In fact, everybody in Canada seems to know Honest Ed’s, a discount emporium that is one of Toronto’s “few beloved institutions,” as the Globe and Mail puts it. Being around since 1948 has helped, but a combination of rock-bottom prices and over-the-top signage made the store famous.
On my visit this week, I couldn’t miss it. Giant circus lettering across the full block features 23,000 light bulbs flashing like Times Square. Also floodlit are cheesy groaners from another age, like “Honest Ed attracts squirrels…they think he’s nuts!”
Inside, 160,000 square feet of retail rambles across three (sloping) floors, an over-alley walkway, and a tunnel. Quality goods are mixed in with junk—meat grinders, Illy coffee, $2.99 sweatshirts, Ann Taylor coats, and misshapen “I got smashed in Toronto” mugs. (Conveniently for visitors like me, the Canadian souvenirs are right inside the entrance.)
Vintage celebrity black-and-whites line the walls, a relic of late founder Ed Mirvish’s theater patronage. Until his death in 2007, Mirvish hosted every performer who came to Toronto, from Jessica Tandy to Tony Bennett to Lauren Bacall.
Adding to the crazy decor are retro handpainted signs by the hundreds. Honest Ed’s employs two full-time sign writers, who still do every sign in red and blue watercolors.
The effect can be overwhelming. “How do I get out of here?” a lost shopper asked me as we surveyed the endless variety of closeout goods. It’s worth a trip to the Annex neighborhood to shop this relic from the past.
But you’ve only got a year and a half. On Dec. 31, 2016, Honest Ed’s will give way to a glassy 1,000-apartment tower and close its discounting doors forever.
Still, Torontonians aren’t letting go easily. When the store held a sign sale this month, customers started lining up at 4:30 a.m., and ultimately bought 6,000 signs.
“We’ve offered affordability for young families, university students, and of course, waves of immigrants, and they come back,” longtime general manager Russell Lazar told me. “Times have changing in shopping. [But] people are clamoring for a piece of history.”