The Mark of Edward VIII

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 3, 2008.

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The southwest corner of Yonge Street and Montgomery Avenue is rich with history. Montgomery’s Tavern, the spot where William Lyon Mackenzie and his followers launched the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, is honoured with a plaque. Oulcott’s Hotel served customers and community groups in the late 19th century. The current occupant, Postal Station K, threw open its doors a century after Mackenzie’s march under a royal insignia that would prove unique to the city’s government buildings.

Welcome to one of the few buildings in the British Empire to bear the mark of the brief reign of King Edward VIII (1894-1972). His 11-month reign ended in December 1936 when he resigned from the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, “the woman I love.” Outrage over the abdication crisis led to a proposal to replace the insignia on Station K with that of Edward’s successor George VI, which never came to pass. Edward soon assumed the title of the Duke of Windsor, was suspected of pro-Nazi leanings, briefly served as governor of the Bahamas, and spent his remaining days in retirement in France.

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Edward had better press during his quarter-century as Prince of Wales, to the extent that his two visits to Toronto resulted in a pair of local landmarks being named in his honour.

His first tour began on August 25, 1919 with a quick visit to Queen’s Park, followed by the formal opening of that year’s Canadian National Exhibition. The editors of The Globe welcomed the prince in that day’s edition:

Prince Edward is doubly welcome to a Dominion which has cast off the fetters of colonialism and boasts of a freedom as wide as that exercised by a sovereign nation. He is welcome as the heir to a Throne to which we yield voluntary allegiance because it is based on the will of the people, and is a link which binds us to other Dominions and the Mother Country in a common purchase and destiny. We welcome him also because he is a Prince worthy of the lofty station and solemn responsibilities which he will inherit…all reports agree that he is a clean, wholesome youth with courage, industry and a high sense of duty. Elastic spirits and a winning manner add to his personal attractiveness. May he find much in Canada to interest and entertain him as a reward for the ceremonial fatigue inseparable from his tour.

Mobbed by crowds in his public appearances, much of Edward’s trip was spent visiting wounded World War I veterans (those who “did the dirty work in war,” screamed a Globe headline). On August 27, he was driven around the city in Sir John Craig Eaton’s Rolls Royce to mingle with Torontonians, which led The Globe to proclaim that “he must have felt at home here…it was no mere mechanical performance with him; there was nothing stiff or formal about it. He stood up on the seat of his motor car and waved his hat with the abandon of a schoolboy in acknowledgement of the cheers of the citizens.”

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Traffic on Bloor Viaduct opening, October 18, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Item 0872.

The route included a trek over the bridge connecting Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue, open to vehicular traffic for less than a year. The week after Edward’s visit, the span was officially proclaimed the Prince Edward Viaduct.

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Edward, Prince of Wales, at the Canadian National Exhibition, 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8140.

Edward returned to Toronto eight years later, this time with his brother George (later the Duke of Kent). Despite morning rain, Edward cut the ribbon for the new eastern entrance to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds on August 30, 1927, which was named the Princes’ Gates in honour of the visitors. Memories of the war lingered on, as over 13,000 veterans marched behind the royal motorcade.

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Material excerpted from the August 25, 1919 and August 28, 1919 editions of The Globe. Photos of Postal Station K and Princes’ Gates by Jamie Bradburn.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Four years after this story was published, I covered a protest regarding plans to turn the Postal Station K site into a condo. Originally posted on Torontoist on July 31, 2012, here’s “Rebelling Over Postal Station K”

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One hundred and seventy-five years after William Lyon Mackenzie assembled his rebels at Montgomery’s Tavern, another group of angry citizens seems ready to rise up against the government on the same site, or at least let a crown corporation know they are unhappy about the possible fallout from its sale—especially if that fallout proves to involve a high-rise condo, as at least one commercial realtor has predicted.

Monday night, a crowd cried things like, “No more condos!” and, “Our history is not for sale!” at a rally in front of Postal Station K, which is what stands on the Montgomery’s Tavern site today. The protest was organized by Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle. As a modest crowd listened to speeches about the history of the site and its value to the community, a steady stream of passers-by lined up to sign a petition to save the building.

“There’s really not much going on right now,” noted Canada Post spokesperson John Caines in a phone interview yesterday. An RFP (request for proposals) was made in April for Postal Station K, along with Canada Post properties at 50 Charles Street East and 1780 Avenue Road. “We’re considering selling them, but only if the purchaser provides a suitable replacement property or properties in return. We’re not looking to leave the area but upgrade and modernize our network.”

