crowd of people waited in line, inside and out, to have a chance to purchase some of the many hand-made signs at Honest Ed’s in Toronto on March 10, 2014. Even an hour after the doors opened the line still stretched around the entire block which Ed’s sits upon.

To Mr. Mirvish, the store is practically flesh and blood: His father, Ed Mirvish, founded Honest Ed’s nearly 70 years ago and raised his son amid its crooked floors and byzantine stairways. In its terminal weeks, David has been trying to avoid the place and the flood of nostalgia it triggers. But he hasn’t been able to resist a few fond, parting glances. On a recent visit, he bought about 100 of the cupcake-shaped egg timers as keepsakes for his employees at Mirvish Productions, the behemoth theatre company that supplanted discount retail at the heart of his business empire a long time ago.

“I wanted them to have a memory of Honest Ed’s,” Mr. Mirvish said.

Memories, and a husk of a building, are all that will be left at Bathurst and Bloor Streets by the new year. Eventually, a complex of apartments and modern shops will stand there, every sleek pane of glass mocking its predecessor on the corner. That will be sad for heritage boosters, inconvenient for the shrunken cadre of Honest Ed’s shoppers and painful for the surrounding Mirvish tenants who face eviction.

Crowds outside Honest Ed’s in downtown Toronto, November 11, 1984, wait to see American TV celebrity Mr. T.

But Ed’s heir casts the move as something else: inevitable. Since its launch in 1948, with fire-sale stock and screaming signs, the store hardly changed. It only grew, for nearly half a century. Then it stopped growing and started doing the opposite. Wal-Mart and its big-box imitators were culprits in chief, but they had accomplices: Internet shopping, a spruced-up downtown and the diffusion of Toronto’s working class among them.

“The world changed,” Mr. Mirvish said, sitting at a glass-topped boardroom table in his King Street West office, the week before Christmas.

The words might be carved on Honest Ed’s tombstone if it had one.

Honest Yehuda’s doesn’t have the same ring, so it’s just as well that a member of the Mirvish clan changed the boy’s name to Edwin at a young age. The homely handle was an important legacy of Ed Mirvish’s early life in Washington. So, according to Honest Ed’s Story, by the journalist Jack Batten, was the time he contemplated running away from home to join the circus, early evidence of a taste for showmanship that would never leave him.

But his story began properly at age nine, when his father, a Jewish immigrant from Kiev, moved the family to 1920s Toronto. Here was a place stiff enough to be rattled by Ed’s insurgent energy. The elder Mirvish had been dispatched by the Masons to sell the organization’s encyclopedias in Canada, a job he failed at. Later, he would fail as a Fuller Brush salesman and then, at greater length but with equal abjection, as a grocer. Honest Ed’s was inspired in part by that failure. Ed would not give credit as his father did. Ed would not skimp on lighting as his father did. Ed would not be meek and bookish as his father was. Ed would not fail.

The instore shopping bags are now for sale, two days before the iconic Honest Ed’s department store closes its doors for good on Dec. 31, 2016.

When his father died, Ed dropped out of high school and took over the family store on Dundas Street West, just a few streetcar stops south of where he would build Honest Ed’s. The Mirvishes were part of a rough-hewn and pungent downtown that barely exists any more: brawls between Jewish and Italian gangs, bookies on every block, bootleggers dragged into paddy wagons, kids nicknamed Baby Yack and Mishmellow. Years later, even as the family grew rich and moved uptown, Honest Ed’s went on catering to this world of immigrant hustle and thrift.

Ed opened the store after years of running a successful women’s clothing retailer in the same spot with his wife, Anne. He bought his first stock for the new venture at a Woolworth’s fire sale and kept the wares in a basement, Mr. Batten’s book reports. Honest Ed’s merchandise would never lose the random and dishevelled quality of that haul.

Its first newspaper ad contained the store’s personality in full bloom: “Our Building is a dump! Our Service is rotten! Our Fixtures are orange crates! But!!! Our Prices are the lowest in town!” This humble-brag had the virtue of being true. At the time, manufacturers determined what prices their products could be sold for. So at the end of a season, department stores often returned huge quantities of merchandise to the factory. Mirvish bought up this unwanted stock for pennies on the dollar and sold it for a fraction more.

