Hotel Waverl(e)y

This installment of “Ghost City” was published online by The Grid on June 18, 2013.

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College and Spadina, looking northwest, May 13, 1927. The Waverley is in the background (click on photo for larger version). Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4888.

“If you really want the best, dine at the Waverley,” a person by the name of W.M. Canning advised a friend on the back of a postcard depicting a refined dining room at the Spadina Avenue establishment circa 1908. Hard to believe, but there was a time when the Waverl(e)y was considered a hotel worthy of formal dances, organizational lunches, and tourism offices.

Built by John J. Powell in 1900, the Hotel Waverley replaced a structure that once housed the local YMCA. For the next half-century, the hotel was operated by the Powell family, whose members were active in hospitality-industry associations—Egerton Powell served as president of the Ontario branch of the Greeters’ Association of America during the mid-1920s. That decade also saw the Waverley house the Toronto Convention and Tourist Association’s office and a Canadian Pacific ticket outlet.

Major changes came during the 1950s. The Powell family’s involvement appears to have ended following the 1954 death of Egerton’s widow, whose estate was battled over by 53 cousins. The hotel gained its first lounge licence the following year, then fell into liquidation in 1957. Newspaper ads in January 1959 proudly announced the opening of the “fabulous Silver Dollar Room,” whose debut act was “Canada’s Top Variety Group,” Tommy Danton and the Echoes. The venue soon settled into presenting local jazz musicians and bluesy singers like Olive Brown (whose selection of standards included venue-appropriate songs like “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”).

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Toronto Star, January 2, 1959.

However, in the ensuing years, the Waverley site acquired more dubious associations. During the early morning hours of November 17, 1961, a guest named Arthur Lucas made two telephone calls from his room to 116 Kendal Avenue. Just after 3:30 a.m., Lucas left the Waverley and headed north to meet Therland Crater, a drug dealer on the run from the Detroit underworld for working as an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. While Lucas claimed he was meeting Crater to discuss opening a bawdy house in Toronto, his true mission was murder. Lucas killed Crater and his wife Carolyn Newman, then returned to the Waverley around 6 a.m. to say goodbye to his roommate. He was captured in Detroit the following day. Lucas was convicted and hung alongside Ronald Turpin during Canada’s last execution in December 1962.

Another infamous killer was reputed to have checked into the Waverley during the 1960s. After assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, James Earl Ray spent part of his time on the lam in Toronto. Legend has it the Waverley was one of his stops, even though he told the Ottawa Sun that he spent his time ping-ponging between a pair of rooming houses in the Dundas-Ossington area. This didn’t prevent two men allegedly representing the American government from asking Waverley management in the mid-1990s about the hotel’s connection with Ray.

Corner of Spadina Ave. and College St., looking north-west

Corner of Spadina Avenue and College Street, looking northwest, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 55, Item 34.

If Ray enjoyed a drink at the Silver Dollar Room, he might have watched the entertainment Bill Cameron described in a Star profile that fall about Spadina Avenue. “The Silver Dollar Room,” Cameron observed, “is a bouncy rowdy little place with a busty tone-deaf singer and bored trio band and the greatest stripper I have ever seen, thin and not very pretty but with a splendid lascivious skill at detecting the rhythms of the house, of putting what she has just where it should be at precisely the right moment to get everybody there up just underneath the point of a riot.”

In 1970, poet Milton Acorn moved in for a long stay. “The Waverley Hotel was full of character and characters,” he noted. “It was a place for all sorts of strange but true types. People who were certainly down but not out.” The flophouse-like atmosphere suited the foul-smelling, highly-opinionated Acorn, who was named “The People’s Poet” by his peers soon after moving in. Acorn paid the daily rate rather than the monthly rent in case he ever decided to pick up and leave, and constantly changed rooms out of fear he was being bugged by the RCMP. Though he moved out in 1977, Acorn kept a writing room at the hotel until he left Toronto in 1981. His stay is commemorated with a small plaque.

