Four City Museums to Close?

Originally published on Torontoist on November 14, 2011.

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Councillor Joe Mihevc, interpreters, and community forming a chain around Montgomery’s Inn.

“Our heritage is not for sale. Our heritage is not for closure. Our heritage is not for contracting out and it is not for dismantling piece by piece.”

With these words Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) greeted a crowd of around 200 concerned citizens outside Montgomery’s Inn in Etobicoke yesterday afternoon. The historic site is among the four City-operated museums rumoured to be on the chopping block when the city budget comes out on November 28. Besides Montgomery’s Inn, the other heritage properties that account for $1 million in cuts are Gibson House, Market Gallery, and the Zion Schoolhouse.

Mihevc organized the Sunday press conference to mobilize public support for the museums. A petition is already online, and the audience was told that they should chat about the affected sites via social media. He announced a plan to request that the city museums division conduct a review to find ways to increase revenue. Mihevc believes that both the community and council need to act as “good stewards” of the city’s historic properties, many of which survived through decades of committed volunteer engagement that could be disrespected and forgotten.

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Michael Redhill speaking at Montgomery’s Inn. 

Among the speakers was writer Michael Redhill, who compared the effect of closing museums to a dementia patient’s loss of memory. “Only a form of dementia would make the loss of the city’s history a fair value for a million dollars. Is your soul worth a mere million? Apparently Toronto’s is.” Redhill proceeded with a thoughtful critique of the Ford administration’s valuing of cost-cutting over the more enduring, if intangible, benefits of preserving heritage sites in which citizens can take pride:

The current municipal government has shown that it is willing to do anything in the name of money, no matter the cost to the city’s soul. The closure of four museums that are also heritage sites is an indication of soul sickness at the municipal level. This inn has stood on this very spot for 180 years while this city council will be gone in three. Torontonians should stand united against short-term fixes that will do permanent damage. These coming budget cuts will effectively ensure the disappearance of four important historical sites, and I think we have to recognize that. They’re not just closing the museum and getting rid of the workers; there will never be the political will to reopen these places once they are closed… Without a history to draw on, citizens will eventually think that there is no city to honour or preserve and that the needs of the present are the only ones that matter. We know what happens to people when they are convinced that their own needs are the only ones that matter. Do we want to live in a city that thinks that way?

Following a series of speakers connected to the affected museums, the audience was asked to form a human chain around Montgomery’s Inn.

Some of Mihevc’s fellow councillors went on Twitter yesterday to refute his claims regarding closures. Executive committee member Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), who proposed in September’s council budget sessions that alternative service models for city museums be examined, stated that “museums are not being sold and will hopefully never be closed. Staff can make budget cut recommendations but Council has final say.” She was backed up by Gary Crawford(Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), who noted, “We should not allow political grandstanding to take us off course.”

When we spoke to Mihevc about these comments earlier today, he noted that he had talked to Robinson and, based on that conversation and further checks with his sources, he is “absolutely right” about the proposed closures. (Robinson did not respond to our request for an interview before publication time.) He mentioned the parallel example of a council vote in September that prevented the elimination of community environment days, which the budget committee appeared to ignore when it proposed last week to reduce the number from 44 to 11. “So it seems the mayor is not paying any heed whatsoever to any of those motions,” says Mihevc.

Whether million-dollar or nickel-and-dime cuts are to be made to Toronto’s museums, intimations made over the past few months that there will be closures are stirring people to defend the value of these institutions. As Redhill mentioned, it’s difficult to imagine these sites will ever reopen if the doors are locked, at least not without extraordinary effort.

BEHIND THE SCENES

The following disclaimer was added shortly after the piece was published:

Shortly after publication, and after emerging from a meeting she’d been in, Councillor Robinson did indeed call us back. She insists that museum closures are not on the budget cut list, and feels that the combination of a front-page article in the Star on Saturday and Mihevc’s statements are needlessly stirring up fear within the heritage community. “I’m not sure why this has resurfaced because council was very clear in its direction to staff to say that this was not a direction we want to go in,” she told us. “Council is willing to look at alternate service delivery models and alternate funding models but we want to keep our museums open.” Robinson, who calls herself “a museum nut,” finds the prospect of closing any heritage site “as bad as closing a library, if not worse.”

