TORONTO — When Martin and Judith Markus started their retail clothing business on Bloor Street West, Louis St. Laurent was still Prime Minister of Canada and Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States.
The neighbourhood was a lot different back then, home to many European immigrants, just like the Markuses.
Business was brisk and would get even brisker as the years went by and the company entered its retail heyday in the 1980s and ’90s. But time stops for no one. Since then business has decreased steadily, Martin is 93, Judith 10 years younger and though their middle-aged kids, Norman and Linda, have spent years in the store, early next month N. Markus Fashions will close its doors for the final time.
Before the family shutters the store, they are planning a customer appreciation weekend from April 5-7. “It would be wonderful to have the opportunity to thank and say goodbye to as many of our customers and Toronto residents as possible who, over the span of many years, have come to our store to find the right outfit for all the various family events,” daughter Linda Friedman, stated.
While for Martin the closing is a particularly sad event – “I built it up from nothing, from nowhere,” he said wistfully – they did have a good, long run in the business.
The Markus family story is not atypical for postwar immigrants. Martin and Judith were both born in Transylvania, Judith in a small village, Martin in Satu Mare.
They met in Toronto – in itself a happy confluence of events. When Martin came to Canada in 1948, he arrived in Halifax by ship and was supposed to continue to Montreal. “However, he heard a conductor saying, ‘Toronto train now boarding!’ He liked the sound of the city’s name and decided to board that train,” Friedman said.
Judith had already come to Toronto as a domestic. They met and in 1950 were married. Martin worked for a time in Judith’s father’s coat manufacturing company, but he wanted to strike out on his own. With their knowledge of the clothing business, they opened their first store at 602 Bloor St. W. In 1976, they opened their current location at 592 Bloor. They’ve been on the same block, just a little west of Bathurst, for 55, nearly 56 years.
There was no secret to their success. It entailed long hours, hard work, personalized service and good prices. Martin would take the bus from their home in North York at 7 a.m. and visit suppliers before he opened the store. He built solid personal relationships with them and was able to leverage that into good prices. Plus, he became pretty adept at finding the merchandise that would sell, Judith said.
“I had a magic feeling” about their goods, Martin said. Sometimes customers would see them unpacking boxes of apparel and would buy the clothes even before he’d have a chance to put a price tag on them, he said.
Like themselves, many of their customers were European immigrants who struggled with English. One lady, Martin recalled, knew only a few words. “How much?” she would ask about an item she liked. “Too much,” she said, even before he had a chance to answer, he recalled.
“Ninety per cent of the customers were newcomers,” Martin said. “We got a very good name. One told another one the good things about us.”
Back in the early days, customers liked to spend time and talk, Judith recalled. Some have been repeat customers for 20 or 30 years.
“Customers had pleasure from our store, the prices and the selection,” Martin continued. “I carried a big stock always.”
Back when the dollar went a lot further, some customers would spend $1,500, even $2,000 on clothing. Some even bought at the store’s low prices and then re-sold the same merchandise out of their homes in Scarborough, Martin said, shaking his head.
Norman and Linda were at the store a lot. As kids, they’d hang around and on weekends, they’d be given money for the movies. They’d walk over to the nearby Alhambra Theatre or the Midtown Theatre (the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema today).
When they got older, they began working in the store, Linda in the children’s wear section.
“It’s in our blood,” said Norman. “You couldn’t not help. There’s a lot of history here.
“One of the strengths is that my father was loved by all the suppliers, so he could wheel and deal a lot with them for price point. That’s why we could compete,” he said.
The family won’t reveal exactly how much they earned. All Judith will say is, “It was a good, good business.”
At one point they were offered a place in the new, yet to open Yorkdale Mall, but they turned it down. They didn’t want to be dictated to about the store, its hours of operations and other items. “I knew [Martin] would have to be there all the time and I didn’t want him to be a slave to the store,” Judith said.
Since then, “the nature of retail has changed significantly,” said Friedman. “With the onset of big box stores, online shopping and the changing demographic nature of the area, with fewer European immigrants and more from Asia, business hasn’t kept up.”
Norman said closing is the result of two factors: “financial and my health.”
Sales are down 75 per cent from the peak some 25 years ago. The trend is not encouraging, and Norman is concerned that worries over the bottom line will affect his health.
Judith and Martin have lots of grandchildren, but they’re busy pursuing their own careers and none are interested in taking over the family business. So, some time in April, after they’ve paid their respects to their devoted clientele, N. Markus Fashions will close for the last time.
Nevertheless, the Markus family will retain a connection to Bloor Street. They own the building and have a couple of tenants living above the shop. As for a prospective retail tenant, they don’t have one just yet. Hopefully, said Judith, it will be someone in the clothing business.