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Toronto Star, January 8, 1992.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the hotel was subject to periodic police raids and other woes. A bust in February 1978 netted 233 charges related to selling liquor to intoxicated persons. It was among the local bars hit by a two-week servers’ strike in September 1981, prompting the owners to personally serve trays of beer. A 1987 bust saw 16 people arrested for prostitution. Somewhere along the line, a new sign dropped the second “e” from the hotel’s name. Its rough atmosphere provided a great backdrop for Elmore Leonard, who set part of his novel Killshot at the Waverly. By the 1990s, management posted a sign reading “rooms should not be used for nefarious, wrongful or unlawful purposes.”

The Silver Dollar Room maintained a steady diet of blues and rock. For a time, it was home of the Elvis Monday music showcase. Around 1992, it changed its name to Jonny Vegas and briefly took down its signature sign. “I advised the new tenants against changing the sign,” property owner Paul Wynn told the Star. “I have a deal with them that, if the place fails, they’ll have to put up the Silver Dollar sign again.”

Time may be running out for the Waverly. The Wynn Group, which has owned the site since the mid-1980s, has released plans to replace the crumbling hotel with a 20-storey residential tower targeted to students that would include a gym and a rebuilt Silver Dollar Room. The project was criticized by Councillor Adam Vaughan, who called the plan “effectively a high-rise rooming house.”

Sources: East/West, Nancy Byrtus, Mark Fram, Michael McClelland, editors (Toronto: Coach House, 2000), Toronto: A Literary Guide by Greg Gatenby (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 1999), Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1999), the June 12, 2013 edition of BlogTO, the December 12, 1923 edition of the Globe, the July 19, 1957, October 29, 1963, April 7, 1976, and April 7, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 28, 1955, January 2, 1959, October 12, 1968, February 2, 1978, September 2, 1981, December 4, 1987, January 8, 1992, and June 11, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

The Silver Dollar Room received a heritage designation in January 2015. While city council rejected a demolition proposal in January 2014, the Waverly eventually had its date with a wrecking ball. The bar closed in spring 2017 and was demolished the following year.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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A pamphlet (uploaded by the Toronto Public Library) enticing travellers to stay at the Waverley, circa 1920. One can safely place College and Spadina into modern Toronto’s “congested traffic district.”

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Toronto Star, December 12, 1923.

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Globe and Mail, April 29, 1964.

Lost Words

This post merges two pieces originally published on Torontoist on January 6, 2012 and January 12, 2012.

Ballenford BooksDavid Mirvish BooksPagesThis Ain’t The Rosedale Library. All established book stores that have closed within the past four years. With The Book Mark joining that list, Dragon Lady Comics shutting its physical store, and Glad Day Bookshop up for sale, it feels as if Toronto is experiencing a cycle of closures similar to the late 1990s.

Back then, blame initially fell upon big box stores like Chapters and Indigo; now it’s online retailers and e-books. In both cases these big bads were only part of the problem: increased rent appears to be a critical element of the current closure cycle, the exact opposite of the low-priced leases that aided the high number of bookstore openings during the 1970s. Cold commentators might say that technology is making bookstores obsolete, or that owners should only blame themselves when their business ends, but whenever any long-running store closes, it feels as if a reassuring piece of the local landscape has gone with it.

Here is a sampling of past bookstores that left their mark on Toronto and its readers.

Albert Britnell

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Globe and Mail, December 15, 1979.

“Count yourself a Torontonian if Grandfather shopped here,” proclaimed Toronto Life in its November 1970 guide to local bookstores. This was no exaggeration, as the Britnell family had been involved in the city’s book trade since Albert arrived from England during the 1880s. Initially known for its selection of collectible Canadiana, the store later built its reputation on the special order system developed by Albert’s spats-wearing son Roy. Though the shop closed in 1999, its name still sits above the Starbucks that currently occupies the building.

Hyman’s Book & Art Shop

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Ben-Zion Hyman in front of Hyman’s Book & Art Shop, 1925. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 119, Item 78.