For all the negative coverage of potential closures to city heritage museums, Councillor Robinson perceives some positives coming out of this incident. She referred to the fallout from Doug Ford’s dreams of Ferris wheels and monorails: “The silver lining on the waterfront was people started talking about it and it reinvigorated that piece of the city and got some attention focused back on it. There’s always a silver lining.”

Let’s just say that Robinson was furious when she phoned back, as I received an earful about professionalism and such. This incident illustrated the pitfalls of turning around stories in a hurry in order to be first/close to first online.

It was a learning curve.

The press conference itself was a little weird, especially the human chain element. My cynicism about events such as this grew over time (even if my sentiment was with the speakers), as did my pessimistic view of politics in general. None of the museums rumoured to be on the chopping block closed permanently.

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A New Look For the Blue Jays?

Originally published on Torontoist on September 22, 2011.

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It may be back to the future time for the Blue Jays.

Based on a leaked image picked up by the “athletics aesthetics” website Uni Watch, the 2012 Blue Jays may adopt a variation of the iconic logo the team used during its first two decades. While the version making the rounds of the internet lacks the baseball backdrop of the original version, sites like The Score are reporting that their sources indicate a ball will be part of the final design.

The Star, who asked its readers to design a new Blue Jays uniform last month, notes that a change has been in the works, but the organization has kept a tight lid on what they’ve devised. When we contacted the team’s communications department this morning, they expressed surprise about the potential new look. As an employee put it succinctly, the logo was “news to me.”

Going back to a variant on the original logo makes sense for the Blue Jays, as the 2012 season marks the team’s 35th anniversary. The design could invoke nostalgic memories among fans that the generic current logo likely never will, especially if those flashbacks involve the championship teams of the early 1990s.

Who knows, maybe Blue Jays–branded junk food will also make a comeback.

Two Minutes of Modernism

Originally published on Torontoist on September 8, 2011.

Toronto1960-11 from davide tonizzo on Vimeo.

Compared to heritage properties from the 19th and early 20th centuries, Toronto’s architecture from the 1960s and 1970s doesn’t often receive much love. While some period structures like the curving towers of City Hall have become iconic, the merits of the modernist qualities of others are fiercely debated: great representation of an era or an ugly slab of concrete?

Architects Graeme Stewart and Michael McClellanhed reflected on this ambivalence we have surrounding mid-century apartment towers and commercial skyscrapers in their introduction to the book Concrete Toronto (Toronto: E.R.A./Coach House, 2007):

This important period was a time of immense prosperity, when considerable public and private investment had a major influence on shaping Canadian cities. But more significantly, we now suffer a cultural amnesia about this period; we remain critical yet uninformed about its architecture and leave its very impact on our environment without thoughtful assessment. An appreciation for the architecture of the recent past is a contemporary culture blind spot. If the making of architecture and the making of cities are inexorably linked, it is clear that the understanding of one requires the understanding of the other. A better appreciation of our recent architectural past gives us greater continuity with the intent, knowledge and ambition of previous generations and a stronger sense of our direction as our city continues to grow.

An ode to this era’s architecture, Toronto 1960-11, was recently posted online by industrial designer/filmmaker Davide Tonizzo. Starting with a subway ride into the tubular stations of University line, Tonizzo takes viewers on a two-minute tour of structures that were primarily built during the 1960s. The film includes familiar buildings (the black-clad towers of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, the office and hotel skyscrapers south of City Hall) and those that may take a second to recognize (the glowing lights on the Arcade Building, the rippled façade of the Yorkdalebranch of the Bay).

We noticed one of our favourite small-scale examples of period architecture, the triangles pointing out from the roof of the circular section of Lord Lansdowne Public School on Spadina Crescent. The period feel is enhanced through lines running through the film that lend it the air of a 40-year old artefact. Tonizzo hopes that his movie “will inspire more conservation and appreciation of this great era” before someone decides any of the featured buildings meet the fate of the Bata headquarters in Don Mills or the curving floors of Riverdale Hospital.

Scenes of Toronto: Spring 2011

Anti-Harper Commentary

Originally published on Torontoist on April 6, 2011.

