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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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Saying goodbye to Honest Ed’s

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Honest Ed’s general manager Russell Lazar joined the business 55 years ago. [Paul Lungen photo]

When I first moved to Toronto lo those many years ago, people used to joke that you knew you were over the city when you could see Honest Ed’s from 20,000 feet in the air.

At the corner of Bloor and Bathurst street, you certainly couldn’t miss it. Its over-the-top signage illuminated not just the corner, but en entire square block, and parts of the Annex as well.

During my first sweltering summer in the city, I purchased a fine 3,500-BTU window air conditioner for the very reasonable sum of $330 or so. A bargain!

Honest Ed factoids

• Back in the 1970s, to celebrate the anniversary of Israel’s creation and raise money for Israel Bonds, Ed sold a package for $39.99 that included a six-course kosher meal at Ed’s Warehouse and a show at the Royal Alex headlined by Peggy Lee.

• Ed Mirvish’s King Street restaurants – Ed’s Warehouse, Old Ed’s and Ed’s Seafood – are no more, but at their peak, they were wildly successful. “We used to serve 6,600 meals on a Saturday night,” Honest Ed’s general manager Russell Lazar said. The chopped sirloin dinner, with mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, sold for around $2 and was particularly popular.

• Honest Ed’s has long been associated with signage. In 1958, Mirvish installed the world’s largest “Read-O-Graph” on the Markham side of the store. To mark the opening and turn on the lights, then-Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips was invited to throw the switch. He did, and the entire neighbourhood was blacked out because of the overload.

• Ed Mirvish never apologized for the floors. Instead, he marketed them, saying “At Honest Ed’s, only the floors are crooked.” The floors are on slightly different levels as they are from different buildings that Ed incorporated into the big store.

• Volume is the name of the game at Honest Ed’s, and there have been many successes. For Lazar though, perhaps the biggest took place in the 1980s when the store sold a “Gut Buster” exercise item. Marketed at $4.99 when the TV offer for the same product was $19.99, the store moved 10,000-20,000 units a week. In the end, the store sold 400,000 Gut Busters.

• The store hasn’t changed much, if at all, in decades. Asked why it was never renovated, Lazar quipped, “We were too busy.”

My first walk through the place was an eye-opener. It had the feel of a discount store merged with the midway at the Ex. And those floors. What was with the wavy floors?

I soon learned it was a real Toronto institution. “Honest” Ed Mirvish, who founded the business, was a showman, a master marketer and a man-about-town. The store catered to anybody who wanted a bargain, but particularly those people new to the country who were looking to save a dollar.

A friend rented space from the Mirvishes in one of their properties on Markham Street, and she raved about the reasonable rent and how nice the family was as a landlord.

Every summer, people lined up to take part in Ed’s birthday celebrations, and in December, they lined up again to get the free turkeys the store gave away.

As the man on the store’s answering machine says: “There’s no place like this place anyplace.”

But not for long.

Within three years, Honest Ed’s will be no more. Ed died in 2007, and his son, David, announced the store will close, as will the smaller businesses that line Markham Street, one block west of Bathurst.

“We’re selling all the properties,” he told The CJN. “All businesses have life cycles. You want to move on while you’re successful and grow your business in the manner that presents the greatest opportunities.”

At the time he made the announcement, there was no buyer on hand. Mirvish said he’s looking for a single buyer to acquire all the Mirvish properties, which includes the 160,000-square-foot department store and the Markham Street businesses.

He will be selective in who he sells to.

“I hope to pick someone who does us proud, who will be a city builder and do honour to the neighbourhood,” he said. “Someone [who will] make a mark on the city. This is an opportunity for them.”

Mirvish rejects suggestions by some that the store should be designated a heritage site.

“All businesses and cities evolve,” he said. “Would you really want to make a heritage site out of something you don’t use?”

That was a reference to Honest Ed’s declining business. It’s still profitable, he acknowledged, but it has been experiencing a downward trend from its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s.

Business peaked around 1990, but with changes in the retail environment and with the advent of Internet shopping, sales began to decline.

The trend is clear, Mirvish said, and the store is no longer capable, like a rising tide lifting all boats, of bringing the surrounding neighbourhood with it.

“From my childhood to 1990, everyone prospered around us because of the value of our store,” he said, adding he’d like that to continue with new owners and a new business plan.

Russell Lazar has been with Honest Ed’s from pretty close to the beginning.

He joined the business 55 years ago, working in the stock room. He moved on to sales, and about 37 or 38 years ago, he became general manager.

When he arrived, the store was already a going concern. Ed started two small businesses in 1941 that sold women’s clothing.

As David recalled, his father cashed a $225 insurance policy and paid two months rent for a 20-by-20 space he called the Sports Bar. He’d get dresses on credit on Spadina Avenue and sell them in the store.

In 1948, Ed expanded to a single room called Honest Ed’s. He became an early innovator in discount shopping at a time when Toronto’s retail market was dominated by Eaton’s and Simpson’s, whose pricing was not that flexible, said David.

His father quickly realized that the key to his success would be to buy and sell in volume and turn over merchandize quickly.

Goods were expected to be sold in two or three weeks. Anything that didn’t move was marked down, and if unsold, shipped out, Lazar said.

It meant that Ed was working with suppliers’ money. He’d sell in two weeks and pay suppliers in 60 days. He’d also negotiate a discount from suppliers if he paid them early, Mirvish said.

“Cash was always available, and it worked on turnover,” Lazar added. “You were always in a great cash position, and that hasn’t changed today.

“In all the years, Honest Ed’s has never had to go to the bank.”

The store still “puts thousands of shoppers through the cash registers,” said Lazar. It continues to attract people from around the city, though not in the numbers it once did. “It’s a comfortable place to shop. It takes you back to yesteryear,” Lazar said. And “prices are not that much higher than decades ago.”

So in all the years, why didn’t Ed expand the store and create a chain?

“He liked being in the store every day, seeing the customers’ reactions” to the merchandise, David said.

“Dad did not want a chain. He wanted to control ‘shrinkage,’” – meaning shoplifting, said David.

Low prices, volume sales, quick turnover, keeping a close watch on theft – that formula hasn’t changed much in 50 plus years, Mirvish said.

“Dad created a carnival atmosphere. He wanted shopping to be fun.”

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