“The shop was open from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. every day except Saturday and had a mimeograph machine, pop cooler, newspapers and a bar mitzvah registry. It sold Yiddish and Hebrew books, Judaica, tickets for the Standard Theatre, stationery and school supplies.”—Rosemary Donegan, Spadina Avenue (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985).

Located at 371 Spadina Avenue, Hyman’s (later known as Hyman and Son) operated for nearly 50 years.

North Toronto Book Store

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North Toronto Book-Store, July 1922. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 296.

Either the woman mailing the morning headline from the Globe is thrilled to be in front of the camera, or she’s frustrated with the photographer’s numerous requests to center the poster.

Lichtman’s

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Lichtman’s News Stand, sometime between 1945 and 1966. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 1, Item 130.

From the moment he arrived in Toronto from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the age of 14, Sammy Lichtman was in the newspaper business. One account indicates that shortly after stepping off the train that brought him here, Lichtman was hawking papers on downtown streets. He eventually entered the distribution and newsstand business that evolved into a chain of book and magazine shops. As the big box stores cut into Lichtman’s business, debt mounted until ownership called it a day in 2000.

Eaton’s

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The Globe, November 3, 1934.

Before chains like Coles, Classic Book Shop and WH Smith, department stores were among the biggest booksellers in Toronto. There were even attempts, as this ad from Eaton’s shows, to promote Canadian authors.

SCM Book Room

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Rochdale College, March 1971. Photo by Leo Harrison. York University Archives, Toronto Telegram Photo Collection, Citation 1974-002/168.

Given the chaos surrounding Rochdale College during its dying days, it’s tempting to believe that some of the craziness made its way to one of the building’s most well-respected tenants, the SCM Book Room. But by the end of 1974, disputes between executives of the Student Christian Movement and store manager Bob Miller over the mission of the store had grown nasty. Should, as some SCM members argued, the store take a stronger stand on social issues and better reflect the ideals of the organization, or, as Miller believed, should the store continue to manage its own affairs as it had for years?

For nearly 20 years Miller, a reverend in the United Church, built the business’s reputation as the go-to place in Toronto for academic and religious works. Forget bestsellers: as Miller told the Globe and Mail in April 1968, “we’re interested in the scholarly type of books less accessible elsewhere, books for which there’s a market, but not a mass market.” According to historian Ramsay Cook, “it would be impossible to estimate the contribution that Bob Miller’s SCM Book Room has made to the intellectual and cultural life not only of Toronto, but of the country at large.

Despite mediation by poet Dennis Lee, personality clashes worsened. Miller and nine of the SCM Book Room’s 15 employees left the business in the spring of 1975. Later that year Miller established his own book room further east on Bloor Street, which continues to operate. A store under the SCM banner carried on until at least the late 1980s.

Times Square Book Store

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A later incarnation of the Time(s) Square Book Store, circa 1970s. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 198.

As Yonge Street slid toward the seedy reputation it earned during the 1970s, adult book stores began filling its storefronts. Frequently raided by the morality squad, who quietly asked customers to leave while arresting the clerks, shops like the Times Square(which appears to have dropped the “s” by the time this photo was taken) serviced patrons looking for thrills in the pages of titles like French Spice, Mr. Cool, and Sizzle. Browsers who didn’t find the selection titillating enough could always watch burlesque dancers elsewhere on the Yonge strip.

Times Square’s penchant for skirting Sunday shopping laws earned it a profile in the September 19, 1970 edition of the Star, which depicted a typical Lord’s Day afternoon at the store:

A young man with shoulder-length blond hair perches on a stool by the cash register. He takes a $5 bill from an older man with nervous eyes and slips a plastic-wrapped magazine called Swappers into a plain brown bag. “Every adult person should have the right to decide what he can and what he can buy, any day of the week,” the young man says after the customer leaves the store. “Sure we’re open Sundays, but we’re not keeping anyone away from church. We cater to a different crowd.”

About Books

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Queen Street West, sometime between 1966 and 1972. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 124.

