471 Bloor West (Hungarian Castle/BMV)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published online on September 18, 2012.

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The Hungarian Castle undergoing renovations to transform into BMV, May 4, 2006. Click on image for larger version.

When it opened in 2006, the Bloor Street branch of BMV represented more than just a giant bookstore. Its bright blue exterior and large street-level windows removed an eyesore known to nearby businesses and residents as the “black hole of the Annex.” After nearly two decades of rot, any new owner or tenant occupying the former Hungarian Castle restaurant would have been greeted with open arms.

Why 471 Bloor St. W. appeared abandoned for so long is subject to rumours and urban legends. Elusive landlord Annie Racz didn’t provide answers during her lifetime. When she died in 2004, she left an estate consisting of millions of dollars worth of real estate centered around Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue, some of which remains empty under the stewardship of her heir. Despite high interest from potential buyers, Racz threw up barriers that months of negotiation couldn’t breach. Theories on why she hung onto these properties without maintaining them included attempts to prevent higher tax assessments, an inability to trust anyone, and sentimental reminders of her late husband.

True Patriotism

Toronto Star, January 14, 1915. W.J. Parks’ grocery at 473 Bloor West eventually became part of the Hungarian Castle/BMV building.

When Eye Weekly’s Edward Keenan profiled Racz in 2003, he found that, after six weeks of trying to track her down, he didn’t feel any wiser than at the beginning of his investigation. He heard rumours that had her living anywhere from above By the Way Cafe to Richmond Hill, that she resembled a bag lady, and that her legs had been amputated. Annex Residents Association chair Eric Domville was so frustrated by Racz’s refusal to do anything with 471 Bloor that he began to wonder if she was “a figment of somebody’s imagination. Does she live in a cave, or in a secret hideaway like Lex Luthor?”

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1973.

Racz hadn’t always been so shadowy or seemingly neglectful. Before she and her husband Leslie purchased the building, the site housed a variety of tenants. During the first half of the 20th century, it was occupied by several grocers, a drug company, and residents who enjoyed five-bedroom flats. After a succession of furniture stores operated there during the 1950s and 1960s, the Raczs spent two years transforming it into the medieval-styled Hungarian Castle. When the restaurant opened in 1972, it joined the large number of Hungarian eateries along the Bloor strip owned and patronized by fellow refugees who fled Hungary after the Soviet Union crushed the revolution in 1956. To make their eatery stand out, the Raczs hired Oscar Berceller, former proprietor of legendary King Street celebrity hangout Winston’s, as an advisor.

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Toronto Star, December 28, 1973.

During the years it operated, the Hungarian Castle was known for its kitschy decor and windows covered in wrought-iron crests and gates. A basement bakery drew praise from customers for its goodies and scorn from health officials for its filth. The upper floors housed a series of bars ranging from the Spanish-themed El Flamenco to student watering hole Annie’s Place.

Following her husband’s death during the 1980s, Racz closed the Hungarian Castle. Those interested in the space received calls from Racz in the middle of the night to meet her at doughnut shops. Book City owner Hans Donker’s enthusiasm to move his store a few blocks east dimmed after such encounters, along with Racz’s insistence that he retain the restaurant’s furnishings. When he toured the space with Racz circa 1990, he noticed that display cases were filled with rotting pastry.

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Toronto Star, June 11, 1978.

BMV owner Patrick Hempelmann was equally frustrated by his dealings with Racz. “We’d set up a meeting, come to a verbal agreement, and then she’d find some reason to pull out,” he told the Globe and Mail. When he purchased the building from her estate in September 2005, he found its interior resembled a horror-movie set. Liquor bottles still lined the bar and tables were set for dining. Pots were left on the stove and dishwashers were filled with plates. Grand pianos and raccoon corpses had rotted. The bakery was buried in four feet of water. It took three months, a crew of workers wearing ventilation masks, and 40 large dumpsters to clean the place out. Despite the decay, Hempelmann was relieved when the building was found to be structurally sound. A year after he bought it, book browsers filed in to spend hours looking for finds.

