Scenes of Toronto: The Sign Lives On at Consumers Distributing

Originally published on Torontoist on April 21, 2011.


Behind the gloss of the Shops at Don Mills, a few office buildings and plazas that haven’t experienced redevelopment still line the southwest quadrant of The Donway. A passing glance at the tenants of 49 The Donway West reveals an exiled anchor of the old Don Mills Centre (Home Hardware), service-based merchants (Cadet Cleaners, The Beer Store), and vacant space temporarily filled by the campaign office of the local Conservative candidate. It’s when you hit the western back corner of the plaza that you encounter one store banner in disbelief: Consumers Distributing. Disbelief, because it’s been 15 years since anyone ordered from a Consumers catalogue.

To a kid, the Consumers Distributing catalogue, along with the doorstop Sears dropped on the front step, was like a religious text. One could dream for hours about playing with any of the showcased games, toys, and video systems. Needed to show your parents what you wanted Santa Claus to bring on his sleigh? The catalogue provided a visual guide to pass on to the Jolly Old Elf. Whenever a new catalogue came out, the old one could be hacked up for cut-and-paste school presentations.


From one location that opened in 1957 on a site now occupied by Eglinton West subway station, Consumers Distributing grew to more than 200 stores across Canada and a few south of the border. The model was simple: flip through the catalogue, choose an item, go to a store, fill out a form, and pray the item was in stock. Despite supply-chain hiccups, the model worked for four decades. By the mid-1990s, the combination of the refusal of its foreign owner to inject more money into the business in light of a couple of poor seasons, a new superstore model that didn’t perform to expectations (which included touch-screen computers for ordering), the decline of the catalogue-store business across North America, and competition from Wal-Mart and other new big-box stores caused the chain to go bankrupt. As 1996 closed, so did the last Consumers stores.


How did this sign survive in pristine condition? Being hidden under a Blockbuster Video sign didn’t hurt. At first glance, the site appears vacant apart from a sign directing customers to a relocated dry cleaner. A small whiteboard with faded writing inside the door reveals the store’s current use as a dog-training facility.


As of 2017, the building has been demolished.


Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 5

Feeding BP to the Lions

Originally published on Torontoist on July 20, 2010.


Don Mills Mirror, October 28, 1970.

We imagine that if BP stations still existed in Toronto and offered a circus-themed promotional event, the public would want to see a few executives served as a tasty snack for the lions in the wake of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Forget giving the kids sugar-laden food—give them a real adrenaline rush and a lesson in corporate responsibility! We also hope that the prizes in the treasure chest were nice toys and free fill-ups that weren’t soaked in crude.

British Petroleum entered the Canadian market in 1957 and acquired one thousand service stations in Ontario and Quebec within four years. Problems of limited refinery resources were solved when BP acquired the Canadian arm of Cities Service (now Citgo) in 1964 and its 25,000 barrel a day processing facility in Bronte. Within a year of today’s ad, BP picked up “Canada’s All-Canadian Company” Supertest, whose stations gradually lost their patriotic fervour as they switched to the green shield. BP stations were a staple on Canadian roadways until 1982 when Petro-Canada purchased its retail and refining operations, including the station that still pumps away at Don Mills and Lawrence. BP retained some properties and built up its current presence in Canada through subsequent acquisitions, including Amoco Canada, from whom the company derives its current Canadian launch date of 1948.

Additional material from the March 13, 1964 edition of the Globe and Mail.

The Best Sound System Money Can Buy

Originally published on Torontoist on July 27, 2010.

Maclean’s, March 2, 1987.

Why waste money on pricey luxury stereo systems when creating an enticing sonic environment at home? A simple investment in two concrete blocks certified by the Ontario Concrete Block Association will amplify your life. And when your house, condo, or apartment is built with high-quality concrete blocks, you will never receive a noise complaint from the neighbours when life dictates that you have to crank the volume up to eleven or commit any potential audio atrocity no one else should hear. Ask your friendly neighbourhood stonemason how they can create customized concrete blocks to house your iPod, turntable, and other system components!

We looked into the soundproofing capacities of walls made from concrete blocks in terms of sound transmission class (STC) units. According to the National Research Council, walls made from concrete blocks do an effective job of containing noise, with a basic, no-frills wall earning a rating of 45 to 55 STC (at 30 STC, a loud human voice can be heard through the wall, at 60 STC, it shouldn’t be heard).

Since this ad appeared, the Ontario Concrete Block Association has expanded its scope across the country and is now known as the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association.

A Clean Gala Opening

Originally published on Torontoist on January 4, 2011.

Weston Times and Guide, October 20, 1960.