During the 1970s, Queen West filled with used bookstores. The business offering “new books” at 280 in this photo was later occupied by About Books. Co-owner Larry Wallrich had been around: during the 1960s, he ran a shop in New York’s Greenwich Village that became a poet’s hangout then spent a few years selling books around Europe. Based on advice from a bookseller in Cleveland, Wallrich came to Queen West in 1976 and quickly fell in love with Toronto. In an interview with Books in Canada seven years later, Wallrich noted that the city had “more good, general second-hand book shops than there are in New York and London—and that’s of course totally economic because rents are still reasonable enough here than you can have good general book shops in the centre of town.” He also felt “more socially useful in Toronto as a bookseller than I’ve ever felt in my life before.”

Edwards Books & Art

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1987.

Edward Borins learned how to buy and sell high quality remainders at low prices while managing David Mirvish Books during the 1970s. Borins and his wife Eva established their own store at 356 Queen Street West in 1979, which eventually grew into a small chain. As Now noted in a March 1989 profile, the original location “opened just at the time when the area was being revitalized by a new wave of artists and businesses.”

The chain fought a lengthy battle with the provincial government over Sunday shopping laws that led to around 300 charges. Edwards ran into troubles with its suppliers that played a role into the chain’s demise in 1997 and, thanks to tighter credit limits publishers imposed in the aftermath, negatively affected other local booksellers. The Borinses moved to Santa Fe and ran Garcia Street Books for a decade before selling it in 2011.

The Book Cellar

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Books in Canada, May 1971.

Despite its name, The Book Cellar only spent one year operating below street level when it opened in 1961. The store quickly gained a reputation for carrying the largest selection of magazines in the city, with titles ranging from TV Guide (one of their poorest sellers) to the Journal of the Institute for Sewage Purification. Store alumni included writers like Barbara Amiel and Paul Quarrington. Though there were several locations, the main one was 142 Yorkville Avenue, where browsers congregated between 1968 and 1997. The store’s demise was blamed on troubles receiving stock after publishers tightened credit limits following the end of Edwards Books & Art, and on declining street traffic in Yorkville.

A Map of Downtown Toronto Booksellers, 1974

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Quill & Quire, May 1974.

A&A Books & Records

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1960s postcard of Yonge Street. Image courtesy of Chuckman’s Other Collection.

While most people remember A&A as a music chain, the company’s flagship location at 351 Yonge Street began as a bookstore in the mid-1940s. While records became the focus of the business, the book section found its niche by selling textbooks to Ryerson students and those studying medicine at U of T.

Following the sale of A&A by founders Alice and Mac Kenner to Columbia Records in the early 1970s, drastic cuts were made to the section’s size and selection. The reductions were carried out poorly, leading to complaints from customers who couldn’t find the titles they wanted and publishers who received more returns than anticipated. By the time corporate decided to exit the book business in 1974, its sales were around 10 percent mass market titles, 90 percent textbooks.

The Children’s Book Store

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Quill & Quire, October 1980.

During a quarter of a century in business, The Children’s Book Store received plenty of praise for its large selection of material for young readers. This ad gives a sense of the store’s programming following its move to 604 Markham Street in 1980. In its final years on Yonge Street in North Toronto, the store faced expanded children’s sections at recently opened branches of Chapters and Indigo to its south. When the store closed in January 2000, its library and wholesale divisions were sold to a company largely owned by Chapters.

Longhouse Books

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Globe and Mail, September 25, 1979 (left), December 15, 1990 (right).

It was a concept predicted to fail in a hurry. Who was crazy enough to stock a bookstore with nothing but Canadian titles? Yet Longhouse Books proved the naysayers wrong when it opened at 630 Yonge Street north of Wellesley in 1972.

Partners Beth Appeldoorn and Susan Sandler opened the store out of anger. “There were Canadian books around, but they weren’t given the emphasis they deserved,” they told the Globe and Mail in a 1995 interview. “That little Canadiana section was insulting. We jumped in at the right time. But we did think about it, and we had good advice. We were not totally stupid, but we probably were crazy.”