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Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle (centre) leads rally in cry of “No More Condos!”

While the property is a national historic site, because of its role in the rebellion of 1837, Postal Station K is listed but not historically designated by the City of Toronto, affording it few protections under the law. Designed in art-deco style by Murray Brown, whose other works include the nearby Belsize Theatre (now the Regent) on Mount Pleasant Road and the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, Postal Station K is one of the few buildings in the British Empire to bear the insignia of King Edward VIII. Built in 1936, it replaced a structure originally known as Oulcott’s Tavern, which had been used as a post office from 1912 onward. Besides sorting neighbourhood mail, the building has also, at times, provided space for businesses and a halfway house.

Colle first heard rumblings about a potential sale while on a Heritage Toronto walk through the neighbourhood several weeks ago. He decided to mobilize the community before any clashes with developers could occur. “It’s a great place to take a stand,” Colle noted in a phone interview, referring to the property’s symbolic value. During the fight against amalgamation in 1997, Colle participated in a march that stopped at the site. He believes Canada Post is “totally remote from the public” and he will do his “darndest to make sure they realize that the taxpayers of Toronto paid for that building and they can’t just sell it off willy-nilly without listening to us.” Beyond the building, Colle stressed the property’s role as a public gathering place, especially for wheelchair users who find its lack of barriers ideal for relaxing and meeting others.

Anti-high rise sentiments in the neighbourhood should not be discounted, especially when a high number of condos are underway or being proposed. Though community efforts failed to stop the Minto towers south of Eglinton Avenue, anger at former city councillor Anne Johnston’s role in brokering the deal that allowed the project to proceed led to her defeat in Ward 16 by Karen Stintz in 2004. Though Stintz was unable to attend the rally because she was on vacation, neighbouring councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) was on hand to lend his support.

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If a condo doesn’t become part of the site’s future, what could the building be used for? Colle said that the Anne Johnston Health Centre, located across the street, had expressed interest in additional space for their programs. Eglinton Park Residents’ Association chair Tom Cohen imagined a commercial tavern paired with a museum celebrating the rebellion of 1837. Whatever happens, it’s likely that a creative solution that utilizes most or all of Postal Station K (which seems to be a condition of any sale) will be better received than a high-rise that does little to acknowledge the site’s history. Otherwise, any march down Yonge Street to mark the anniversary of Mackenzie’s rebellion this December might not be a mere re-enactment.

UPDATE

The front and forecourt of Postal Station K was integrated into the base of the Montgomery Square retail/condo project. The surrounding neighbourhood is in the midst of a condo tower boom, building up density as Yonge and Eglinton prepares to grow into even more of a transit hub with the construction of the Crosstown LRT.

Happy 50th Birthday, North York!

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 12, 2012.

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Cover of The Mirror Special Jubilee Edition, June 1972. All images in this article are taken from this publication.

The summer of 1972 was a momentous one for the Borough of North York. The growing suburban municipality celebrated its 50th anniversary that year with a series of special events throughout that spring and summer. Among the souvenirs was a special edition of the Mirror newspaper which traced North York’s past, present, and future.

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Photo: Doug Hyatt.

The Borough of North York Council enjoy a ride at Black Creek Pioneer Village after rehearsing a planned re-enactment of the first council meeting in 1922 (the councillor in the white coat and red scarf might be Mel Lastman, while Paul Godfrey may be third from left in the front row). North York was born out of a farmers’ revolt over their lack or representation on York Township council. During the early 20th century councillors were voted on by the entire township, which increasingly meant all of the representatives came from the southern, urban end of York Township. A petition was launched to separate the rural northern area, which was taken door-to-door by Roy Risebrough in his 1917 Model T. The petition succeeded: a bill establishing the Township of North York was passed by the Ontario legislature on June 13, 1922.

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Likely as a reward for his work in establishing the Township of North York, Roy Risebrough was named its first police constable. When he noted that he knew nothing about police enforcement, officials told him “you’ll learn soon.” In his 34 years as North York’s chief constable he never carried a gun and knew most of the township’s early citizens by name. Outside of occasional gas station robberies (which were mostly committed by Torontonians), crimes tended to be minor. “Ninety percent of the cases were settled out of court,” he told the Mirror.” I used to go round to the house and talk to the people. It was different in those days. Instead of taking them to court, you gave them a tongue-lashing. And in a month, they were good friends again.” In many ways, Risebrough was the stereotypical small town law enforcer, to the extent that at least one long-time resident believed he never wore a uniform so that he could slip away for a few hours to fish.

