Vintage Toronto Ads: Have a Honky-Tonkin’ Happy New Year

Originally published on Torontoist on December 31, 2014.


Weston Times-Advertiser, December 22, 1964.

For many, music is a vital component of their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Hitting the dance floor, listening to a live act, or gathering around a piano to sing old favourites help glide the transition into another year.

In the 1960s, finding the nearest honky-tonk piano player or turn-of-the-century-inspired performer helped some Torontonians mark the calendar change. Across North America, genres like ragtime and barrelhouse piano music experienced a revival, sending bars like the New Toronto Hotel in search of the nearest musicians with striped shirts and 1890s-styled gowns. It was kitschy, but it allowed audiences to get into the spirit of things by encouraging them to drop their reserve and merrily sing along.

Pianist Charlie Young chalked up the revival to fatigue with a scary new musical style. “People just grew sick of rock ‘n’ roll,” he told the Star in 1962. “Rock had nothing for the older ones, or indeed anyone from 35 up. They turned to ragtime.”


Globe and Mail, December 18, 1961.

Club 76, named after its location on 76 St. Clair Avenue West, claimed to have started the old-timey music trend in Toronto. Owner Bob Cook opened his establishment in August 1959 after listening to ragtime pianist Bob Darch perform while vacationing in the Bahamas. Cook booked Darch as his first headliner, who was soon followed by Young, whose act relied on a century-old piano he found filled with sand in a Colorado hotel. To enhance the nostalgic atmosphere, silent movies were run simultaneously.

Musicians who latched onto forms of old-time piano scrambled to find ways to stand out as bars and lounges joined the bandwagon. “Honky-tonk piany hasn’t even scratched the surface in Toronto,” observed Maxe Sherman during a tenancy at the Concord Tavern’s Gaslite Room in 1961. “But you still have to have a gimmick.” For Sherman, that involved becoming a one-man band whose act included foot-operated maracas and tap-dancing on his piano stool.

One of the most popular venues was the Gay Nineties Room at the Brown Derby Tavern (now the site of 10 Dundas East). For seven years, singer Georgina Rogers and pianist Jimmy White led nightly honky-tonk and ragtime singalongs. The pair played in a Latin-themed band in a local hotel before launching their tenancy at the Brown Derby in 1960. Regular patrons were occasionally given the chance to warble a verse or two on their own. Among those joining in was opera star Teresa Stratas; the first time Rogers noticed Stratas, she went over to her table. “Say, you’ve got a nice voice,” Rogers joked. “You should take this up.”


Toronto Sun, December 28, 1972.

Around 1967, Rogers and White moved north to the Trophy Lounge at the Beverly Hills Motor Hotel on Wilson Avenue. Globe and Mail critic Blaik Kirby felt the move was a mistake: the space lacked the atmosphere and intimacy they enjoyed downtown, and the suburban audience wasn’t keen on singing along. By the early 1970s, White played a regular gig to a more appreciative crowd at the Barmaids Arms at Yonge and Davisville.

Back at the New Toronto Hotel, while George Small won’t be on hand to play all your old-time favourites this New Year’s Eve, the joint may still be jumping via its current incarnation: the Jay Jay’s Inn swingers club.

Additional material from the March 9, 1967 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the August 29, 1960, July 19, 1961, May 4, 1962, and March 28, 1964 editions of the Toronto Star.


As of the end of 2018, the New Toronto Hotel operates as The Westlake.


sun 1979-03-30 rimstead on death of jimmy white

Toronto Sun, March 30, 1979.

When Jimmy White died in 1979, Sun columnist Paul Rimstead wrote about one of his last performances.

Toronto Illustrated ’57

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on December 11, 2010.


Toronto from Lake Front.

Toronto, “The Queen City,” has many attractions for its citizens as well as for the thousands of tourists and others who visit it each year. It occupies a fine site by the shores of Lake Ontario, has beautiful residential areas and public parks, many handsome financial and industrial buildings, a good transportation system and a wide range of high-class retail stores, equal to the best found anywhere. It has an abundant supply of cheap hydro-electric power and natural gas and a large airport with worldwide connections. It is also a centre of cultural life with its churches, University, colleges, museum, art gallery, Conservatory of Music and technical schools. Its social service organizations receive generous support of the citizens each year.