As a business model, it was tough, grubby and frowned on. It also worked. By 1952, the store was selling $2-million worth of goods a year. To get shoppers through the doors, Ed dangled loss leaders. In an interview, former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman remembers sparring with Mr. Mirvish over the price of a frying pan when Mr. Lastman ran the Bad Boy chain. “That fry pan was Teflon and things would never stick to it and so on. And I put it on special. And he put it even lower! … And then I sold them for less. And he called me and said, ‘What the hell are you doing? We’re both losing money on this. Let’s stop.’”

Discounts and marketing gimmicks were Ed’s weapons and his toys, and he could get carried away with both. The store’s PR stunts over the years included painting an elephant pink, giving out turkeys at Christmastime, inducing dozens of clowns to play trombone outside the store and inviting a radio DJ to broadcast an overnight show from the Honest Ed’s display window, as a model served him coffee in bed.

Toronto’s WASP establishment was not always amused. Ed didn’t care. In the late 1950s, Ontario’s College of Pharmacy refused to register the store’s pharmacist because of his discount drug prices. Ed went to court and won. In the same decade, he flouted a city bylaw that required variety stores to shut down sales by 10 p.m., a bit of defiance that led to the law’s retirement. Ed’s doggedness livened up a stretch of downtown that could, like much of the city in those days, be dour and grey. “At 7 o’clock, they used to roll up the sidewalks in Toronto,” Mr. Lastman said. “He brought people walking on Bloor Street.”

He had no ideology to speak of, but an instinctive – not to say self-interested – belief in free markets made him a minor culture warrior at a time when the city was run by stuffed-shirt Anglicans and stiff-necked Presbyterians with a distaste for the mad dash of unregulated commerce. “He was [a rebel], but he wouldn’t think of himself as a rebel I don’t think,” said Mr. Batten, author of the Honest Ed’s history.

Ed Mirvish is pictured at his store in 1999. When his store was in the full flush of its success, Mr. Mirvish received an offer to put an Honest Ed’s in every Loblaws store across the country. On the prospect of business expansion, he said: ‘I won’t know any of my employees because it’ll be too big. And I won’t know my customers. … It doesn’t sound like fun to me,’ son David Mirvish recalls.

For all his money sense, Ed was not rapacious. He could have been richer. When his store was in the full flush of its success, he received an offer to put an Honest Ed’s in every Loblaws store across the country, David Mirvish recalled.

“I said, ‘Sounds okay, Dad. What do you think?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ll be looking at a bunch of figures in a book. And counting money. And I won’t know any of my employees because it’ll be too big. And I won’t know my customers. And I’ll be up and down in airplanes all the time, and I’ll never see my family. It doesn’t sound like fun to me.”

Instead, Honest Ed’s retained the feeling of community property – the world’s biggest bodega. It was an energetically democratic place. Ed developed a reputation for hiring seniors, people with disabilities and recent immigrants. When he was strapped for corny ad slogans, he started the Ed-Line Club, which encouraged customers to send marketing copy – e.g., HONEST ED’S FOR THE BIRDS ( His prices are cheep! cheep! cheep!) – and get their names in the paper.

When Ed bought the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1963 with a promise to restore it, his new-found reputation as a patron of the arts lent the store a certain cachet among the city’s elite. David Mirvish remembers one grand dame of Toronto driving to Honest Ed’s with her chauffeur to buy toothpaste. For decades hence, well-heeled residents of Toronto saw the place as an emporium of the weird – a vast, kitsch museum.

Hundreds of photos of actors hang on walls and posts at Honest Ed’s store. Customer Mariela Batalles buys some children’s clothes on July 11, 2007.

But the immigrant women who were its most devoted clientele loved Honest Ed’s unironically. The store became a populist symbol, as did Ed himself. As Maria Cabral scanned the bargain bins for what might have been the last time in December, she reflected on her more than 40 years of shopping there since emigrating from Portugal. The store’s “very good deals” and “very nice prices” drew her in, but Honest Ed’s meant more to her: She once met Ed through an aunt who worked as his maid, she said, and was impressed by his humility. “Very simple people,” she said. “Like us.”

Esther Kecskes, who has been shopping at Honest Ed’s since 1955, was not only sad about the store’s closing, but angry.

“How could the son do such a thing?!” she said, rifling through a bin of Honest Ed’s baseball caps. “If it was his father, he would have thought of us middle-class people.”