Of the many launches held at Longhouse, the owners felt Margaret Laurence’s appearance to promote The Diviners was the most memorable:

Margaret had never done a launch in her life because she was always very nervous, and Margaret didn’t take crowds. But there was a crowd of people. Somebody came in and said, “What movie is showing?” We had to drag Margaret right away downstairs to the basement to give her a Valium. She never knew it was Valium. She thought it was an aspirin. But she was so shaky. She came back up and did a fabulous two hours of signing and talking. We put her behind a little table with chairs so she could hold onto the table.

Appeldoorn and Sandler sold the store in 1989, which promptly moved to 497 Bloor Street West. It closed six years later.

Tyrrell’s Book Shop

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King Street East, looking east to Victoria Street, 1910. Tyrrell’s can be seen at the far right. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7345.

When Tyrrell’s Bookshop was sold to British retailer W.H. Smith in 1958, one question was what would happen to the ancient clock that had been there since founder William Tyrrell’s early days in business? “It was probably not bought on the morn that the old man was born,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s William Arthur Deacon, “but it certainly was ‘ever his pride and joy.’” To relief of store staff, the new owners decided to maintain it.

William Tyrrell entered the bookselling world as a 16-year old clerk shortly after his arrival from England in 1882. Twelve years later he opened his first store on King Street East at Yonge Street. The store later moved to 820 Yonge, across the street from longtime competitor Albert Britnell. Tyrrell didn’t let friendship stand in the way of what he believed he should sell; reportedly he refused to stock books written by friends if the work’s political slant was not to his liking.

Following Tyrrell’s retirement during World War II, the store was run by Phyllis Atwood until the sale to W.H. Smith. Deacon noted that “her friends will all be glad that she is shedding her responsibilities and ensuring her own future.” The store operated for a few more years under the Tyrrell’s banner.

Village Book Store

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Books in Canada, May 1971.

Deriving its name from Toronto’s “Greenwich Village” along Gerrard Street between Yonge and University, Martin Ahvenus opened Village Book Store in 1961. The shop gave strong support to Canadian poets—as Toronto Life noted in 1970, Ahvenus “encourages, amuses, and sells them, and they adorn his walls with graffiti.” It was also noted that the Village was “where the secondhand book dealers gather to talk shop on Thursday nights.” The store moved to 239 Queen Street West in the early 1970s and became one of the busiest used book stores along the strip.

Final owner Eric Wellington provided a long list of reasons for the store’s closure in January 2000: rising taxes, eroding profits, changing demographics of Queen West, chains, exhaustion from working every day, and a notice that TTC was going to repair the streetcar tracks. Wellington found that the Queen West crowd “has gotten much younger and they are a digital generation. They don’t read.”

Writers & Co

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Now, March 27, 1986.

A pair of legacies for North Toronto-based Writers & Co.:

  1. When CBC Radio needed a title for a new literary show, it asked owner Irene McGuire for permission to use her store’s name. The choice worked, as the series is still on the air.
  2. The store’s original location was 2094½ Yonge Street. The number intrigued British author Julian Barnes. As longtime manager (and, later, owner) Winston Smith told the Star when the store closed in 1999, Barnes “told us he had never encountered a ½ address before and he was interested in the phenomenon.” The author was inspired by the address to title his next novel A History Of The World in 10½ Chapters.

UPDATE

Of the stores mentioned in the introduction, Glad Day is still in business. As the big box stores falter, smaller bookstores have revived here and there in Toronto, though there are closures for some of the reasons mentioned in this piece (for example, Eliot’s Bookshop on Yonge Street cited increased property taxes as a factor in speeding up its closure in 2017).

There are deeper looks at Albert Britnell and The Book Cellar in the “Past Pieces of Toronto” series I wrote for OpenFile, which will soon appear on this site.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Sample Some Switzer’s

Originally published on Torontoist on February 15, 2011.

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The Best of Toronto, 1980.

When Switzer’s served the final hearty sandwich at its 322 Spadina Avenue location on September 15, 1991, it was the last deli standing on what had once been a prime strip for diners to get their fix of Jewish delicacies. While competitors like Shopsy’s and United Bakers moved elsewhere, Switzer’s stuck it out a few more years as nearby storefronts started to sell noodles instead of knishes.