With those words, editor James Cowan introduced the 1957 edition of Toronto Illustrated, an annual guide for visiting businesspeople and tourists. Following greetings from Metropolitan Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner and Mayor Nathan Phillips, the guide provides a heavily illustrated selection of noteworthy events and sites around town.

The cover features a northward view along University Avenue, with Richmond Street along the bottom.

Pre-9/11, the United States Consulate on University Avenue seems bare without its concrete barriers and security precautions.


Continuing north, the newest attraction at the Royal Ontario Museum was a presentation of the story of creation in the geology gallery (seen above on the right; the Ming Tomb is on the left). Access was far more affordable than now: free, except on Wednesdays and Fridays when it cost a quarter to get in.


The lone map in the guide points out the locations of local attractions and landmarks, including many that have faded into history. Given special attention is the three-year-old subway line, which is described as “the world’s newest and most modern.”

Break time! Care for shopping and entertainment along Yonge Street near Dundas Street? For those looking for modern touchstones, the Imperial is now the Ed Mirvish Theatre, while the southwest corner of Yonge-Dundas Square occupies the site of the Downtown.


A view of the western harbour, featuring sites still around (the Tip Top factory, the Island airport) and long demolished (Maple Leaf Stadium). Absent, but not for much longer, is the Gardiner Expressway: the section between the Humber and Jameson Avenue opened the following year and was extended to York Street by 1962.


Quick, name the first ongoing Shakespearian festival in Canada. Stratford? Nope. Try the yearly selections of the Bard’s works staged outdoors on the grounds of Trinity College, presented by Earle Grey and his wife Mary Godwin. Actor/director/producer Grey staged his first production (Twelfth Night) at what is now the north end of the quadrangle at Trinity in 1946. The festival officially began three years later and featured a mix of experienced British actors and rising local talent—among the Grey company’s alumni were Timothy Findley, Lorne Greene, Don Harron, and William Hutt. The magazine notes that “it is a joyous and unforgettable experience to pass an evening watching one of these great plays being performed under a starlit sky, while a sly moon peeps over tower or turret.” Grey’s slate for 1957 included The Tempest (whose opening night was marred by rain and faulty lighting in the backup venue), The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet.

Despite the higher prestige of the Stratford Festival, Grey’s festival appeared to have a promising future. The following year, funding was secured via grants from the city, province, Canada Council, and the Atkinson Foundation, and a new three-level stage was constructed on the west side of the quad. The promise of productions to come didn’t last long—following the death of Trinity College rector and longtime supporter R.S.K. Seeley, his successor declined further use of the site for productions. After an unsuccessful search for a new site, Grey and Godwin returned to their native England.

Also spotlighted was the new home of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind on Bayview Avenue. The site’s mix of libraries, offices, and residences had been officially opened by Governor-General Vincent Massey the preceding April. Tenants of the Clarkewood residence were relieved to have private bedrooms after having lived in dorms in the CNIB’s former residence on Sherbourne Street. Among the amenities was a ‘Garden of Fragrance” that included metal Braille plates to identify the flora in the flower beds. The new facilities were judged to be “a fine tribute to the noble cause which they represent.”

After brief surveys of the city’s past and present, the editorial staff looked ahead to Toronto’s future:

At no former period in its history has Toronto witnessed such rapid development as at present. The central area is undergoing great changes, old office buildings are giving place to large modern structures, commercial buildings are moving out to the suburbs or are undergoing “face lifting”; family residences, with their lovely gardens, places of gracious living in Victorian days, are being replaced by apartment blocks of strange design—the city is changing with the times. Other developments planned include the following: the creation of a large civic square, adjacent to the present city hall, to be flanked with a large modern civic building, court house and other public buildings; an up-to-date civic auditorium at the corner of Yonge and Front Streets; completion of the Regent Park Housing development providing 1,289 units of modern sanitary housing; the extension of Eglinton Avenue East to connect with Scarboro Township; an extension of the present subway on the line of Bloor Street; an expressway across the southern part of the city near the lake front; diagonal highways to connect with the north-eastern and north-western areas of the city…in addition, the opening up of the St. Lawrence Seaway to permit the entrance of ocean-going ships to the upper lakes will greatly increase shipping and call for the enlargement of the Port of Toronto.