In some respects, the long decay of the Hungarian Castle mirrored the demise of the Hungarian community along Bloor West. Where it was once, as writer John Lorinc once termed it, “a veritable Budapest of eateries,” only the Country Style in the heart of the strip and the Coffee Mill in Yorkville survive. Perhaps the medieval warriors who graced the building’s exterior were fighting as best they could until they had to give in to the changing landscape.

Additional material from the February 27, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the August 28, 2004 and December 10, 2005 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 30, 1972 and June 11, 2006 editions of the Toronto Star. Since this article was originally published, the Coffee Mill closed in 2014.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, November 25, 1972.

 

 

 

Vintage Toronto Ads: The 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival

Originally published on Torontoist on June 30, 2015.

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eye, June 17, 1999.

Three months before the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival opened, new artistic director Chuck McEwen received an unpleasant surprise: a call from the owner of the building where the festival’s offices were located indicating the summer event had to find a new home. “That was an unexpected and high-pressure situation,” McEwen told the Star. “We had such a small amount of time to actually find a space and then move. And it’s difficult finding office space in the Annex area that fits our current budget. So it was tense.”

Quarters were found at Bloor and Spadina, and the festival rolled on. Over 11 days, 93 shows were presented. The best known, The Drowsy Chaperone, was promoted as coming from “the co-creators of Honest Ed! The Bargain Musical.” Having evolved from a stag party, the show earned kudos during its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre. “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry,” noted Now reviewer Glenn Sumi. “Well, OK, you won’t cry. But you won’t want to leave either.” The Star’s Robert Crew accurately predicted that, with a little reworking, “the potential is enormous and it will be back.” The show eventually won five Tonys for its Broadway run in 2006-2007.

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1999 Toronto Fringe Festival program.

At least one other show had an extended afterlife. Chris Earle’s one-man show Radio: 30, about an ad voice-over artist, received universal praise. “Radio: 30 questions our gullibility and willingness to believe what we hear,” eye’s Kamal al-Solaylee wrote, “or at least what we want to hear. It constructs parallels between acting and advertising…with humour and brutal honesty.” The show returned for the festival’s 25th anniversary in 2013.

As with any Fringe fest, some titles were more interesting than others. We’ll let your imagination figure out the plots of Haroon’s Dinner Theatre of Cruelty Presents Ethyl X in “London Bridge” (A Story of Sex)The Tale of Baldrick the Sausage & Other StoriesThe Fabulous Smokey Topaz Multimedia Extravaganza, and Wanda’s Visit and Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room.

There were also those unfortunate productions which caused critics to hold their noses. For example, Now gave its lowest rating—one N—to three shows: Afterwards You Smoke (“you’ll want them to stand up, shut their mouths and quickly leave”); Broken (“a bathetic, broken record”); and The Dead Monkey (“an overextended, unfunny sketch that veers sharply into unbelievable melodrama”).

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1999 Toronto Fringe Festival program.

Keeners may count how many of the eateries listed in the ad above still feed Fringe attendees. It’s interesting to note the last gasp of Bloor’s days as an outpost for Hungarian food—within a few years, Country Style was the only survivor.

Book City Closes a Chapter

Originally published on Torontoist on January 14, 2014.

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Globe and Mail, November 3, 1979 (left), November 17, 1979 (right).

Another one bites the dust.

Yesterday afternoon, Book City announced that after a 38-year run, its flagship store at 501 Bloor Street West will be closing this spring. “The lease was up, and we agonized over the decision,” general manager Ian Donker told Quill & Quire, “but sadly it didn’t make much sense to continue.” It will be the second iconic Toronto book retailer to close this year, after the World’s Biggest Bookstore shuts its tills next month.

Born in the Netherlands, store founder Frans Donker came from a family that ran a publishing firm. “I am third generation in the book business if you count my grandfather Willem,” he told the Star in 2001. “He was a liberal Christian minister who wrote bad novels about poor farmers’ sons falling in love with the girl in the mansion.” Donker moved to Canada in 1969 and worked for the Classic Bookshops chain and publisher Fitzhenry and Whiteside before opening Book City with his wife Gini in 1976.