One item on Switzer’s menu that received high marks from a review in the Toronto Star around the time this ad appeared was the fries:

Toronto’s best fry is sort of a second string specialty here. This deli may be better known for its corned beef and knishes, but the fries are good enough to be put in the window, too. Short little homemade devils, crisp on the outside, downy on the inside. They carve up the Ontario-grown spuds right there, boil them in Super Fry pure vegetable oil (which is changed four times a week) and, yes, they do blanch them (pre-cook ‘em and then throw them back in the oil for another 60 seconds upon each order). But they’ve got a flavour that any mama would envy. No need to bother with the gravy. Downing these chippies is a crime.

Shortly before the Spadina location closed, general manager and co-owner Eric Solomon shared his memory of one of the many characters who passed through Switzer’s doors:

We once had a woman come in for a corned beef sandwich and she said she had no money but could she sing for her supper? She then proceeded to sing and dance to “Hava Nagilah” up and down the aisles of the restaurant. Everyone was singing and clapping with her, so of course we fed her. The best was when she asked if the pickle was extra and she started to sing and dance again.

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Canadian Jewish News, September 12, 1991.

Besides the move of Jewish clientele north from Kensington Market, Solomon saw parking as a major reason for the demise of the Spadina location. Tickets were handed out freely, and the scarce number of spaces along Spadina was to be further limited with the forthcoming streetcar line.

Today, 322 Spadina serves up bánh mì instead of corned beef, thanks to Nguyen Huong. Of the other Switzer’s locations listed in today’s ad, only the Torbram Road branch continued to operate as Switzer’s into the 2010s.

Additional information from the September 12, 1991 edition of the Canadian Jewish News; and the March 3, 1981 and April 17, 1991 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Star’s review of Switzer’s, shortly before it left Spadina Avenue (April 17, 1991). 

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Canadian Jewish News, September 12, 1991.

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Toronto Star, September 16, 1991.

Off the Grid (Ghost City): 346 Spadina Avenue

Part One: Ghost City

Originally published on The Grid on September 12, 2012.  This was my first piece under the “Ghost City” banner, which the publication had used periodically for similar pieces. “Ghost City” lasted as a weekly column through June 2013, though the title was occasionally brought out of mothballs by other writers. 

When the Gold Diamond restaurant opened this summer, it inherited a building teeming with ghosts: Paranormal spirits are reputed to have inspired the lion statues out front and once required the services of an exorcist. Symbolic ghosts have also left their mark through the legacies of a Jewish-community landmark and a series of Chinese eateries.

Dress-making strike, crowd at Labor Lyceum, 346 Spadina Avenue, February 25, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 23262.

Originally occupied by residences, the southwest corner of Spadina Avenue and St. Andrews Street was purchased by the Toronto Labor Lyceum during the 1920s. Founded in 1913, the organization promoted trade unionism among the city’s growing Jewish community, and offered a home for garment-industry organizations like the Internatonal Ladies Garment Workers Union. As longtime union activist and politician J.B. Salsberg observed, “no single institution and no single building on Spadina—the main street of Jewish Toronto—was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew than was the Labor Lyceum.” Beyond union meetings, the building met the community’s cultural and social needs by providing a venue for concerts, a beer parlour, dances, lectures, and hanging out.

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Obituary for Emma Goldman, the Telegram, May 14, 1940.

Anarchist Emma Goldman spoke many times at the Labor Lyceum while intermittently residing in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Her talks ranged from lecturing about drama to raising money for the defence fund of condemned American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. While Goldman respected the city’s appreciation for the arts, her criticisms of the influence of the Anglican and Catholic churches did not make her a fan of the “Toronto the Good” mentality. When she died in May 1940, her friends told the Star that the funeral service would “not be a religious one but will be rather just a gathering of friends.” While her body lay in state at the Labor Lyceum, she was remembered “as a woman who had put ideals above suffering.”

