'We made it': Elgin Street merchants celebrate reopening
Some moved on while others moved in during year-long shutdown
At Perfect Books, manager Michael Varty is eager to turn the page on what's been an anxious chapter for the merchants of Elgin Street.
Monday morning marks the return of two-way traffic, and the end of the most disruptive phase of a $40-million revitalization project that turned the normally bustling retail and restaurant street into a dusty, desolate construction zone.
'There were times when it was a labyrinth. But you know, we got through it.- Michael Varty, Perfect Books
"We're happy to see the end of it. Happy to see all the fences down and the wide-open sidewalks and the flow of traffic again," Varty said. "There were times when it was a labyrinth. But you know, we got through it."
For more than a year, Elgin between Catherine Street and Laurier Avenue has been mostly off-limits to vehicles and bikes. Shoppers who braved the construction were forced to navigate narrow sidewalks and cross makeshift bridges to enter businesses like Perfect Books.
Now, the merchants and their customers can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
"It's been difficult for people to come to us," said Jared Shecter, a barista at Happy Goat Coffee.
He credits the loyal customers who kept finding a way to get to the café.
"There [were] people parking on the sidewalk, people parking in our employee parking in the back, so it's just been a real mess. It has been hard," Shecter said. "[But] we made it. We're done."
Well, not quite. Early in the new year, the work crews will return to connect businesses to the new underground utilities and remove hydro poles along the west side of Elgin. In the spring, there will be more closures to lay new asphalt, and to finish landscaping.
"It's just a question of how long it's going to go on and into 2020," said Gary McMillen of The Leading Note, a music store above The Manx Pub.
Local businesses banded together to form I Dig Elgin, a marketing campaign to encourage people to keep coming during the construction. Campaign co-chair Christa Blaszczyk, owner of Elgin Street shops Boogie and Birdie, and The Gifted Type, like to think their efforts helped.
"It's always hard to quantify what could have happened if you hadn't done something. Whether restaurants or shops went down 10 per cent or 15 or [whatever] could have happened otherwise," she said.
Some doors closed, others opened
Not every business survived to see the end of the construction. Coffee shop Chez Moe, a Brown's Cleaners, Tokyo Shop, Boko Bakery, a pawnbroker and Pure Gelato all closed during the roadwork, as did Hooley's Bar, though it re-branded and reopened as Bonnie and Clyde.
Other businesses moved in during the street closure.
Meow Tea moved into Chez Moe's space. A head shop called Head HQ moved into the former Tokyo Shop. The Boko location has become Uncle Tetsu Japanese Cheesecake. One storefront sign says German Döner Kebab is "coming soon."
Ironically, the street closure and retail vacancies have created an opportunity: landlords stuck with vacancies were offering deals, according to Ryan Zhu of Meow Tea.
Many merchants had to make difficult decisions to stay afloat. Some reduced their hours and cut back on part-time shifts.
It was a similar story at Parker Clean dry cleaners, said Paul McCormick, who let one employee go soon after the street closed.
"I wasn't busy enough to have her here. There were times where she'd be here an hour, or an hour and a half, for nobody."
Robin Coull, co-owner of Pot and Pantry and co-chair of I Dig Elgin, put in a lot of solo hours at her store.
"It was a year where I didn't grow my staff or have those extra bodies in the store," she said.
A few doors down at Boogie and Birdie, Blaszczyk said she had to exercise extra caution when it came to stocking her store, knowing fewer customers would be dropping by.
"Maybe we didn't take a risk on something we weren't sure of this year."
This, too, shall pass
But the surviving merchants are optimistic the hardest times are behind them.
Minoo Banaei of Bel Fiore put money aside before the shutdown to tide her over. She also closed her doors in August, and took her first vacation in more than a decade.
She credits locals with keeping things afloat.
"Thanks from bottom of my heart to the people who are living around here. Their support was amazing," she said.
Zhimin Yang of Brown Loaf Bakery also expressed her gratitude to loyal local customers.
"Everybody [came] to support us during the construction period, and we are thankful."
At Parker Clean, Paul McCormick taped a thank-you note to his front door, a message of gratitude to those who kept bringing him their dry cleaning despite — or perhaps because of — the dust, dirt and mud outside.
"It might be a slow transition to get people back," said Robin Coull of Pot and Pantry. "But hopefully everyone's really interested in seeing what Elgin looks like. Hopefully they'll just return to their regular route."