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WHERE: Bayview Avenue, north of Eglinton Avenue.
WHEN: Approximately 9 p.m. last night. (Photographed at approximately noon today.)
WHAT: One North Toronto voter’s public commentary on the federal election. The message appears to resurrect the “Anything But Conservative” campaign backed by former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams during the 2008 federal race. We suspect that the author won’t be allowed to attend any upcoming Conservative rallies.

Flowers for a King

Originally published on Torontoist on May 6, 2011.

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WHERE: West section of Mount Pleasant Cemetery
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon; photographed 7:00 p.m. Thursday
WHAT: A large bouquet of flowers beside the tombstone of William Lyon Mackenzie King. While it may simply be a springtime memorial to Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, the imagination runs wild as to other possible motives behind the placing of these flowers. In light of the poor showing by the Liberal party on Monday night, could this be a memorial for the “natural governing party” that King helped build?

One Fine Day at a Provincial Budget Lockup

Originally published on Torontoist on March 31, 2011.

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“We’re in for a long day.”

Overhearing this amid the din of a boardroom in the Macdonald Block, those of us still groggily waking up at Torontoist’s designated table in the media room wondered what we might have gotten ourselves into. Covering the provincial budget was new for us, after all. We were invited to be part of the annual tradition known as the budget lockup, in which reporters from various media outlets are sequestered for several hours to review the budget before its release to the public and to ask government figures questions about its content. No phones, no internet, no contact with the outside world for eight hours.

And so as we settled in, we wondered: would attending the lockup be an educational experience or one that felt like a prison sentence?

We arrived early. Very early. At 8 a.m., we were amongst the first of the media finding their way past OPP officers to assigned spots. We opened our registration packages, which included instructions on how to turn off wireless connections—helpfully illustrated with diagrams of the Wi-Fi signal icon (for Mac users only), in case we weren’t sure how to do that. Waiting at each of our seats was a folder containing photocopied press releases, the three-hundred-page budget document, and a thinner tome featuring the speech Finance Minister Dwight Duncan would give fellow MPPs eight hours later. Duncan’s speech read like a printout of a Twitter feed—sentence-long paragraphs, few containing more than 140 characters. The formatting of the speech was ideal for dramatic pauses during its reading—or a creative interpretation by William Shatner.

As mellow jazz played in the background, we spent the next hours digesting the budget. We quickly realized just how integral a research tool the internet has become when we were denied its riches of information whenever we wanted to look up agency names or old news items. We couldn’t phone external sources either: like the ‘net, phone lines were blocked during the blackout period. But we weren’t left completely in the dark: experts from the Ministry of Finance were on hand to answer our questions to the best of their knowledge. Still, we felt disconnected from the rest of the world; a catastrophe could occur a block away and we would have been oblivious.

Gradually the room filled up and the jazz gave way to the drone of other reporters poring over their packages. A basic spread that would cause only the most zealous watchdogs of public spending worry was served for lunch: lasagna, salad, breadsticks, cookies, soft drinks. As 1 p.m. neared, the noise level in the room decreased as the media and a growing number of government and party officials awaited the arrival of Dwight Duncan to begin the afternoon’s round of speeches and Q&A sessions.

As Duncan and opposition party leaders Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath spoke, we found ourselves lulled and latching onto the key phrases they repeated ad nauseum. Duncan linked Hudak to Mike Harris, to the point where both men’s names rolled off his tongue like one—“Harrishudak.” The speeches by Hudak and Horwath mentioned “families” every other sentence. By the time the opposition leaders brought up families for the fifty-ninth time, it was hard to keep groans internalized. It was interesting to notice the steady decrease in the number of questions each candidate was asked: Duncan filled his forty-five-minute slot; Hudak took half an hour (assisted by quasi-bouncer Norm Miller); Horwath, eleven minutes. The speakers’ backdrops also reflected their status in government: Duncan had the video screens that played budget propaganda all day; Hudak used a sizeable backboard to cover up the screens and a smaller banner on the podium; Horwath had a skinny backboard that the flags onstage cozied up to.

Some parties prepared their press material better than others. When we noticed a Conservative staffer handing out folders, we went up to grab one…only to find that we were out of luck because they printed only fifty copies for a room filled with at least two or three times as many reporters—from which we must conclude a Harrishudak government would save taxpayers money by tightly monitoring the provincial photocopiers. The NDP was better organized, as their staffer handed out single-page statements to be passed around each table.