It’s true that Ed loved the store more than his son ever has. “The store was his creativity,” David said. Mr. Mirvish never felt the same way. As a young man, he became an avid art collector, and threw himself into the family theatre business. Retail “wasn’t where my heart was,” he said. “In the end, I would have had to decide that’s where we should have put our resources and grow. And I had other opportunities in fields I understood better.”

A cleared-out clothing wing, two days before the iconic Honest Ed’s department store closes its doors for good on Dec. 31, 2016.

As David was losing interest in the store, Canadian retail was entering a belated revolution. Wal-Mart opened its first Canadian outlet in 1994. Honest Ed’s had reached its peak sales volume four years earlier. It has been in gentle decline ever since.

The city was turning over, too. A woman came up to Mr. Mirvish at the theatre recently and said she was sad to see Honest Ed’s go. When he asked her the last time she shopped at the store, she said it was eight years earlier. The woman is in Agincourt now, miles from the store – like so many of the low-income immigrants who used to supply Honest Ed’s with its customer base and now live in Toronto’s inner suburbs.

Mr. Mirvish says the store never had a losing year. But margins have been shrinking steadily and the Honest Ed’s work force has dwindled over the years from 400 to just 75. Mr. Mirvish believes even his father would recognize the futility of keeping his beloved store open much longer.

“I think he would have been a realist and said, ‘Look, if we aren’t serving the public and serving a purpose, we don’t deserve to keep going,’” Mr. Mirvish said.

At Honest Ed’s Annual Christmas Free Christmas Turkey giveaway on Nov. 24, 2002, people lined up along Bloor Street waiting to get into the store for the free handouts of turkeys and fruitcakes.

Luis Ceriz would dispute that the store no longer has a public role. He owns Suspect Video, a store on Markham Street that specializes in renting and selling cult horror films. Like so many residents of Mirvish Village, a cluster of art galleries and restaurants lining the western edge of Honest Ed’s, Mr. Ceriz paid the Mirvishes submarket rent for years. The bohemian bastion, so long sheltered by the viability of Honest Ed’s, will be wiped out when the area is redeveloped.

“This used to be a hub for idiosyncratic artists and now it’s going to be a magnet for Gaps and coffee shops,” Mr. Ceriz said.

Anxiety about the neighbourhood’s flattening character is perhaps most concentrated around the fate of the Honest Ed’s sign. For the large majority of city residents who don’t shop at the store, the sign is Honest Ed’s. Its carnival-esque swirls, ketchup-and-mustard colour scheme and complement of 23,000 light bulbs dominate a drab intersection. (Mr. Mirvish thinks of it as “the Las Vegas” sign, but its spiritual home is surely closer to a boardwalk idyll such as Coney Island.)

Anxiety about the neighbourhood’s flattening character is perhaps most concentrated around the fate of the Honest Ed’s sign.

Iconic as it has become, the sign had predecessors, some of them even more eye-catching. Ed once had the store’s façade painted with a dagger trailing drops of gore down to the sidewalk, along with a tagline reading, “If these prices don’t satisfy you, waddya want, BLOOD?” Anne Mirvish thought the concept was in bad taste and had it painted over.

In 1959, after a big expansion bulldozed a stretch of Markham Street, Ed installed a fittingly imperial sign: the 135-foot long Readograph, a neon-lit expanse adorned with Snap-Lok letters that spelled out the day’s bargains and a border that read “Save $ Save $ Save $.” Nathan Phillips, then mayor of Toronto, presided over the Readograph’s unveiling, an episode recounted in Mr. Batten’s book. When the mayor pressed the lights-on button, power went out for blocks. Hydro workers deemed it a coincidence, but Ed relished the publicity.

After about a decade, that sign was replaced by a mirror fronted by spinning, candy-striped balls. The current sign went up about a decade later still. Mr. Mirvish says it’s unlikely he will salvage the whole thing. Finding a home for the old relic is one challenge. “It’s not going to fit into my backyard,” Mr. Mirvish quips.

Honest Ed Alley bisects two buildings that are part of the Honest Ed store on Bloor St. West in Toronto on March 11, 2013.

But his deeper qualm is philosophical: Cities change, he says, and eventually sentimental reminders of the past lose their meaning, as their original purpose fades into the past. He said he dreads the sign becoming like Ozymandias, the majestic but fragmented sculpture of a forgotten king surrounded by desert sand in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of the same name.

“In the end, what do these things mean, if we can’t understand them?” Mr. Mirvish said.

“I think the legacy of the store is in each family that shopped there.”

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