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Source: Canadian Jewish News, December 24, 1971.

When scaffolding went up after the building was sold in 1971, locals figured the wrecking ball would follow to the increasingly shabby-looking site. Instead, new owner Yen Pin Chen, a Taiwanese restaurateur, spent $1 million over the next four years refurbishing the building into a restaurant complex he hoped would become the focus of the new Chinatown emerging along Spadina. Décor included walls filled with handcrafted detailing and a ceramic reproduction of Beijing’s Nine-Dragon Wall that had been in Chen’s family for two decades. Outside, observed the Globe and Mail, “two bronze-coloured lions crouch and stare imperiously from the front door into the window of the Jewish hard-goods jobber across the avenue. The façade glows with the colour of sunrise over Shanghai, that imperial shade of yellow once reserved for emperors.”

gm 1975-08-02 yen pin palace Source: Globe and Mail, August 2, 1975. Click on image for larger version.

Despite being the largest Chinese restaurant in the city, Yen Pin Place was an expensive bust. The luxurious décor was offset by bland food that the Globe and Mail’s Joanne Kates figured “would be perfect for a convention of 1,000 dentists from Des Moines.” After it closed in 1978, Yen Pin Place was succeeded by a string of eateries that Kates described as “each more outrageously pretentious and gastronomically mediocre than the last, and all of them doomed to failure.” The flops included Genghis Khan (a Mongolian BBQ), Paul’s Palace Deep Sea Shantung (once the city’s premier Szechuan restaurant, it had served better food elsewhere), and the President.

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Source: Toronto Star, January 24, 1986. Click on image for larger version.

In 1985, the building was purchased by the Hong Kong-based Hsin Kuang restaurant chain, whose name still graces its facade. The Star enjoyed the warm towels that bookended every meal and the dim-sum offerings, but found the flavours of the rest of the menu lacked character. Hsin Kuang gave way to Bright Pearl in 1997, which carried on serving dim sum until a landlord dispute led to its closing in 2010.

That Bright Pearl lasted for 13 years supports the superstitions and accounts of ghost sightings associated with 346 Spadina. The presence of the paranormal has been blamed on everything from an onsite mortuary to the billboards forming a “V” pointing at the entrance that channelled evil spirits. Ghosts are said to haunt the washrooms, even after an exorcist was sent in. Feng-shui masters have been consulted in design elements such as the placement of the “foo dog” lions to provide a healthier aura.

Additional material from Spadina Avenue by Rosemary Donegan (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985); the December 24, 1971 edition of the Canadian Jewish News; the August 2, 1975, November 15, 1976, and April 4, 1981 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 14, 1940, May 15, 1940, February 19, 1983, January 24, 1986, and August 31, 1995 editions of the Toronto Star.

Part Two: Vintage Toronto Ads – A Place for Food, Spirits, and Movements

Originally published on Torontoist on October 23, 2007.

Yen Pin Place

Source: Toronto Life, December 1975.

Mid-1970s diners expected a certain level of ostentation when eating at finer Chinese cuisine establishments. Decor was touted as much, if not more, than what went into one’s mouth. The atmosphere diners were promised at today’s featured restaurant hints at a feast for the senses.

Except that the foo dogs were not mere decoration…

The history of 346 Spadina Avenue reflects the neighbourhood’s ethnic shifts. During the mid-20th century it was home to the Labour Lyceum, a centre for Jewish labour movement activity. After her death in May 1940, anarchist/activist Emma Goldman was placed in state in the building until the go-ahead was given by the United States government to bury her in Chicago. The lyceum later moved east to Cecil Street.

The site has long been regarded as haunted, which may explain the presence of the foo dogs guarding the building. One set of restaurant owners called in an exorcist, who noted that the billboards across street pointed like an arrow, directing bad spirits into the building. Apparitions favoured the washrooms, catching patrons at the weakest moment of their meal.

UPDATE

As of 2017, the main restaurant space sits vacant. In 2013, Heritage Toronto installed a plaque commemorating the Labor Lyceum.