Heartbreaking photos from the dying days of Honest Ed's

Toronto's weirdest landmark is now a symbol of rapid development. In her new photo book, local artist Kristan Klimczak captures its final years.

Toronto's weirdest landmark is now a symbol of rapid development. New book captures its final years

You Lucky People by Kristan Klimczak opens Sept. 12 at Weird Things, "just up the street from where Honest Ed’s was." (Courtesy of the artist)

There was no place like it, any place. But Honest Ed's is gone now. Torn down, dug up — and swept from the local news cycle, at least until the next phase of Mirvish Village construction begins.

But to artist Kristan Klimczak, so long as there are cranes in the sky (and Toronto has more of those than anywhere else in North America) the story of its dying days is plenty relevant. It's become a symbol for the new Toronto, she says: a place that's constantly under construction, for better or worse. And Sept. 12, she launches You Lucky People, a photo book and exhibition based on the years she spent inside.

"I had no intention of spending three years making a book," laughs Klimczak. But one random Sunday, she decided to visit, just for old time's sake.

In 2013, the place sold to Westbank Properties, the developer that's currently transforming the block into a 47-building complex including rental towers, retail and a proposed patch of park space. Klimczak was feeling nostalgic. When she moved to Toronto for school, Honest Ed's was one of the first landmarks she visited. Later, while working as a production designer, she used to raid it for cheap supplies. "This'll be my goodbye," she thought.

"I walked in, and it seemed like nothing had changed." She's not just talking about the funhouse mirrors or the giant plaster Elvises — forever stationed near the cash registers. "Nothing had changed with how people were reacting to it."

"I walked in, and there were two teenagers walking up the stairs in awe of what it was," she recalls. "Seeing someone see it for the first time when you're planning to go for the last time was very strange."

"[I was] finally being hit with the importance of it in that moment," she says. "OK. This can't be the last time I'm in here.

I want to remember what that felt like — to lose this place.- Kristan Klimczak, artist

Klimczak started passing through the revolving doors three times a week. "By the end, I was in all the time." Using a small "point-and-shoot" digital camera, she says she would more or less go unnoticed in the store, capturing the building itself and candid photos of shoppers who returned (almost?) as often as she did.

"It really developed organically," she says. Over time, the building itself became a bigger character in the project than the community she initially thought she'd be documenting. ("I personify it a lot when I talk about it," she laughs.)

You Lucky People compiles 60 images that capture the world of Honest Ed's as it shuffled towards demolition. "I've sequenced them to create a narrative, basically the narrative of the death of this place."

"It felt very much like being with someone at the end of their life and everything that comes up when that is going on," she says. "You know, dreading what's coming. That feeling of what it felt like to lose this place is kind of what I wanted to tap into a bit."

Here, she shares some of the stories behind the photos.

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

This was the first photo I took. I took that the first day. It's what kind of woke me up. There's a lot here that I want to do.

It's obviously not busy, but there's so much personality and uniqueness to what is happening there. I feel like everything is getting homogenous, and we rarely see this kind of thing anymore, you know?

Someone working a job behind a desk, reading a magazine: it's kind of a nice trope. [...] And [she's] still coming there every day knowing that she's not going to have a job very soon.

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

This was near the very end on the children's floor. They were candy-coloured. I mean, you can't tell, but they were children's parkas for five dollars.

I would see people keep going up and trying these jackets on because it was the only thing left to try on. There was such a routine to that place of, like, buying things.

This picture — I find it very introspective and sad. In the reflection of the mirror you can see the whole floor is empty and there's this weird caution tape across the mirror for some reason. But also — I felt like that place still kept its sense of humour and charm magically on its own as it was deteriorating and as it was being taken away.

The Christmas decorations are like haphazard and falling apart at that point, even though it's right after Christmas. It's so indicative of what was going on in there. It seemed like the place itself was aware of the situation and still trying to make little jokes. I know that might sound [funny].

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

I watched a lot of Hitchcock movies and film noir when I was doing this because I felt that impending doom and that sense of darkness was important to this project.

I want to remember what that felt like — to lose this place.

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

What I was trying to do, also, was get every corner of that place and include it in the narrative somehow.

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

That [sign] gave a warmth to that neighbourhood. Some people call it an eyesore or whatever, but I disagree. I thought it was very unique. I thought it was very beautiful in its own way.

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

I didn't get to know her [the employee in the photo]. She very much kept to herself. I did get to know one of the managers up on the top floors, and I would hang out with him in his office and he would give me Baci chocolates and he would tell me stories about the place. He was going through a lot, I think. I think it was pretty difficult. He'd been working there, I think, since he was a teenager. And he kind of gave me the feeling that it was OK — you come back every day if you want.

That made me feel more comfortable in the space. I guess that place had a way of making people feel like they belonged there.

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

There are people who are older who have been coming there for years and years to get groceries and things like that, and they seemed kind of at a loss as it was diminishing, as it was emptying out. Like, I come here usually for this and now I can't get this anymore?

It was such a routine and such a part of how they interact with the world. That was really hard to see.

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

Everywhere [there are signs] that say, "This way, you lucky people," which I always thought was hilarious because you're in a discount store creeping up the stairs. Honest Ed, or whoever painted that, is trying to make you feel better about the fact you're doing that, and making it a fun experience. But "you lucky people" took a more sarcastic tone as I went on in the process.

[This project] is called "You Lucky People" because this place existed. And also it's a bit tongue in cheek.

(Courtesy of Kristan Klimczak)

This [shot] was very much calculated. I wanted those cheerleaders! (laughs)

This is during the demolition. That was the final Santa Claus Parade that went by before it was completely demolished. The back [of the building] was all gone already. And that was just the façade.

It's a weird thing to have, for however many years, a parade that goes by this iconic place and then it's not going to go by there anymore. So I thought that was an important thing to get. I wanted it to be reverential and I also wanted it to be a bit strange. Like, you can see there's scaffolding.

Some people can't tell when it's from — like, was it taken when [Honest Ed's] was built? — which I find is very interesting as well.

Kristan Klimczak: You Lucky People — Sept. 12 to Oct. 12 at Weird Things, Toronto.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.