By the time I came along, my parents were far enough along in their immigrant experience that they had made the exodus up to a tidy bungalow in the suburbs. But every now and then, we would pile into the Pontiac LeMans for a pilgrimage – and some bargains – downtown. The drive down to Bathurst and Bloor was always accompanied by stories. In a mixture of English and Yiddish, my parents would talk about the good old days when they were new to Canada from Germany, living in the Annex, doing their shopping at Kensington Market and, for non-perishables, Honest Ed’s. They would line up outside on Saturday mornings to take advantage of the door-crasher special – whatever it was – and then stock up on insanely low-priced canned goods and household cleaners.
(My brother-in-law, who also grew up in the neighbourhood, loves to tell the story about the time his Lithuanian-born grandmother lined up for one of those door-crashers, then brought the giant can home, asking him what it was, as she could barely speak – and certainly couldn’t read – English. In Yiddish, he had to explain to his Jewish bubbie, who made a living as a synagogue caterer, that she’d just purchased an industrial sized can of pork and beans.)
My sisters had been part of the original Honest Ed’s experience. As a kid, my middle sister, Doris, was a forced participant in those Saturday morning line-ups. The eldest, Rachel, who was born in Germany and was a teenager by then, preferred to wander around the store with a friend or even on dates, the way you might hang out at the mall today.
Before there was Yorkdale, there was Honest Ed’s.
I, on the other hand, knew only about the 1950s and ’60s magic of the place second-hand. I would listen to my parents’ stories, rolling my eyes, imagining the store filled with the Yiddish chatter of immigrants, or greeners, as they called them, elbowing each other on the way to discounted cans of sardines. I hated it in there – the crooked floors, the ridiculous knick-knacks. What a nightmare, thought my bored teenaged self.
The lore of the place was only bolstered by the fact that parked in a driveway down our lower-middle-class street was a shiny Lincoln with the words “It’s fun to shop at Honest Ed’s” painted across the back. Imagine, my father marvelled, a businessman who would be so generous as to buy a Lincoln Continental for his store managers! I have no idea if this was actually the case, but this was the story presented as fact in my living room.
The expeditions to Honest Ed’s continued until my mother died a few years ago. Even past 80, she would insist on going, wanting to pick up well-priced boxes of chocolate or cookies (not for her, she would explain, but for guests).
When I tried to explain the faulty economics of the exercise once TTC fares and her time were factored in, she would have none of it. These visits, of course, were as much about nostalgia as they were about bargain-hunting.
But it was my dad with whom I most associated the store. He was never entirely comfortable in the suburbs; he was a downtown kind of guy. So whenever he had the chance, he would grab his grocery list and his fedora and head down to Kensington Market or Honest Ed’s – places that helped define the riches of Canada in those heady, post-war days as a new immigrant.
The last time he and I went to Honest Ed’s together, we drove down – still in the LeMans, which by then was 11 years old and still humming – and split up when we got to the store. I bought a Lionel Ritchie album. I have no recollection of his purchases. A few weeks later, he died suddenly – heart attack. My mother didn’t have her driver’s licence, and I inherited the LeMans. But the shopping trips downtown were on hold while we dealt with the shock and grief.
A few years later, I was moving into my first apartment. I had a job at a radio station in Barrie. It did not pay well, to say the least, so I was tasked with outfitting my tiny new apartment on a serious budget. I didn’t go to the local Zellers and I skipped the housewares department at IKEA. I drove down to Bathurst and Bloor and hunted down dinner plates, mixing bowls, salt and pepper shakers. I loved it in there – the crooked floors, the ridiculous knick-knacks. It felt like home.