One afternoon last year I was standing on Toronto’s Bathurst streetcar heading north. A gaggle of teenage boys were seated at the back, in muttered conversation. I heard one say, “Just ask him.” Then one stepped up, and said, “Excuse me sir, where did you get your coat?” I said, “Honest Ed’s.” The boy turned to his companions and announced in amazement, “He said Honest Ed’s!” One replied with “Whoa!”
I was heading to Bathurst and Bloor and, there, I tried not to look at the pitiful site where Ed’s used to be. It upsets me.
There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace (Thursday, CBC 8 p.m. on CBC Docs POV) is about Honest Ed’s, that iconic and gloriously eccentric maze of a department store. Specifically, about its closing and what will happen with the site. It’s advertised as the story of “the store and neighbourhood as the community is at a tipping point.” For me, it’s personal.
The documentary (winner of the Audience Award at the Hot Docs Festival) isn’t exactly a satisfying examination of the issues, but it raises many interesting questions about urban living in Canada and who gets to afford to live in a downtown. Watching it, there were times when I was furious, especially when listening to the jargon of the developers trying to justify building homes for the wealthy and trying to avoid questions about destroying an entire neighbourhood.
That portion of the doc is a sterling lesson in the socially divisive issue of urban planning and affordable housing. The developers want to build and make a ton of money; the community and some local politicians want a community, not just buildings.
The story of Ed Mirvish and his bargain shop that grew into a giant, block-sized emporium, is well-known, in Toronto anyway. Ed took wacky marketing to an extreme and was loved for it. Sure, there were always bourgeois locals who sneered at it and Ed’s antics. But those antics mattered – his loss-leader food items kept hungry families fed. They weren’t a gimmick; they were a godsend. And the food section stocked items for immigrants that couldn’t be found anywhere else. It mattered, all of it, a capitalist enterprise that warmed the heart and fed the stomach. Ed bought the properties surrounding the store and in Mirvish Village there were art galleries and homes for artists at very reasonable rents.
The doc – filmmaker Lulu Wei lived in Mirvish Village and the redevelopment forced her to leave – takes the view that at the centre of the history of Honest Ed’s is the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean, to whom Ed’s catered. Some of those immigrants opened businesses nearby and thrived.
All true, and it’s a quintessential Canadian narrative. And Ed’s was an oasis for immigrants from everywhere. My own story is this: I’m an immigrant to Canada and came 40 years ago. I found a family doctor at Bloor and Spadina and one day, after the doctor gave me a prescription, he told me the pharmacy with the lowest dispensing fees in the city was down the street at Honest Ed’s. I was a student and every penny counted. So I went there and was an Honest Ed’s shopper until it closed in 2016.
There is so much story to tell in There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, that the doc doesn’t even try to enter portions of it. Ed Mirvish was a very successful businessman, a good employer and a successful theatre impresario. Me, I don’t accept that his business model, like the store, should be bundled away as nostalgia and then forgotten. Surely there are lessons to be learned?
The doc finds a hopeful thread in the case of African-Canadian independent bookstore A Different Booklist, which was next to Honest Ed’s for decades and will now have a large space in the new development. That’s good news, but it’s a mere tincture. This is a fascinating but frustrating documentary to watch. Buried beneath its surface is the fabulous and tragic story of a store, a culture and a city’s soul.
That coat I wore is an off-white, short, fitted raincoat with epaulettes and leather trim on the pockets. It cost $12. I bought two. Whoa, as the young man said, and Ed would agree.
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