The Toronto block that no longer exists: former Mirvish Village business owners on why it was so special
“It was a gift from Ed Mirvish. And it allowed people to do creative things."
There's No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, a CBC Docs POV film, chronicles the sale, demolition, and redevelopment of a Toronto block housing the iconic Honest Ed's discount store and Mirvish Village, the beloved neighbourhood surrounding it.
The story goes that in the early '60s, Ed Mirvish bought all the houses surrounding his flashy bargain house with the intention of tearing them down to build a parking lot in response to the complaints he was receiving about all the traffic around his store. After he'd managed to purchase virtually all the buildings on the block, the city told him he wasn't permitted to demolish them and should instead preserve the heritage buildings he now owned.
Anne Mirvish, a sculptor, suggested to her husband that he create an artist's enclave in the Victorian homes instead. For many years, the cheap rents and unique, fairytale charm of the neighbourhood attracted an eclectic group of artists, store and restaurant owners and their devoted patrons.
Here are some of the businesses that used to make this block magical.
Southern Accent, New Orleans-inspired Cajun, Creole and Soul restaurant
Years on Markham: 1984 - 2016
Where they are now: They had moved to 839 College but closed permanently in May 2020 because of the pandemic
Owner Frances Wood: "When I first met Ed Mirvish I think the main thing I found with him was he shook your hand. So if you were asking him to do something or make an improvement, his word was his handshake. Nowadays you have to sign off on everything but with Ed no, it was straight: ok I'll do that, shake your hand, it was done.
I really liked the way he approached business and he was always giving advice. Every morning he'd walk the street back and forth, check on things. He would ask me if I had any concerns about the street, that kind of thing, and it was a family kind of atmosphere."
The Beguiling, Comic book and graphic novel store
Years on Markham: 1992 - 2016
Where they are now: 319 College St.
Owner Peter Birkemoe: "The Beguiling is a hub for cartooning, almost anybody who is interested in comics is going to stop through if they find themselves anywhere near Toronto. Big names would include: Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman. All the great Canadian cartoonists — Seth, Chester Brown, Joe Matt — were all regular customers here and helped put the store on the map.
Once you had a critical mass of artistically-minded creative type businesses all together, it made it very easy for a business that perhaps could not afford rent on Bloor Street and perhaps could not draw enough of an audience to create a shopping public just by themselves. By having those all together in one place, it really did act as an incubator that I think helped with the success of many of the businesses that have been here over the years."
Gigi's House Of Frills, Vintage lingerie boutique
Years on Markham: 2015 - 2016
Where they are now: 731 Dovercourt Rd.
Owner Julia Castorina: "It's been way more magical than I ever expected. I think part of it is we're all in these little homes across from each other. Like you kind of feel like you're on a TV show!
I think of people who have been here 30, 40 years and it's half their lives or more for some people, and it's heartbreaking. I've just opened my store, but at the same time I feel like I've always been here. I feel so at home here and so comfortable here and so happy here that it feels like this is what I've always been doing.
It was a gift from Ed Mirvish, and it was a beautiful gift. And what it allowed was for people to do creative things that they would not have been able to otherwise."
ARTZONE, Stained glass art
Years on Markham: 1982 - 2016
Where they are now: working out of their homes
Owners Jane and Kathryn Irwin : "A lot of artists have to move around as their space gets gentrified and they have to move on to other cheaper spaces. We haven't had to do that up until now, so that's been a really great benefit for us. Ed's original idea was that if you walked into the door of one of these stores, you were meeting the person that actually made the things that you saw for sale in that space.
[There were a lot of] established artists who have never really been able to hit the big time, but they're still legitimate artists and they try to lead a life that's meaningful. They make work that is important and they're not going to be able to afford to continue to live downtown. I don't know where they're going to go."
A Different Booklist, Bookstore and cultural centre
Years in old location in Mirvish Village: 1995 - 2016
Where they are now: across the street temporarily at 779 Bathurst Street, waiting to move back into Mirvish Village when the new development is done
Owner Itah Sadu: "I once went to a party and someone said to me 'do you know what is the thing that is most said at A Different Booklist in its space at 746 Bathurst Street?' And I go, 'what is that?' 'Excuse me, I need to get by. Excuse me, excuse me.' Because it was so tiny! But we called it a 'love up' space.
"I remember that night when Black Lives Matter came to speak and to let the community know who they were and what they were about, what their platform and their mission was. I remember we could not even walk in the space, people were all over! All over the backyard, all over the place. But they chose our space at that point in history because they felt it was a safe space to let the world know what was happening."
Beit Zatoun, Palestinian community and cultural centre
Years on Markham: 2010 - 2016
Where they are now: online
Owner Robert Massoud: "I think The Mirvishes really did a great service to the city in the 60's. I think that really helped make Toronto, in the early days, into a cosmopolitan kind of environment.
What I like to say is 'character follows cheap.' So if you have a cheaper rent, you will attract a more bohemian kind of person or interest that will add character to the street. And in a gentrified mode, which Toronto seems to be going towards almost globally, you're going to lose that character. The only characteristic is going to be ability to pay instead of, what are you contributing to the community? That's to the poverty of the city.
In the seven years that we have been here, we've had over a thousand events from all communities of Toronto, whether Asian, Latin American, Caribbean, African, Middle East, Europe as well, and certainly our First Nations people in Turtle Island. And what brings us together, what assembles us, is struggles for liberation, social justice. The focus was always on creating mutual awareness and building solidarity, our roots are in Palestine, but the tree is global justice. And I feel pretty grateful and satisfied that we fulfilled our original vision and mandate to be that space that welcomed people."
Butler's Pantry, Eclectic restaurant
Years on Markham: 1999 - 2016
Where they are now: This location and another location Azad had on Roncesvalles are both permanently closed
Owner Atique Azad: "The best part was the community of people that have inhabited this street. It's been like a family almost. So that's a nice feeling. In your home, if you run out of sugar, you can go to your neighbour's house to borrow a cup of sugar. It was very much like that. We had a camaraderie with each other.
We lose community that had built up over time. It's not something you can literally pull out of a box and go here you go, this is what we have now. So in the future, that's something that will need to be built. And it will take time. There are a lot of good people in Toronto — I have faith they are going to make something out of this place."
The Green Iguana Glassworks, Custom framing and glass objects
Years on Markham: 1978 - 2016
Where they are now: 948 Bloor St. W.
Owner Darrell Dorsk: "I hope they do a good job [with the new development]. They are seeking input from the community, but for everyone who is renting property, they have to get out.
We're just going to have to wait and see what comes out of it. I'm glad it's not going to be abandoned and deteriorate. I'll miss Honest Ed's, I'll miss coming to Markham Street, but I'm glad I was around. There is a beginning, a middle and an end, right? It's been a great story."