Despite the plethora of attractions the proprietors of Chester Drive-In Cleaners secured for the grand opening of their modern premises in the south end of Weston, it’s possible that terming the festivities as a “gala” may have been a last-minute decision. They might have needed an extra word to hide the mess created by the charming yet clumsy majorette in this ad after she accidentally popped the balloon beside the banner.

We haven’t determined who “Dale” was. Perhaps he or she was a local florist, the chief dry cleaner, or a neighbourhood musician specializing in pleasant, inoffensive music. Whoever “Dale” was, we imagine anyone who still has a carefully pressed and preserved bouquet of roses bearing his/her signature owns a priceless memento of that Saturday morning.

Time Machines for Now

Originally published on Torontoist on January 25, 2011.

Maclean’s, November 27, 1989.

It’s Tuesday morning, early in the second decade of the twenty-first century. There’s little time to sip a glass of crystal pure water, as there’s only fifteen minutes before a hover-taxi arrives to take a load of passengers to the Greater Toronto Spaceport in north Pickering. Better remember to bring the right keys this time before shooting off to the international moon base: light yellow for the house (not the dark yellow one that holds the morning edition of the Toronto Star-Sun), pink for your passport. Waiting patiently on the kitchen table is a venerable Casio timepiece, which has dutifully kept time for over two decades. The watch’s artificial intelligence knows that odds are fifty/fifty that the taxi will have to come back for you to retrieve it when you realize you’ve forgotten to put it on as you glide over Scarborough Town Centre.

Back in our version of 2011, unless a steady supply of not-yet-obsolete batteries have kept these beauties in perfect operating order, these watches are time machines only in the sense of preserving designs and technological advances from the late 1980s.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Western Days in Don Mills

Originally published on Torontoist on March 9, 2007.

Vintage Ad #191 - The West Moves East

Source: Toronto Life, August 1968.

“Hey kids, let’s dig out that cowboy gear we bought for Halloween last year and hum the theme to Bonanza on the way to the Western Days hoe-down in Don Mills! Don’t forget the toy gun, pardner!”

Suburban shopping centres used plenty of gimmicks in the early days to get consumers to hop in the car and drive out to stores where they didn’t have to worry about paying for parking or carrying their goods home on the TTC. Modern indoor sidewalk sales have nothing on their ancestors — when was the last time you received free grilled meat from a server in a Stetson at Bayview Village or Yorkdale?

Note the description of the aboriginal element of the event. Based on everything else in the ad, it’s easy to imagine a depiction of Native culture as sensitive as a 1940s B-western.

Much of the advertising for the Don Mills Centre from this period plays on Wild West terminology, appropriate for a pioneer in Toronto retailing. One of the region’s first large-scale suburban shopping centres, it was designed to be the heart of the Don Mills development. The centre opened in 1955 as an open-air plaza which included long-term tenants like Dominion, Brewers Retail and Koffler Drugs (which evolved into the Shoppers Drug Mart empire). Eaton’s built their first suburban store at the centre in 1961, to be joined by Zellers in 1965. A roof came with a 1978 expansion.

The closure of Eaton’s when the chain was sold to Sears in 1999 began the stampede towards the centre’s demolition last year, to make way for an outdoor “lifestyle” shopping area. The current blank space is large enough to hold a decent-size carnival and rodeo, if anyone is interested…

Vintage Toronto Ads: Opulent Penthouse-Style Living

Originally published on Torontoist on February 23, 2007.


When searching for a new place to live, what is the first thing you look for? Location? Lifestyle compatibility? Enticements? A blank slate to shape in your unique style? Groovy wallpaper?
Judging from today’s ad, the latter may have been a key condition in North York back in 1970.

This was the era of “swingin’ singles” apartments, promoted in areas of the city like St. James Town. Think of this ad as the late 1960s equivalent of lifestyle ads pitched to upwardly-mobile condo buyers, without the benefits of ownership—replace “penthouse living” with “loft”, “condo” or “lifestyle community” and the text could be slotted into the next project to hit the weekend paper.

Depending on decorating taste, your eyes may be thankful for the decision to make this a black and white ad, given the loudness of the “luxury wallpapers” in this “opulent bathroom.” Is the tenant pointing into space, admiring her new surroundings or relieved that she found the mirror in the midst of everything? Conversely, the decor may provide cozy memories of homes you grew up in or your first snazzy pad.

Note the prominent placement of the toilet paper dispenser—was the photographer passing subliminal judgement?

While current enticements to potential tenants include free TVs and time-restricted reduced parking rates, this company capitalized on the recent opening of Fairview Mall (then anchored by Simpsons and The Bay) by offering a shuttle service. Today, residents further south in Don Mills have use of a shuttle to the mall in the wake of the demolition of the Don Mills Centre.

Source: Toronto Life, September 1970