When the blackout period ended at 4 p.m., mayhem ensued. Some news organizations headed out the door. Some picked up the phones, frantically hitting the hang-up button and waiting for the lines to be turned back on. Most waited for the restoration of internet access to their laptops, though this proved frustrating for several unlucky souls (we latched onto unused DSL lines, as wireless service was non-existent in the room).

By the time we finished filing our initial batch of reports at 5:45 p.m., the room looked as if a parade had gone by, with abandoned folders and remnants of meals left behind. A few diehard reporters were still working while the room was transformed back into an empty meeting space. In the midst of the resetting of chairs and the removal of the detritus, we reflected on the provincial budget lockup and determined that though there were dead points in the day, ten hours in the room wasn’t penal punishment—in fact, it was kind of fun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I also wrote the following summary of NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s criticisms of the budget, originally published on March 29, 2011.

Perhaps the skinny background sign should have been a tipoff. Of all the government figures who spoke about the budget in the media lockup, New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath took up the least amount of time. While Finance Minister Dwight Duncan spent forty-five minutes talking to the crowd and Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak took a half hour to offer up his response, Horwath outlined her concerns, took questions, and was off the stage in less than eleven minutes.

Like Hudak, Horwath repeatedly referred to families and their struggles to cope with financial insecurity, and how those concerns were ignored in the budget. “Today’s budget shows that Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Liberals are simply out of touch with the pressures facing Ontario families,” she noted. “The premier says he’s turning a corner, but most families feel like they’ve been left by the side of the road while he drives by.”

Many of her attacks on the government focused on corporate tax incentives that were painted as a giveaway of funds that could have helped families coping with job losses and high electric bills. For example: “New Democrats asked the McGuinty government to put people first in this budget. They failed. They could have made life more affordable for families. Instead, they put another four hundred million into a tax giveaway while families have to pay more.” She complained about fuzzy language surrounding the reduction of public-sector CEO salaries by 10%, noting that if they were truly serious about making such a change, the language would have been made in concrete terms.

Horwath also outlined a number of issues that the NDP felt Ontarians had no reason to trust the Liberals on, from the increase in funding for breast cancer examinations (when clinics specializing in this area had closed ) to opening up more post-secondary spaces (when current students were struggling to afford their studies). She feared that a review of ServiceOntario would lead to American-style privatization of public-service delivery and result in consumer fiascos like the sale of Highway 407. She demanded that all details regarding any contracting-out of services had to be fully revealed before final decisions were made.

Among the few queries directed at Horwath during a five-minute question period was one concerning the scrapping of the proposed Toronto West Courthouse at the former Westwood Theatre site in Etobicoke. She felt this was a weak way to save money given the backup of cases within the justice system. Otherwise, the brief duration of the Q&A session possibly betrayed a disinterest among the assembled reporters in hearing what the third party leader had to say. They got the skinny, then moved on to work on their reports.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Covering the 2011 provincial budget was the moment I felt like I’d settled into a full-time freelancing career. It came at a transitional time in my life: I’d recently been laid off from the desk job I’d had since moving to Toronto in 1999.

The night before my department was downsized out of existence, I was at a gathering at Massey College. I don’t recall what the occasion was – it may have part of a series of Q&As with prominent journalists. I do recall telling people that, after 11-1/2 years of being a cubicle jockey at Canadian Tire’s home office, I was thinking of moving on before year’s end. I was really enjoying my growing side freelancing gigs, and wondered if I could make a go of that, or related steady work.

The next morning, there was a buzz in the air at the office. An invite to a mysterious early afternoon meeting was sent around, which led to rumours of layoffs. I spent the rest of the morning preparing to be let go, by cleaning out my desk and saving freelance and portfolio files from my computer.

The rumours were true. The meeting was short, and I was soon on my way home in a taxi with a package outlining options for my financial future. I called my partner at the time, and we wound up analyzing the situation over dinner at the New York Cafe (a greasy spoon at Broadview and Danforth). Still a little shaken, I laughed at my thoughts of the night before.

It didn’t take long for me to realize being laid off was one of the best things that ever happened to me. The buyout package I chose, combined with 11-1/2 years of accumulated profit sharing, provided income for several years while I concentrated on building my freelance portfolio. I half-heartedly looked for permanent work, but spent more time relishing my freedom and working on my craft.

