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Louis Litwin with his wife, Pearl Litwin.Courtesy of the Litwin family

Louis Litwin, who has died at the age of 89, took his father’s small paint and wallpaper store in Toronto and parlayed it into a national chain of retail outlets with additional operations in the United States, and an international wallpaper empire with a factory in England.

He was born in Montreal on Nov. 15, 1928, to immigrant parents from western Russia. The family moved to Toronto when Louis was a toddler. In 1939, his father, Harry, opened a paint store on St. Clair Avenue West and called it St. Clair Paint and Wallpaper. The name stuck.

The family lived above the store and Louis started working there as a boy, sweeping the floor, stocking shelves and delivering paint and wallpaper on his bicycle. He went to Oakwood Collegiate and then the University of Toronto.

When he was 23, Mr. Litwin married Pearl Pattenick and went to work for her father, who owned a chain of small general stores. When his father died in January, 1959, he rejoined his family’s business and used the knowledge he picked up working for his father-in-law. Right away, he hired a manager for the store on St. Clair West and opened a second store under the same name in partnership with his brother-in-law, Sid Gladstone.

The expansion really took off when Mr. Litwin opened a store in Yorkdale Shopping Centre. All of a sudden, the business morphed from a paint store into a home-decorating store.

“My father was a very creative guy, and with a paint store in a mall you had to understand that most of the shoppers were going to be women instead of men and painting contractors,” said Jeffrey Litwin, who went on to work in the business with his father and brother, Harry. “In 1964, when Yorkdale opened, it was a success from the beginning and as the mall business expanded in Canada, St. Clair Paint and Wallpaper expanded along with them.”

Along with owning stores, they franchised some and eventually operated in every province in Canada. At its peak, the firm had 440 outlets. In the typical store, about half the revenue was from wallpaper, a third from paint and the rest from accessories. The firm owned a wallpaper factory in Lancashire, England, and operated an international wallpaper business that mostly supplied hotels and restaurants. It had a factory that manufactured paint and operated several paint and wallpaper stores in the northern United States.

St. Clair Paint and Wallpaper listed on the stock market in 1986. In the late 1990s, the family sold the business to ICI, a British conglomerate.

Mr. Litwin lived an active life outside business. He skied with his family, as well as playing tennis and bridge and serving on the boards of the Canadian Opera Company and Mount Sinai Hospital. He and his wife travelled the world.

One memorable trip was to the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. At that time, the Cold War was at its height and Jews faced great hardships there, especially when it came to practising their religion. Mr. Litwin and his wife brought along a suitcase filled with prayer books and prayer shawls.

At the airport, the Soviet customs agent asked Mr. Litwin if he had any literature. He said he did.

“When he asked what it was, my husband said it’s fiction, and I was thinking to myself, I don’t want to go to Siberia,” Mrs. Litwin recalled. "Anyway, he let us in.”

They went to the great synagogue in Moscow and passed out the prayer books and shawls. So many people wanted the books and shawls that it caused a commotion, and Mr. Litwin was asked to move. He refused to do so until the suitcase was empty.

Mr. Litwin was a sociable man, given to striking up conversations with strangers.

“My daughter and I say he had a huge gift of being able to connect with [people of] all walks of life. He could connect with anybody,” Mrs. Litwin said.

Several years ago, they were in Paris when he spotted Prince William and Prince Harry in his hotel lobby. He went over to them and introduced himself as a proud citizen of the Commonwealth. The brothers were friendly, and he asked them “What shall I call you?” The older prince replied: “You can call me William and my brother Harry. What shall we call you?”

The answer: “You can call me Mr. Litwin.” At that point, all three of them broke up in laughter.

George Cohon, an old friend, had fond memories of Mr. Litwin. “Lou could check his ego at the door. When he went into a room, he was more interested in the person he was talking to than with himself,” said Mr. Cohon, the founder of McDonald’s in Canada and Russia. “He had a very intellectual mind. He loved history, and he was always asking me, George, have you read this book?”

A devoted family man, Mr. Litwin insisted on having dinner every Friday night with his wife and three children, and eventually with their families as well.

“My husband died on a Tuesday; the Friday night before he died, he was extremely ill, and it was very difficult for him to come to the table. But he came to the table and we were all sitting there together,” Mrs. Litwin said.

So many mourners attended Mr. Litwin’s funeral that the rabbi had to move the service from a smaller chapel that held 250 people to the main sanctuary. He was 89 when he died.

Mr. Litwin, who died in Toronto on June 26, leaves his wife, Pearl; children, Wendy, Jeffrey and Harry; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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