Make that almost never wore a uniform. When George Mitchell campaigned for reeve in 1941, he promised to make Risebrough wear official clothing. After his election, Mitchell took Risebrough to Tip Top Tailors to be measured. When the uniform was ready, Mitchell had Risebrough put it on before both men made an evening drive from Willowdale to Hogg’s Hollow. Mitchell said “Now I’ve fulfilled my campaign promise, Roy. You can do what you damned well like.” Risebrough never wore the full uniform again.

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North York’s planning department prepared a series of maps tracing the municipality’s growth. The following description was provided for the 1922 map (population: 6,000):

North York’s population in 1922 was scattered in small farm-based communities centring along Yonge. It continued the development spine of the city of Toronto. Various villages thrived along the Yonge axis—York Mills, Lansing, Willowdale and Newtonbrook. Many of the borough’s historic sites are located in the bygone villages—Gibson House, C.W. Jeffery’s home, the Jolly Miller Tavern, and the Hogg store, Dempsey Brothers’ store, York Cottage and the Joshua Cummer house. A population nucleus existed in a strip development at Humber Summit on Islington, on the road leading to Woodbridge. A small development existed at North West, at Wilson and Weston Rd.

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By 1945, the population had spread from both sides of Yonge. Most of the growth was in the area south of Wilson, between Yonge and Bathurst. By this time, Lawrence Park, was largely developed to its present extent. Humber Summit expanded more towards the Humber River and became largely a community of summer cottages. These were soon winterized for year-round occupation. North Weston expanded further to merge with the Pelmo Park area to its east.

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This map shows the vast population growth which occurred in the decade. It took place largely in the area west of Bayview. East of Bayview the township remained largely in farm use. With the exception of a few pockets, development took place south of Sheppard and west of Bathurst. It went as far north as Steeles between Bathurst and Bayview. Why the growth? New family formations brought the need for single-family homes. Unified water and sewerage in Metro helped speed development. The growth of car ownership brought people to the suburbs, starting in 1949. North York’s 1948 official plan helped planning and the comprehensive zoning bylaw of 1952 showed permitted land uses. By 1955 the Yonge St. villages had merged into the community today known as Willowdale. But only a small population had moved to Don Mills by 1955.

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It was during the decade 1955 to 1965 that North York changed from being a dormitory community for Toronto’s labour force. It became a more integrated urban community with the introduction of industrial and commercial developments and the jobs these provided. By 1965 Don Mills was developed to its present extent. Yorkdale Shopping Centre had been opened in the western half of the borough. Development had almost reached the northern limits of the municipality at Steeles and left a few remaining pockets of undeveloped land south of Finch, such as Windfields Farm.

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With the notable exception of Windfields Farm, the filling in of large subdivided tracts of land is now almost completed. What remains in the borough? There are vacant single-family and apartment building lots. Also, not all land is at its full potential use as, for example, where single-family homes stand on land planned for apartments. The planned population of the borough, according to the district plan program is 734,000 people. North York is expected to reach this figure sometime after 1990. During the 1966–71 period the major developments in North York include the Ontario Science Centre, Flemingdon Park and Fairview Mall Shopping Centre.

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During the debate over the Spadina Expressway, some North York residents protested in favour of the controversial roadway. Director of traffic operations S.R. Cole professed an open mind toward Spadina in his contribution to the Mirror special. “I simply note that if we had left the Lake Shore Blvd. as it was in 1945 and not built the Gardiner Expressway or the Don Valley Parkway, downtown Metro might be like some downtown areas in other cities—deteriorating, lacking in development. There might be no North York as we know it today. North York needed a downtown core to grow as it has.” Cole also believed that rapid transit on Eglinton Avenue was needed “sooner than the Toronto Transit Commission will likely propose it.”

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Sheppard Avenue, facing east towards Leslie Street. Photo by Doug Hyatt.

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Borough councillors were asked to write about the biggest challenges facing the municipality. Mayor Basil Hall thought traffic problems due to massive construction projects like the Yonge subway extension were the biggest concern in the present, while redevelopment to prevent urban decay would be required in the future. Controller Mel Lastman targeted municipal strikes and inadequate TTC service as his beefs, while fellow controller Paul Godfrey was determined to protect North York’s ecology.