To this day, I bear no grudges toward Canadian Tire. They provided a steady living as I settled into life in Toronto, a sane working environment after surviving the black comedy of the university paper I’d previously worked for, and the means to get my true career going.

Business relationships I’d been building elsewhere grew stronger. At Torontoist, this meant taking on an increased role, which evolved into a staff writing position with a set quota of pieces per month. Financially it was next to useless, but my work on “Historicist” and other posts led to much more lucrative opportunities.

This also meant the room to experiment with the types of pieces I wrote – Hamutal Dotan deserves many thanks for pushing me into new areas during her editorial tenure. Cover a provincial budget lockup? Sure, why not? At worst, I’d write about the experience. It would be the first of many interesting places I’d find myself over the next few years I doubt I would have imagined sitting at my desk staring out over Yonge Street while trying to get the marketing department to hand in their documents correctly.

Preserving Parkdale

Originally published on Torontoist on April 28, 2011.

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It’s a Tuesday night in a Parkdale church basement. Sixteen people are sitting in a circle. An ice-breaking exercise reveals that most of those attending are in their 20s, purchase their food within a mile of home or work, and have never undertaken the activity they will learn about this night. In the kitchen behind them, prep work for the evening’s task is well underway. Apples, spices, and other ingredients for fruit butter and sauce sit on a table.

Welcome to a workshop on making preserves.

Groups like the West End Food Co-op are rekindling interest in an art that we usually associate with our parents or grandparents. “Canning and preserving give individuals tools to control and know more about what they are eating, choose whole healthy foods, purchase foods in their raw and/or whole (often more affordable) form, and contribute to people learning how to cook for themselves,” says WEFC operations co-ordinator Ayal Dinner. “It is also a perfect group or community activity—contributing to breaking down social isolation and building links for people with others in their community.” The workshop we observed last week at Parkdale Neighbourhood Church is one of a series WEFC plans to run this year, with sessions targeted to the public, partner organizations, and low-income local residents.

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Last year, WEFC and the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre collaborated on a community cannery in Parkdale. More than 100 people participated in the pilot project, which created more than jars of food. “We found that participants really enjoyed the time working in the kitchen together and there were definitely bonds made,” notes Dinner. Based on what they learned from last year’s program, WEFC has assembled a 120-page community canning toolkit for groups interested in producing their own preserves. The toolkit (available upon request from WEFC) provides stories about canning projects across North America and outlines how to budget, fundraise, run workshops, and source food for local canning operations. While most inquiries about the toolkit have come from community groups and health agencies across Canada, WEFC has heard from Australia and an “eco village” in Ireland.

In the kitchen, the participants gather around the ingredient table. Some don aprons as they prepare to slice apples provided by Two Century Farm, one of the regional growers from which WEFC has arranged to receive surplus product. Besides producers, WEFC has worked with groups like Not Far From the Tree to harvest fruit. Says Dinner: “For organizations working on issues related to food security, preserving, including canning, is a great tool for using resources that would otherwise go to waste, and providing another way to get good food to people in this community.”

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The cut apples are crushed in a press, then mixed with other ingredients in large pots on the stove. When the first batch of apple butter is ready, it goes into jars that were partially sterilized in the oven. Tips are given on how to avoid the risk of nasty surprises, such as botulism, from improper preparation. (Advice: stick to recipes and techniques provided by cookbooks and canning equipment manufacturers like Bernardin.) The smell of the fresh spread is homey, a scent that one hopes will be present when WEFC opens its community food store, which is being planned for east Parkdale later this year (they are currently scouting a location near Queen and Dufferin streets). Besides selling canned items, the store will have a kitchen for members and community groups to make their own preserves. Dinner hopes the store will solve the logistical problems WEFC has had with growers: “Transportation and storage are barriers, and once we have an operating store and kitchen it will be more worthwhile for producers to deliver to us. We will have the space and resources to increase how much we can purchase, what we can get, and who we can work with.”

The Life and Death of the World’s Biggest Bookstore

One Big Bookstore

Originally published on Torontoist on November 23, 2010.

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Toronto Sun, November 4, 1980.

“A short, brassy dropout.”

“A crass money-maker.”

“Schlockmeister.”

