Garish but iconic, Toronto's Honest Ed's discount store closes

After 68 years in business, the Toronto discount store that boasted about price-cutting decades before Walmart is closing.

'This place allowed them to get things that they couldn't afford otherwise,' says son of immigrants

By its own admission on a sign on its pulsing, lit-up facade, "there's no place" like Honest Ed's, "anyplace." Now, after 68 years in business, the Toronto discount store that boasted about price-cutting, decades before Walmart, is closing.

The building, with its famously bright signage and aggressive marketing of rock-bottom prices, was sold by the family of former owner and theatre mogul Ed Mirvish in 2013 to developer Westbank, which plans to rebuild the area.
'It's kind of sad' to see the store go, says Dwayne Batchelor, who has been coming to Honest Ed's since he was a child. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

Today is the last chance for customers to hunt for bargains at Honest Ed's, which has long sold everything from white socks to canned tuna, and has maintained a timeless presence as Canada's biggest city has evolved in countless ways around it.

After 68 years in business, Honest Ed's closes its doors on New Year's Eve. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

"You could certainly go so far as to say that this is an iconic Canadian business," says Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet.

Like many Torontonians, Stephens' first experience in the store was as a child. "I remember it being some sort of fantastical emporium," he says.

Stephens attributes its lasting success to the Mirvish family's involvement in the business as well as their sense of community, giving out free turkeys every Christmas to lineups of customers. "They had a really clear sense of who they were," he says.

The store's prominent location at the midtown corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets also helped, he says. "You might argue that it bordered on garish, but it worked. Whether they intended it to or not, it became an iconic part of the city." 
Torontonians capture photos of Honest Ed's famously garish sign as the retailer prepares to close. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

In its final 24 hours, the store's display tables are piled high with bits of its own history, as shoppers line up to purchase — or simply photograph — a piece of Honest Ed's. A big draw was the store's hand-painted sales signs advertising "Ed's bargains" such as ladies' "fashion tops" for a reasonable $2.99.

Among the sparse bits of actual merchandise left, one woman found a coffee mug with the logo of another historic Toronto landmark, SkyDome, long since renamed Rogers Centre. The teller charged her 99 cents.
Until now, it's been unlawful to remove these bags from Honest Ed's. Today, they're for sale. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

Now sifting through old store signs with his own young family, Dwayne Batchelor recalls how the store's commitment to bargains had a real impact on his childhood.

"My parents were immigrants. They came from Jamaica, so this place allowed them to get things that they couldn't afford otherwise," he says.

"It's kind of sad to see it being torn down, to be honest with you."

To others, it was the glowing exterior of the building that has left its biggest mark.

"It's going to be kind of sad that it's going to be dark," says shopper Michael Hopper. "In a way, it's like a theatre that's dimming its lights."
The Toronto Transit Commission pays homage to Honest Ed's at its nearby Bathurst subway station with a display of the store's hand-painted signs. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)

"People are so used to it being bright, and when you're driving from afar you know you're near Honest Ed's because it brightens up the corner," says Daiva Kryzanauskas.

Having shopped at the store since she was a child in the 1960s, Kryzanauskas says she hopes the new development maintains some of the community feeling the store built in the neighbourhood.

She says, "You won't have the big store to go to, but you can hang out where the icon was."
'It's going to be kind of sad that it's going to be dark,' says shopper Michael Hopper. (Sarah Bridge/CBC)


Sarah Bridge is a CBC journalist based in Toronto. She has worked as a producer, writer and reporter at CBC bureaus across Canada since 2008.