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York University had existed for just over a decade, and operated from its main campus for seven years when North York celebrated its golden jubilee. The school’s first president, Dr. Murray Ross, noted the best course for York’s continued progress:

The only possible problem which could adversely affect York’s development is the kind of confrontation found frequently on other campuses in North America. We have avoided such difficulties at York thus far. It is not conflict of view which is inevitable in all families and organizations, but the manner in which conflict is resolved that is important. We have been able so far to work out our difficulties and differences in discussion and debate. If we are able to continue to do so, York’s future is assured. I predict, and I believe sincerely, that in the future York will enhance its already established reputation.

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When it opened in 1970, Fairview Mall was the first multi-level shopping centre in Metropolitan Toronto. Among its early attractions was the lengthy movator, which was removed during the 1980s.

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One of the many ads found in the Mirror special from North York’s major corporate citizens. The IBM complex at Eglinton Avenue and Don Mills Road is currently home to Celestica.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The municipal ad on the back cover. “The astonishment of North York,” according to writer Robert Moon, “lies not so much in its multi-billion-dollar construction since the Second World War, which is profound in time and space, but in the creation of a quality place to live and work for 520,000 people, which is simple and grand in concept.”

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A collection of North York historical landmarks.

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The accompanying map.

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Some scenes in North York never change, such as the eternal traffic jam on the northbound Don Valley Parkway around Lawrence Avenue.

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While some of the corporate offices and landmarks shown in this ad are still present in Flemingdon Park (Foresters, Ontario Science Centre), others are long gone. As of 2018, Inn on the Park is a car dealership, IBM is Celestica, the Imperial Oil property is Real Canadian Superstore, while the Bata and Shell properties are now the Aga Khan Museum. The spotlighted property, the Ontario Hospital Association and Blue Cross building, is now bannered with ICICI Bank.

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Toronto Star, June 13, 1972.

The Fall of 81 Wellesley Street East

Originally published on Torontoist on January 20, 2012.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre–Rosedale) reached an agreement over the phone with a demolition company, to halt work that had begun that morning at the back of 81 Wellesley Street East. An hour later, as the equipment was moved to the front of the property, a hole was punched in the face of the 19th century building. That act was akin to the punched-in-the-gut feeling Wong-Tam experience when she first learned of the demolition earlier in the day.

The assault on Odette House and its accompanying coach house points to loopholes in City policies regarding demolition permits and heritage designations that have allowed long-standing buildings to fall.

For 20 years, the buildings at 81 Wellesley East housed the Wellspring cancer support centre. When Wellspring determined that the site required costly renovations and lacked space for future expansion of services, the buildings were placed on the market for $3.25 million. The real estate listing described 81 Wellesley Street East as a “rare boutique building”—a description that might have attracted a buyer who could have converted it into living, office, or retail space that blended with the neighbourhood. However, the listing also indicated that the site was “free of any historical designation/listing,” which signalled the opportunity to knock down the existing structures. The property was sold in September 2011 for $4.5 million, to a buyer that no one we talked to could identify. (Torontoist contacted the real estate firm that handled the transaction and was told that the buyer may or may not consent to their identity being known. At press time, the name of the buyer had not been released.)

While it is true that there wasn’t a heritage designation for the site at the time of the sale, it’s also true that one was in the works. On November 2, Wong-Tam submitted a request for designation that was unanimously approved by the Toronto and East York Community Council. While the approved request sat in the long backlog of proposed designations at Heritage Preservation Services (HPS), the property owners applied to the Building department for a demolition permit on December 1. While requests for residential demolitions are sent to councillors like Wong-Tam for feedback, those for commercially-zoned land like 81 Wellesley Street East do not require such input. Without a heritage designation or listing officially on the books, the permit was granted, as required under the Planning Act, 14 days later.

The loophole infuriates Wong-Tam, who told us yesterday that “the only thing stopping reckless development and demolition in the city is whether or not something has a heritage designation.” Because anyone can submit an application regarding commercial property, and HPS is “so grossly underfunded and understaffed,” Wong-Tam feels that “we are systematically destroying the urban fabric of our city.”

Demolition equipment from Lions Group appeared on the site Wednesday, with the initial wrecking work occurring at the back of the property. Among the nearby residents alarmed by the situation was Paul Farrelly of the Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association. “I noticed a post there 10 days ago talking about a demolition permit and I went to look around and took photos,” noted Farrelly in an email. “I did some searching and saw it had recently been vacated by Wellspring. But there was no physical notice or sign on the property.”