By November 1980, Jack Cole had gotten used to hearing every imaginable criticism from the literary community regarding his merchandising techniques during his five decades in the book business. Sure, his Coles book stores may have employed too garish a colour scheme. Perhaps a few branches were staffed by clerks who knew less about books than their clientele. Possibly Pierre Berton had a point when he called Cole “a sharp merchandiser whose only interest is to make the largest profit possible for himself.” Despite the criticism, Cole endured with supermarket-inspired tactics like selling books for twenty-nine cents a pound. His efforts to sell printed matter to a broad audience led his company to grow from a remainder shop on Bloor Street—opened with his brother while Cole was still in his teens—to a chain consisting of over two hundred branches across North America. Cole stayed on after selling the company to Southam Press in 1976, and was the main corporate figure in the spotlight when Coles decided to launch what he hoped would become the CN Tower of local bookstores.

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Toronto Sun, November 4, 1980.

Inhabiting the former home of the Olympia bowling alley on Edward Street (the last set of lanes downtown until The Ballroom opens next month), Cole proceeded to create a seventy-thousand-square-foot bookstore which contained seventeen miles of shelving to house a million books divided among one hundred thousand titles. The store would be bathed in bright colours and contain enough lighting that, Cole hoped, it would never be necessary to turn on the heat (a situation already in effect at the Yonge and Charles Coles). An electronic map was installed, inspired by one Cole had seen in the Paris Métro, employing an array of lights to point customers toward the section they were looking for. Rather than label the store as just another Coles, the company bestowed upon it a modest name: World’s Biggest Bookstore. Whether it really was that was debated in various ways—even Cole admitted it probably wasn’t the record setter, but he figured it was at least in the top five in the world in terms of selection.

When the doors opened on November 5, 1980, the first thousand customers were given silver dollars courtesy of Hurtig Publishers. Four days of festivities followed, which included numerous giveaways and entertainment ranging from clowns to a jazz band. Globe and Mail writer William French suspected that “during lulls in the din, the ghostly echo of crashing 10-pins and the muted curses of pool hustlers could distinctly be heard as the building’s previous tenants protested the invasion of culture.” French also noted that “outside, the store is trendily done in the Toronto architecture style known as Honest Ed’s; inside, the influence is more Dominion store,” and that the lighting was bright enough “to permit a surgeon to perform a cornea transplant right in the aisle, if he weren’t too distracted by the rippling red neon and flashing white bulbs that frame some of the display stands.” Despite his reservations, which included a sense that book lovers who preferred quieter, more atmospheric independent stores would feel that World’s Biggest lacked “a certain element of breeding and class,” French was impressed with the range of titles and the organization of the store.

As customers poured into World’s Biggest Bookstore on opening day, nearby Coles locations resembled ghost towns. While lunchtime saw lineups ten deep at the half-dozen cash registers at the new store, The Star found just four customers at the branch on the southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas. The staff didn’t mind the quiet—as the assistant manager admitted, “It certainly gives us a chance to collect our wits.” Coles management planned to convert Yonge-Dundas into a specialty shop for business, technical, and academic books, while a branch in the Eaton Centre would continue to serve shoppers who never left the shopping centre.

When asked, shortly before World’s Biggest opened, about the future of bookselling, Cole sounded optimistic. He bragged that his low-cost, highly commercialized approach to selling had helped publishers and played a part in creating an audience that supported a far larger number of independents than when he entered the business in the 1930s. Predictions during the 1950s that television would kill books never came to pass. Visions of a “wired city” world where computers ruled didn’t faze him: “Books will provide the basis of information to be programmed.”

Additional material from the October 1980 issue of Quill and Quire and the following newspapers: the November 11, 1980 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the October 19, 1980 and November 6, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

World’s Biggest Bookstore closed in March 2014. At the time, plans were announced for a “restaurant row” to replace it…

Dining Out at 20 Edward Street

Originally published on Torontoist on February 12, 2014.

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When the closing of the World’s Biggest Bookstore was announced last year, many people grumbled that the site would follow the stereotypical Toronto redevelopment pattern and become a condo tower. Its prime location certainly left little chance the building would revert to its original use as a bowling alley. But based on renderings released yesterday, future customers of 20 Edward Street might continue to browse literature there, in the form of restaurant menus.