Additional material from the Summer 2005 edition of Trinity Magazine and the February 21, 1956 edition of the Toronto Star. All illustrations derived from Toronto Illustrated.

A Square Grows at Yonge and Dundas

Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2013.

When Yonge-Dundas Square officially opened to the public a little over ten years ago, in the spring of 2003, there was plenty of head-scratching. Touted as the latest curative for an ailing Yonge Street, it appeared to be little more than a granite-covered space amidst construction hoarding and video displays. The collection of jean shops, burger joints, and surface parking lots it replaced might have been disreputable and tatty, but they had character.

Perhaps the problem was that the square was a puzzle piece in a jigsaw effort to create Toronto’s version of Times Square. The space wasn’t finished when Snow and Treble Charger graced the stage in front of 10,000 people on opening night on May 30, 2003; there were still light standards to install and a TTC entrance to complete. Circling the square were incomplete projects like Metropolis (which evolved into 10 Dundas East, sans proposed tenants like Virgin Megastore) the Torch building (which went from showcasing Olympians to housing CityTV), and renovations at the Eaton Centre.

Supporters of the square urged patience. Star architecture critic Christopher Hume admitted the unfinished state made it hard to appreciate the site’s possibilities as a gathering spot. His peers on the Star editorial page were harsh: “Does this flat black patch not look for all the world like a parking lot at a Scarborough strip mall?” they wondered. “It doesn’t help that one end is covered by what appears to be a missing off-ramp from the Gardiner Expressway.”

Yonge-Dundas Square owes its existence to a major transportation decision made during the first decade of the 20th century. To create a new crosstown route, side streets were stitched together to extend Dundas Street east of Ossington Avenue. The square emerged when a jog separating the former Agnes and Wilton streets was bypassed at Yonge Street. Until the late 1920s, the road along the south side was known as Wilton Square, a name that survived at least one petition to change it to its present moniker.

From 1948 through 1972, one of the square’s major landmarks was the Downtown theatre. Located on the northeast side of the intersection of Yonge Street and the Dundas Square roadway, the Downtown was noted for its 4,000-light marquee and one of the busiest concession stands in Canada. It complimented nearby cinemas along Yonge like the Biltmore, the Elgin, and the Imperial. Following its demolition, the Downtown’s site was home to businesses ranging from a Classic Bookshops discount outlet to a Lick’s.

The rest of the square housed restaurants and retailers, with a surface parking lot at the back. During Yonge Street’s sleazy era, proposals emerged to improve the streetscape around Dundas Square to increase safety and combat street vendors illegally hawking their wares from doorways. An idea that reached the city’s public works committee in 1977 would have turned the Dundas Square roadway into a cobblestone-lined pedestrian mall housing 30 licensed street vendors. Objections from neighbouring jewelers, who feared the impact of a street closure, killed the plan.

Between 1996 and 1998, City Council and other government bodies granted approvals aimed at transforming the square into an open area. The major proponent was Councillor Kyle Rae, who felt it would cleanse the neighbourhood. He wasn’t unhappy to see the existing streetscape—and its reputation for drug dealing—vanish when demolition began in 1999. “The city expropriated those buildings, which were at the extreme end of their life,” he told the Star in a 2003 interview. “They were basically a criminal landscape. There’s no other way of saying it.”