Residents quickly contacted Wong-Tam’s office to find out what was going on; one texter asked, “are developers pulling a fast one?” The councillor contacted the Building department, where she learned about the lack of input on commercial demolition permits. As she pieced together what had happened among various city departments, she grew angrier. “It was in this City’s hands,” she said. “That building came down because we issued a demolition permit, not knowing what the right hand and left hand was doing. There was a spectacular failure on the City’s part to do a good job of protecting that property and it was an enormous gap in communication and coordination at the City level.” Wong-Tam has requested that the Building department email all demolition requests in her ward, regardless of their zoning, to her attention. She has also scheduled a meeting with City planning officials to work through the loopholes: “we have to codify the behaviour and make it consistent so we can actually protect what heritage attributes we have left.”

Wong-Tam would also like to fix a related issue: situations in which demolition permits have been granted without a construction permit also being issued. So far, no development application has been submitted for 81 Wellesley Street East, though some suspect there are plans to build a condo. The lack of set plans for a site following building demolition has frequently resulted in the creation of surface parking lots in those locations—which owners may retroactively ask the City for permission to operate, such as one Wong-Tam cited at Jarvis and Carlton. Her ideal vision would see owners implement green streetscaping after the wrecking ball has stilled.

While the current half-demolished state of the property makes it a lost cause, 81 Wellesley Street East illustrates the problems of protecting older buildings around the city. A proactive, rather than reactionary, approach is required. More staff to clear the backlog of heritage designations and codifying better coordination between departments could alleviate the confusion that often is manifest now, and has seen historic buildings which might have remained viable parts of the local landscape reduced to rubble.

With a looming lockout of City workers that will further slow the designation process, it may soon be the case that there’s even more opportunity for developers who care more about bulldozing a site as quickly as possible to do just that, rather than consulting with the surrounding community or imaginatively working with existing structures.

UPDATE

Sure enough, the property would be promoted as a future condo project. Because, you know, Toronto and condos. A Google view from August 2017 showed the site was still a vacant lot, albeit one fenced off for future construction.

Vintage Toronto Ad: Miracle on Yonge Street

Originally published on Torontoist on June 7, 2011.

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The Financial Post 500, Summer 1988.

For today’s featured ad, we hand writing duties over to the longest-serving mayor of North York, Mel Lastman. In his introduction to the semi-advertorial book North York: Realizing the Dream (Burlington: Windsor Publications, 1988), the Bad Boy describes how his municipality’s miraculous new downtown is one of the factors behind his boast that “nowhere is the human spirit stronger than in North York.”

The focal point of our city is what I refer to as North York’s Miracle on Yonge Street—a $4 billion downtown that’s being constructed in our city centre, complete with a civic square and major performing arts centre. Millions of square feet of retail establishments, offices, and residences are sprouting up seemingly overnight.
But it took many years of planning in partnership with our citizens. Area ratepayer groups participated fully in the forging of our downtown plan and gave it their complete support. Outside of North York, it is rare to see so keen a level of cooperative planning between local government and its citizenry…It is nothing short of miraculous that we are creating a downtown after we built the city and that this barrage of construction activity is happening all at one time, spurring us on from one success to the next.

The City of North York is quickly becoming the main magnet for commerce in Metropolitan Toronto. Our shiny new miracle of a downtown has prompted major corporate head office relocations and a flood of new business activity, and has spawned an unprecedented demand for our office space.

When completed, our downtown will generate full-time jobs for 60,000 employees, homes for more than 30,000 new residents, and $100 million annually in business and realty taxes. We’re in great shape. We are becoming recession-proof.

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. 

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Town that Sold Itself

Originally published on Torontoist on October 16, 2007.

Vintage Ad #380: Not Selling You On Meadowvale

Source: Toronto Life, June 1975.

Developers had to do very little to attract new homeowners into the rapidly expanding, brand-spankin’ new city of Mississauga in the 1970s. Open spaces, parkland, recreational venues, shopping plazas, and day care spaces were among the tidbits thrown to those looking at suburban creature comforts.

Most of all, new homeowners wanted easy access to rustic jug milk stores.

This development may have touted itself as “excitingly different,” but parting from the norm could only be taken so far. Item #12 makes it clear that eccentricity would not be tolerated in Meadowvale, thanks to tough rules. Discrimination against certain colours nearly led to a lawsuit from the GTA Regional Association of Purple Edifiers.