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The store that’s keeping the Jewish flame alive in Kensington Market

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Paul Gwartzman, left, and his daughter, Jacklyn, stand in front of their store in Kensington Market in Toronto.

Gwartzman’s Art Supplies is likely the last business in Toronto’s Kensington Market that was started by the wave of Jewish immigrants who came to Canada after the Second World War and is still owned by the same family, according to the family that runs it.

In the nearly 70 years since they first opened shop, the Gwartzmans have seen many other Jewish-owned businesses come and go. Yet their business continues to thrive.

Three generations of Gwartzmans have managed the shop. Currently, Jacklyn Gwartzman, the art shop founder’s daughter, runs the store, and her father, Paul, continues to come in every day, operating the cash register and helping customers.

“I can’t remember a day when I haven’t been here in some way or another,” said Jacklyn Gwartzman.

A poster advertising the opening of M. A. Gwartzman Silks and Woollens in 1945.

Around 1925, her grandparents came to Toronto and lived on Baldwin Street, which is now part of Kensington Market. They established a fabric shop called M A Gwartzman at 421 Spadina Ave., across the street from the current location.

In the 1930s, Kensington Market was known as the Jewish Market. Approximately 60,000 Jews, most of whom were eastern European immigrants, lived in and around the area. They converted the ground floors of their homes into shops that sold meat, baked goods, produce, eggs and other items.

In the 1950s, Paul Gwartzman and his mother opened a discount drapery and fabric store at 448 Spadina Ave., which remains their current location.

As the neighbourhood evolved, artists started moving into the area. They saw that Gwartzman’s sold fabrics and frequently asked if the store sold canvases. Paul Gwartzman saw that there was a demand for canvases, so he started selling them. Then, the artists started asking for paint and brushes.

Jacklyn Gwartzman, left, and her father, Paul.

“You know, I still have the visual in my head: as more art supplies came in, the fabrics were piled up and they started moving to the back of the store,” said Jacklyn Gwartzman. When she was young, they lived above the shop and later rented out the apartment to artists.

In the late ’60s, they changed the shop’s name to Gwartzman’s Art Supplies and abandoned the fabric business.

“Growing up, a lot of artists were coming in, but I was too young to appreciate who was coming in,” she said.

Norval Morriseau, Gordon Rayner, Alex Cameron, Gershon Iskowitz, Drew Harris and an artist involved with the Group of Seven were among their more famous customers. Some of them continue to shop there to this day.

Few major changes have been made to the store since it opened. Thirty years ago, they renovated and extended the back of the shop, to make room for more supplies. The light fixtures and floors are the same as the originals, aside from some repairs. Just a year ago, Jacklyn Gwartzman changed the store’s sign to a more contemporary black background with white block letters. The original sign was hand painted by artists.

“I’m very proud of our family business, the fact that we’re still here. Not many businesses could say that they are still here in the same building after 70 years, and owned by the same family,” she said.