The store found its niche selling a wide variety of non-mainstream paperbacks and quality remainders. Early ads touted its selection of mystery and sci-fi titles, and deals that weren’t restricted to weekend specials. As one ad boasted, “You can come down to Book City and pick up an armful of bargains any day. Or any evening.” Spread across two floors connected by narrow staircases, browsers were pointed upstairs by a sketch of a dapper bearded gent. For a child discovering bookstores, it was fun to run across the creaky upper floor. For adults, the store provided a relaxing place to browse new titles and explore the latest cheap finds.

Book City also developed a reputation for supporting Canadian literature, through sponsoring prizes and stocking up-and-coming authors. In a 1992 interview, Donker described how the store marketed Nino Ricci’s The Lives of the Saints:

Nino Ricci had been in my store, a bit shy, but very likeable, telling us that his book was coming out. A small publisher came to us later and presented the book. I read a chapter, one of my buyers read a chapter, and we agreed, this is darn good stuff. So we decided to put ourselves behind the title, and instead of five books for the shelves, we bought 50 for the tables, and recommended it to people who came into the store. They too liked it and told friends, and it started to snowball. I completed the book, loved it, and promoted it even more. Sadly enough, not enough booksellers supported it.

To celebrate the store’s 15th anniversary in 1991, Donker commissioned a novella starring writer Howard Engel’s detective Benny Cooperman. Engel’s story, The Whole Megillah, included a scene in which the suspects met on the upper floor of Book City.

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Globe and Mail, October 13, 1979 (left), October 20, 1979 (right).

During its first decade, Book City frequently violated provincial Sunday shopping laws. While David Mirvish sold remainders on the Lord’s Day thanks to Mirvish Village’s tourist designation, Donker was fined whenever he opened his doors. For a time in the early 1980s, Donker exploited a loophole that allowed businesspeople to declare Saturday as their Sabbath. The result: the main floor was open Monday through Saturday, while the upstairs became The Book Loft, and operated Sunday through Friday. Until the laws were fully relaxed, Book City received periodic warnings to play nice.

Book City became a chain when it opened its second location at 663 Yonge Street in 1984. The number of branches has varied over the years—at its height, six stores operated across the city, and regular warehouse sales took place in Leaside. The chain held its own during the onslaught of superstores like Chapters, while other independents folded. Donker prided himself on his close relationships with suppliers, and believes Chapters harmed itself by not cultivating such ties (they “destroyed publishers by demanding every last nickel”).

The chain’s three remaining locations at 348 Danforth Avenue, 1950 Queen Street East, and 1430 Yonge Street will stay open. Expect plenty of reminiscences over the next few months, as the Annex store joins the list of local bookstores that will live on in customers’ memories.

Additional material from the November 3, 1979 edition of the Globe and Mail, the June 1992 edition of the Metropolitan Toronto Business Journal, and the June 18, 1977, January 12, 1981, October 23, 1991, August 8, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

As of early 2018, Book City is back up to four locations, adding one in Bloor West Village.

We’re Renovation Obsessed

Originally published on Torontoist on August 1, 2008.

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Three years after A&P Canada was purchased by Quebec-based Metro, changes stemming from the deal are becoming evident to shoppers at the company’s Dominion stores in Toronto. The Equality and Master Choice house brands are gradually being replaced with the Selection and Irresistibles labels. Bakery shelves include loaves of Première Moisson bread. Aisles are being rearranged and exteriors torn away as three aging stores (Yonge-Eglinton Centre, Bayview-Eglinton [above], and Bloor-Robert [below]) undergo renovations.

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Though these three stores were long overdue for an overhaul, another factor may be spurring the sudden spate of activity. It may be coincidental that rival grocer Sobeys has recently opened or is planning “Urban Fresh” concept stores near the Dominions under renovation. Sobeys has rapidly expanded in downtown Toronto, taking a page from Britain’s Tesco chain in developing smaller, convenience-based stores that fit better into high-density neighbourhoods than the large-box strategy pursued by Loblaws after it closed many of its smaller locations.

UPDATE

Within months of this article being published, the Dominion banner vanished from Toronto, replaced by Metro. Several of Sobeys’s downtown Urban Fresh locations had short lives (for example, the one on Bloor Street in The Annex eventually became a Bulk Barn).