The woodsy window display of Russet and Empire, a Keele Street design store, was already attracting the attention of camping experts before it was even finished. When Micah Lenahan, the store owner, and Jenn Hannotte, the interior stylist who runs her studio out of the shop, were arranging logs in front of a makeshift tent in their storefront, a former Boy Scout stopped to give them pointers.
"I don't think he realized we weren't trying to build a real fire," Ms. Lenahan said.
Playing into the store's Canadiana vibe, Ms. Lenahan and Ms. Hannotte were sprucing up the window as part of Show Off @ The Junction.
Running from Oct. 18 to 30, Show Off, hosted and organized by local interior-design firm Mason, is part street festival and part art project: 20 designers and artists have been paired up with 12 businesses along Keele Street and Dundas Street West to create art installations in the windows of local shops and galleries. Themes range from Russet and Empire's woodland-inspired window to Metropolis Living's post-apocalyptic assembly line.
For the Junction, festivals such as Show Off aren't just window dressing; they're part of a larger effort to put the Junction on the map as a destination neighbourhood in Toronto.
Cut off from major TTC arteries and dry for 93 years (a ruling intended to curb drunken hooliganism, it was overturned only in 1997), the off-the-beaten-path area, once populated by empty storefronts, is now seeing a retail boom. The numbers from the Junction Business Improvement Area are staggering: In the last 18 months, nearly 40 new businesses – everything from a yoga studio to a cheese boutique – have opened in the area. (Eleven have left).
Like other Show Off participants Metropolis Living and Mrs. Huizenga, Russet and Empire is part of an explosion of new design-based businesses in the area. They're adding to the Junction's early adopters, stores like Cornerstone Home Interiors and Smash that specialize in vintage and repurposed furniture and fixtures.
Neill Cunningham set up Pandemonium, a used-book and music shop, in 2000, when Dundas was mostly made up of used appliance stores. He estimates that 80 per cent of the merchandising mix along the strip has changed since he moved in.
"I've been a member of the BIA for six, seven years now and it's always been a challenge to market to the people who lived a block away." he says. "They were always so focused on going down to Bloor. It's like a horse with blinders on – they just couldn't see north of Annette."
Cut off from pedestrian traffic by the train tracks that define the borders of the neighbourhood, businesses such as the new bakeries and cafes can mostly rely on locals to stay afloat, but design stores need people from outside the neighbourhood to check out their wares.
"We lack the foot traffic that Queen Street would have, big time," says Phil Freire, who runs Metropolis Living with his sister Maggie Gettesco. His inventory includes a typewriter and a mounted lynx's head, as well as tables made from parts re-purposed from an old textile mill.
"That's where your advertising would have to kick in. I advertise a lot because I feel I have to draw people here," he says, adding that "if you've got a good product, people will come no matter where you are."
Ms. Lenahan says she recognizes a lot of customers from around the neighbourhood, but most are Junction day-trippers, coming up on weekends from neighbourhoods as far out as Leslieville. "I think we're creating a destination neighbourhood for design," she says. It's a thought that Mr. Cunningham echoes, saying that when people come up to check out the furniture stores, it's a boon to all of the other businesses.
This past August, Ms. Lenahan organized the Junction Design Crawl, which saw neighbourhood stores stay open late and use their spaces for everything from psychic readings to DJ listening parties.
"At the Crawl, people were like, 'This is my first time in the Junction.' Or 'I've never heard of the Junction,'" she says.
Hundreds of people came out for the Design Crawl. And the architects of the latest design-focused festival, Show Off @ The Junction, are planning to track the effects their art experiment has on the businesses in the neighbourhood.
"I think it's important to have these festivals every once in a while to bring people up and to give them a reason other than just the usual Saturday shopping," Ms. Hannotte says.
"It gives us a little more edge."
Special to The Globe and Mail