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Paracom Realty Corporation, the leasing agent for new site owner Lifetime Developments, is pitching a “restaurant row” concept to potential tenants. The building, which has housed World’s Biggest Bookstore since November 1980, will be demolished and replaced by four restaurants. Paracom intends to fill the spaces with eateries fitting the neighbourhood’s upward shift. “We’re not thinking $100 dinners,” Paracom president Bernard Feinstein told the Star, “but something that is better than a fast-food chain.” Feinstein’s idea of “something” appears to be less Big Slice and McDonald’s, more upscale casual-dining chains like The Keg.

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Renderings by Turner Fleischer Architects show the current solid red-and-white frontage replaced with large glass windows and second-storey patios. It’s an inviting look for the target audiences of Audi owners, local office workers, pre-show diners, shoppers, and tourists. Promotional materials play up the site’s proximity to transit and nearby attractions like the Eaton Centre and Massey Hall.

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Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre–Rosedale) feels the proposal fits into a long-term strategy of revamping Yonge Street from Yorkville to the waterfront, and transforming it into “the most dynamic shopping and entertainment cultural corridor in the city.” Though cautious about whether Edward Street will receive a restaurant row or see other retail fill the site, Wong-Tam welcomes the concept. She views this proposal and the announcements regarding high-end retailers Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue as signs of a prosperous city core. “This is a sign of success,” she said in a phone interview yesterday. “Bloor-Yorkville is so successful that we’re starting to see some of that success come down to Yonge Street. We can start to see a second cluster of high-quality retailers come out. That’s how international downtowns compete, whether it’s New York City or Chicago. We don’t compete based on BIA boundaries—we compete based on the fact that we have the best quality downtown neighbourhood.”

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The promoters of 20 Edward Street aim to have the tenants of their “culinary mecca” in place for the 2015 edition of TIFF. The World’s Biggest Bookstore will remain in business until March 23.

 

Au Revoir, World’s Biggest Bookstore Building

When I wrote the piece, anyone I talked to seemed skeptical this plan would ever materialize. From the moment the bookstore’s closure was announced, people made the natural-for-Toronto assumption that it would be replaced by a condo tower. Those suspicions were well-founded–while, as of late 2017, a website still exists for 20 Edward Street, its story as originally envisioned is now consigned to a future volume of Unbuilt Toronto. 

Instead, the site is slated to become Panda Condominiums. In a nod to the past, amenities will include a collection of Canadian literature curated by Type Books.

I worked across the street from the site while demolition occurred. I wrote a farewell post on my blog on December 5, 2014.

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It’s not so much that the former World’s Biggest Bookstore is being knocked down that bugs me. Nor that the site may become a parking lot (Toronto’s favourite temporary solution to demolitions during the 1960s/70s) while the property’s owner abandons plans for a “restaurant row” in favour of a rezoning application.

No, it’s the fact that Indigo didn’t remove the store’s shelving before the wrecking ball made its first punch.

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Seeing the shelves await their death in a partly-demolished structure was heartbreaking, both for what was once lined on them, and how they epitomized some of our society’s wasteful tendencies. Maybe it wasn’t the most attractive shelving out there. But if these racks were destined to be destroyed in this fashion, couldn’t they have been donated to charities or organizations which could have utilized or readapted them? Heck, Indigo brass could have hired an artist to reimagine them as funky sculptures (with touch-ups fueled by the artist’s imagination) to place in their “cultural department stores.”

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Quill and Quire published a profile of Coles founder Jack Cole on the cusp of the World Biggest Bookstore’s opening in 1980. Here’s what writer James Lorimer had to say about the new megastore and how it fit into Cole’s modus operandi:

