I have posted a few mournful things about the speed of change in the city – and also in fairness observed that while disquieting (and outright frightening, economically) there are many cities which have carried out far more brutal and less advantaging urban renewal – or worse (and I know this rankles) none at all.
The population isn’t the same as it once was, nor are our sum needs – and our old run-down industrial zones in the core, melancholy-beautiful though they undoubtedly were, were just as certainly death-traps for fire safety (the creative tragedies avoided by luck alone on Hannah and Sorauren, just to name two now lost cheap studio districts, really would have utterly broken the art-heart of the city).
But I noticed something while walking home from a great model-gig the other night (sitting for 4th year art students, as four different characters). Despite the losses, there are still several modest landmarks of extraordinary and heartwarming endurance. As a fan of architecture and history, I tend to favour the grand, significant or clever with my lens, over the commercial. But the little independent businesses that meet our day to day and longer term needs have a unique charm and warmth (as Hopper’s work reminds us, wonderfully).
So for today I thought I’d mention a few of the little long-lasters, those time-machine businesses which we might have stumbled into or out of almost a half a century ago, virtually unchanged (except for our hairlines, attitudes, clothing and tooth-lengths, that is). ;o)
ABC Books (top photo)
ABC books is, to me, the centre of Toronto’s book trade. There are traders of first editions, or rare and antiquarian volumes who some might prefer – but these guys worked out the formula that suits this book-crazy town perfectly – and tuned it so well, it spread. Several former ABC folks formed the wildly successful and genuinely great BMV chain – which combines their genius used curation, with brand new excellent stuff, and vast tables full of brainy culture remainders, super-cheap – fill-in those gaps, from Vonnegut to Emerson.
The fact that they are right in the middle of the craziest stretch of Yonge guarantees they are among the most plain-spoken and least ingratiating traders one might find. Way past street-smarts, more like street-brilliance – truly fantastic good taste reflected on their shelves, especially in Architecture, History, Literature, Music, Poetry and Art. Newer adds include a superb graphic novel collection and a nice mix of art-house and commercial movie-discs. Still got the cheap-reads bins out front though (from which I’ve scored many gems).
You’re sure to hear some fantastic music while browsing (long discussions about Lomax and vintage blues) – and I have yet to stump them on an obscure arcane philosopher. They even sometimes offer a spontaneous discount, if they find the stack of books you’ve brought to the counter especially intriguing. Smart, tough and infinitely cool. You want sweet? – try the hipster-staffed (also great) Book City – couple klicks north, in midtown!
They also still have a curtained back room full of the always weirdly-named ‘gentleman’s magazines’. I’ve long thought a series of paintings of the ashamed-guilty expressions of people of every ‘type’ emerging from that room might make a truly hilarious project, for a determined and suitably ironic street culture documenter.
Every town has a characteristic convenience store – in Toronto, we call them Variety Stores – and they are, for many, the places where we first learn to make our own purchase choices. I can vividly recall agonizing and then putting a pre-packaged ice-cream cornet back into the freezer at “Stephens” on Bathurst, so I could use my precious quarter to buy a comic book (and some gum) instead. Spider-man was in Canada on the cover, trying to keep the Hulk from tearing apart Buckminster Fuller’s magnificent dome, left over from the 1967 expo in Montreal. (A funny decision with a wild array of entangled links, which would later become significant to me).
But while Maitland Variety has no doubt also tempted and agonized generations of local children, with regard to the deployment of their precious pennies, I think most of my friends know it for it’s late night value, above all. Didn’t even matter what ‘scene’ you were into. There were busy bars, arcades, restaurants, salons, strip clubs and pool-halls operating late into the night, all up and down this part of the strip.
By the early 80s there was a cluster of new wave and early gay-friendly dance clubs on St Joseph’s nearby, the venerable Rocker temple “The Gasworks” was just a couple of blocks down – and Maple Leaf Gardens emptied plenty of mega-concert and late-game crowds onto the nearby blocks. Popsicle or a drink on a hot night, pack of smokes, box of rubbers, aspirin. Whaddayaneed?
