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Kensington Market stalwart is on the block

For more than five decades, European Quality Meats and Sausages has been a Kensington Market mainstay, drawing customers from across the city with hearty steaks, spicy kielbasa and tangy cured ham.

But now, septuagenarian founder Morris Leider is contemplating closing the business, the latest sign of a slow shift in the retail makeup of the colourful enclave.

Mr. Leider has put the building – a two-storey, 823-square-metre storefront at the head of Kensington Avenue – up for sale, with a $1.8-million asking price. If he can get a good deal, he will look at closing the shop; if not, he will keep it open, said Mr. Leider's son, Larry. European's other outlet, in Etobicoke, will stay in business no matter what happens.

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The younger Mr. Leider said the decision to sell was motivated purely by real estate calculations.

"The market's just strong – we're testing the waters at this point," he said. Morris Leider declined an interview request.

A Ukrainian immigrant, he got his start in Kensington working at a cheese business. He launched the butcher shop in November, 1959. On its 50th anniversary, Mr. Leider told City-TV that he had no knowledge of the meat industry when he started. To make matters worse, his partner pulled out of the venture within six weeks, leaving the young businessman working from early morning to late evening to keep the place afloat.

He ultimately excelled, expanding to the second store and a processing plant in Brampton, where the company is now headquartered. But the place never lost its mom-and-pop feel, with some employees remaining at the company for decades.

Business also stayed brisk: On Wednesday afternoon, dozens of customers buzzed about as staff in white aprons navigated around strings of sausages and filled orders.

Down the block at menswear store Tom's Place, the proprietor credited European Meats with helping attract customers to the market.

"Morris Leider is a leader. I hope he changes his mind – what are the small stores going to do without the draw?" said Tom Mihalik, whose father founded his business the year before Mr. Leider's.

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Back then, he recalled, retail was less cutthroat and it was easier to compete in the face of big chain stores.

Since that time, area stalwarts, including the Augusta Avenue egg market and some bakeries, have closed. But others have remained, with produce stands and bulk stores peering out beneath the neighbourhood's old-school awnings. In recent years, they've been joined by a new wave of independent businesses, ranging from bohemian cafés to vegetarian restaurants to bike repair shops.

Change has been driven by everything from shifting demographics to changing tastes to rising rents. Residents fear the situation will allow big box stores or other corporate businesses to worm their way into the market. Three years ago, for instance, realtor Phil Pick talked about enticing a Starbucks or Lululemon to the area, earning a backlash from neighbours.

"People worry about losing the fishmongers and the fruit sellers that make Kensington what it is," said Shamez Amlani, a restaurateur and community organizer. "Kensington is in this position where it has to redefine itself and you hope it doesn't change too much."

When old businesses depart, the trick is to find new ones that will preserve the market's history even as they modernize, he said. For instance, when butcher Slolly Stern sold his shop in 2009, former chef Peter Sanagan re-opened it as Sanagan's Meat Locker. He added his own twist, selling Ontario-produced meat and capturing the burgeoning market for local food.

Mr. Sanagan hopes that, if European ends up leaving, the new tenant will follow in its footsteps. "I hope the new business that comes in keeps the old spirit alive, in terms of the market being a place for food."

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