The World’s Biggest Bookstore is the crowning project in the career of a book merchandiser who still loves his business. Jack Cole has no need to do something big and new; his company has a secure segment of the market, ownership has passed to Southam with Jack Cole coming out $10 million richer and U.S. expansion offers the chain lots of room for growth. The Biggest Bookstore, 70,000 square feet on two floors, is an effort to take book merchandising one step further. It’s aimed exactly at the same customers who patronize Coles: not the specialist buyer, but the man on the street who wouldn’t feel comfortable buying a book unless it was from Jack Cole.There’s nothing that Canadian books need more than a marketing strategy that attracts the broad public to the wide range of books normally found only in specialized independent bookstores. To do it will take a combination of showmanship, razzmatazz and hype; the skills that Jack Cole and his fellow merchandizers have perfected over the last four decades. There’s no guarantee, of course, that Cole will succeed; he’s had his failures as well as his successes. The worst scenario would be that the Biggest Bookstore would undermine all the specialist independents that have slowly grown up in the Toronto market. The best scenario is that the Biggest Bookstore will find a whole wide range of new customers  for books. If anyone in Canada can do that, it’s Jack Cole. If the Biggest Bookstore is a success, he will have done what even he probably have thought impossible in 1940: open up all the books from those elitist writers and snobby publishers to a mass audience, making people feel comfortable about buying and reading those books. If the idea works, and I think it will, it is because Jack Cole has spent 40 years preparing himself—and his public—for this move.

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Not everyone was thrilled with the store’s opening. Take this letter from Willowdale resident Karl T. Schatzy, published by the Globe and Mail in response to an article on the WBB by William French.

William French’s story on the opening of Jack Cole’s newest merchandising emporium (World’s Biggest Bookstore a Tale of Modern Retailing – Nov. 11) was an invitation to reading between the lines. There is a sense of foreboding and apprehension which I cannot help but share. Merchandisers such as Mr. Cole pander to the mood of our time. That this mood is receptive to pandering is a sad reflection on this society. The discerning reader will not be attracted by the blatant carnival atmosphere and the way books are displayed and peddled as so many tubes of toothpaste or packages of underwear. True, Coles’ books have been in evidence for a long time in Toronto and have contributed to a better awareness of the public to literature (of a sort). It is good that more people read more books, but whether this kind of commercialism will lead to the acceptance of the sensational rather than the literary remains to be seen. Mr. French’s point with regard to Britnell’s bookstore and other independents is well taken. A visit to Britnell’s is a step into another world where a breath of fresh air (metaphorically speaking) and quiet musings make browsing there such a pleasant experience.

I wonder what Mr. Schatzy, if still alive, would make of the declining presence of books in present-day Indigo stores, and whether he’d grouse about it over a drink at the Starbucks which replaced Britnell’s at Yonge and Bloor.

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I loved going to WBB on childhood visits to Toronto. My father seemed to trust me enough to stay put either in the children’s section or the film section while he roamed the store for bargains. I was a happy camper in any suburban mall bookstore on either side of the border, so having so many books to flip through was like going to a playground. I could have spent an entire day there, except there were other places for Dad and I to go in the neighbourhood (looking at you, A&A and Sam the Record Man).

There are two books which stand out as ones I always flipped through whenever I was at WBB:

  • The Muppet Show Book: an compilation of skits from the first two seasons, which used illustrations instead of still photos. Never owned a copy of it, but I keep an eye out in case it ever pops up used—call it one of my “thrill of the hunt” holy grails. Among the bits included: Kermit’s interview with the Koozebanian Phoob. (UPDATE: My sister gave me a copy that Christmas).
  • Son of the Golden Turkey Awards: along with its predecessor, a building block of my love of bad movies. Still have the copy Dad bought for me at WBB. Read it endlessly to him while he clipped his newspapers. A volume I have mixed feelings about now—some of the movies poked at in the book aren’t horrendous, and there’s the matter of co-author Michael Medved’s subsequent career as a conservative commentator. With years of wisdom, I see Stephen King’s point (via Danse Macabre) that some honorees were more sad than laughable.

As an adult, WBB provided a good place to kill time while downtown, or recharge my brain after a weary day or long walk. As its siblings Chapters and (eventually) Indigo aimed for posher surroundings, the Spartan look WBB poked fun at in its advertising lent an atmosphere which was charming for its lack of pretension. In its later years, parts of the second floor felt like the dumping ground for failed home décor items and bizarre things a bookstore shouldn’t carry (Suzanne Somers food products, anyone?). Its demise was inevitable given the post-Amazon state of book retailing and its prime location amid the ongoing transformation of Yonge and Dundas.

At least, if I’m ever in a book-browsing mood on Edward Street, there’s still the BMV.

Additional material from the November 18, 1980 edition of the Globe and Mail and the October 1980 edition of Quill and Quire.