Like the folks at ABC, considering the relentlessness and density of variegated street-crazy on this part of Yonge, I would be astonished if working here hadn’t produced at least one natural writer by now. That aluminum framed door might just as easily be a proscenium arch, for the poor soul stuck behind the cash a few too many hours, and imaginative (or bored) enough.
Capitalism is weird stuff, no question about it – but both the left and the right are often wrong about it lately. What it definitely isn’t, is a religion. (That is, neither something worth sacrificing humans for, nor an outright unequivocal sin). What it is, is a very old and complicated complex of techniques and relationships.
The place I hear many leftists go wrong casually nowadays, is in the confusion of scale. Monopolies created by (corrupted) government advantage, and stifling free access and trade are a result of the way modern capitalism is played, but also an absolute violation of its core principles. They are, in a word – cheating – under their very own ‘sacred’ rules.
Individual humans with interesting obsessions are often an entirely different thing – and this most basic part of capitalism – someone with skill, nerve or insight, doing something unusual, reliably, that a lot of other people like, goes all the way back to Sumer – indeed, it cannot be separated from civilization itself.
To be clearer, when a leftist friend says, “I want to confront the corrupting and ecologically damaging influence of big oil” I am one hundred percent in favour. But when they steal from an independent shop with the snarky assertion that anyone in business is a cynical capitalist, I really kind of want to punch them. Stop dishonouring the team – jackass!
Morningstar is a nifty example of a business which resulted from a personal obsession – and the fact that both have lasted so long, has made Toronto a more interesting place. Back in the 80s, I apprenticed at a repair shop which kept his stereo gear in good order, so I met John Anderson then, and was impressed with his enthusiasm and energy. The fact that he’s still at it, amazes me – especially since he has threatened to quit a few times, with waves of shockingly sudden tax hikes hurting many of these independent Yonge St businesses.
When he first travelled to Rajasthan in India, 46 years ago, he fell in love with the fabrics and clothing there, and he ended up buying beautiful things everywhere he went, that he knew people back home would be very glad to have. My wife Catherine remembers shopping at his store for many years, they always had lovely things you simply didn’t see anywhere else.
Here’s the really curious part though – when the clothing production industries moved about twenty five years later, thanks to macro economic forces, John didn’t stay with his business, he stayed with his love of Rajasthan – and decided to transform his business into a furniture store. As he investigated, he realized many of the traditional production techniques were being lost, so he deliberately set about to help secure a new market for people who were carrying on the old work and teaching that wisdom and skill to new generations.
During the later stages of the transition of the business, he still had tons of incredible printed fabric and clothes that he’d gathered in his previous travels – so for several years, the basement of his furniture store had clothing and fabric scattered all over the floor – sold by the pound! (and Catherine assures me many great finds were to be had, in that vast-scale depiction of the uncleaned teenage bedroom).
Year forty-seven now – John is still in love with Rajasthan, and a regular visitor there – still helping keep traditional craft and technique alive, and making a lot of Toronto houses more interesting, in the process.
We should all be so productively relentless (and try to have at least half as much fun, doing it).
Apres bibliothèque – Mamma’s Pizza
Mamma’s Pizza was founded by Lidia Danesi, who came to Toronto from Limano in Tuscany and opened the Monte Carlo Restaurant on Eglinton, in 1957. Hers was one of the first restaurants to serve pizza in the city, and she made it in the front window, tirelessly, which made her a lot of local fans. The name “Mamma’s Pizza” wasn’t her idea – they called it that, and it became a real hit (still one of the best chains in the city, and still in the family, three generations later).
This was not their original location, of course – but this one has been there since the seventies at least, and it means the most to me, personally. Best place to stop for a slice after visiting either of two of the very best libraries in the city – the Yorkville, which was built (like the also extraordinarily lovely Wychwood branch), as part of the vast Carnegie library project a century ago – and Raymond Moriyama’s modern contemplative masterpiece – Toronto Reference Library – which was a home away from home for me, for many later childhood years.
Not that we could afford such a lavish treat as pizza every day. Hot chocolate and a Jos Louis (factory chocolate sponge cake) from the automatic machines in the newspaper room was a far more common studying-replenishment meal. But when you had miles to go, and a couple bucks in your pocket…
Cadogan is a far more understated enterprise than always colourful Morningstar, but he’s held out for ages in a tough spot, right near the Summerhill rail overpass – and he’s put up a very fine showing, the whole time. His complete lack of web-presence is, if anachronistic, also entirely endearing to me, and he’s always been friendly, when I had questions about framing – and matting, in particular (an art unto itself).
Unfortunately, I caught his windows at a low ebb for density on Friday – though the doorway portrait, is a worthwhile trade – but you still see a trace of the secondary dream, underlying the high-quality business. Walking by his window for decades now, Catherine and I have really enjoyed the dividends of his photographic expeditions to the far corners of the world, along with the work of his super-talented photographic friends. Wonderful architecture and historic landscapes, and some truly superb nature work. (I even know a couple of guys who run a health-food store on the same principle, exhibit and occasionally sell their lovely exotic photo prints up on the wall, just above the peanut-butter grinder and the bulletin board).
The funny thing about this stretch of Yonge, only a few geographical blocks north of Maitland and ABC, is that the pedestrian traffic is far less hectic, and the density of street craziness much much lighter. That being said – his clientele are the old money Jones-chasers of Rosedale – among the most demanding, vain and quixotic personalities in the entire city (and perversely proud of it). He too no doubt has stories, and plenty of patience built not only by his skillful and thoughtful trade, but long-testing!
Braem and Minetti
Yes, they have changed their awning and their front window – but what they’ve kept going for a pleasing interval of time is that magical sense of a cave of infinite treasures! This is once again an entirely Rosedale tuned business – no cheap knockoffs (perhaps the odd bespoke reproduction, clearly noted). Wild and eclectic historical wonders, everywhere. Not in my budget, to be sure.
But if you’re an art student or designer, and you’re feeling a little short of visual and especially textural inspiration, you could do an awful lot worse than look here. Of course, these glamorous Rosedale antique shops used to contrast quite sharply with dozens of super-cheap dusty-window junk stores along that central stretch of Queen St W now known for trendy noodle cafes and expensive disco powered clothing stores. A few of the far-Parkdale versions (always bigger and more robust) do yet persist, but even they have now been gentrified past any hope of recognition.
But it’s not the shops so much – it’s the world! Everything that used to be cheap, old and ironically cute, is now someone’s idea of a precious collectible.
Joseph’s Hairstyling is a real gem – one of the few original classic barbershops which survived long enough to become popular and fashionable again, as the hipsters, for still mysterious reasons, became sweetly hot-towel and straight-razor enamoured.
They first opened on this exact spot in 1959 – I used to hear stories about these old days, ’cause I went to his competition on the top of this same hill (called “Rosehill” by real-estate agents – but known as “Gallows Hill” much earlier, because the deep cut made in the mud, from winching heavy loads (like small ships) up over the lip of the hill, made alternate uses so very convenient). By the time I first went, “Jack’s” an immaculate light-filled Helsinki-blue gem (also opened in ’59, just south of St Clair) was being supervised by its proud but aging owner, who couldn’t breathe well enough to do a whole haircut himself.
I met three nice stylists at Jack’s who figured out my head and cut, and then followed them around the neighbourhood – sometimes to a friendly chair here at Joseph’s – for three decades afterward. Right up until my favourite barber of all time, Reno (who remembered hearing Mussolini on the radio as a kid, loved talking world politics with me, and always called me “Professore”) died, last year. Both me and my hair have been lingeringly sad since then.
Don’t let the “hairstyling” on their sign fool you – they do not do perms here. Barbershop 1.0 – original style, all the way. But if you like to get razor clean, even at the back of your neck, with your classic men’s cut (complete with red pump-chairs, straight-razors, hot foam machines, and faded vintage example photos arrayed above the mirrors) this is absolutely the place!
Heck, isn’t even a time machine if they never left, is it? More of a welcome sign of presence and continuity.
Also proof that sometimes the little independent projects really do stand the test of time.