A design competition attracted over 65 hopefuls. The winner was Brown + Storey Architects. Working with the high volume of pedestrians and vehicles passing by the square, they kept intrusions to a minimum. As architect James Brown told the Star in 2002:

The square is porous. We’re moving water through it, people through it…it’s the new landscape, artificial, man-made, though the granite is real, natural. But we’re making it porous, connecting the underground systems, pedestrian linkages, lighting, electricity, water, subway, everything that serves the upper surface. We’re applying the same principles in any ecological system to the surface. That’s what’s interesting about the square. It’s also about cultural infrastructure.

Brown and partner Kim Storey earned a Progressive Architecture citation from Architecture magazine in 2000.

Crowds took advantage of the square soon after the hoarding came down in late 2002. Protests against the Iraqi War tested how the space would function for mass gatherings. The first year of official programming included concerts, tie-ins to Caribana, and a mayoral debate. (We weren’t able to find out when the first free samples of soda were handed out.)

By the end of the square’s first year, opinion remained mixed. The National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer admitted that the square’s minimal décor was starting to seem more appropriate as buildings rose around it. “It’s a crossroads,” he observed, “a place to take a breath between shopping and dining and movie-going and ersatz bobsledding. A respite from all the flash.” On the other hand, a new publication called Spacing was less entranced by the ad overload and rules meant to prevent users from chalking the surface. “It’s sanitized and militarized,” magazine co-founder Matthew Blackett told the Star. “It’s a public space, apparently, but it’s a mirror to the mall.”

Time has mellowed some early critics. Writing for Eye Weekly in 2003, Edward Keenan lamented the replacement of a streetscape that had grown organically with a square “that looks like an abandoned bus terminal.” On the cusp of tonight’s tenth-anniversary concert, he reflects that “it works because it doesn’t get in the way by trying to be the big attraction itself…it turns out to be a monument to people. To us. To Toronto.”

Additional material from the January 16, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the September 2, 1977 and October 6, 1998 editions of the Globe and Mail, the June 4, 2004 edition of the National Post, and the May 8, 1926, September 2, 1977, March 18, 2002, May 29, 2003, June 1, 2003, and December 3, 2003 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Guns on the Move

Originally published on Torontoist on October 9, 2012.


The Globe, June 3, 1882.

Business seems to have been good for gunsmith and ice-skate maker J.L Rawbone in 1882. Good enough that he was able both to move into prime downtown real estate and to lease a factory for his business. We hope that the shift to new premises was the only removal made by the weapon depicted in the ad above.

Rawbone’s business, founded by his father and originally located at 123 Yonge Street, was profiled in J. Timperlake’s Illustrated Toronto: Past and Present (Toronto: P.A. Gross, 1877):

This house, established in 1870, is now the leading establishment in Ontario for everything connected with sportsmen, and is situated on Yonge Street near Adelaide Street. It is the only manufactory of breech-loading gun implements in Canada, in addition to which Mr. Rawbone has also the largest gun implement factory in the United States, from whence he supplies goods to his American, English, South African, and Australian customers. The celebrated “Rawbone Creaser,” and the “Rawbone Combined Hand Turnover Rammer and Extractor,” are the products of this house. The house obtained honours at the Centennial and Australian Exhibitions in its exhibits. The fact that previous to starting his factory in the States the American houses ordered largely from him in preference to their own makers in spite of a prohibitory 40 per cent, speaks volumes for his workmanship and figures. Sportsmen may rely upon obtaining the genuine article from Mr. Rawbone, he having been a large manufacturer in England previous to 1870.

Timperlake seemed confused as to which generation of Rawbones was successful before coming to Toronto—it’s difficult to imagine a pre-teen, as J.L. would been prior to 1870, running an international gun business.

As for J.L. Rawbone, the “practical gun maker” later shot the “e” off his last name. Joseph Loxton Rawbon (1855–1942) was born in Cape Town and moved to England during his childhood. He came to Toronto in the early 1870s after his father set up shop here. He preferred painting and art restoration to gun manufacturing. His obituary claimed that he once toured Europe with a 15,000 foot panorama he painted of Niagara Falls.

Footnote: In the ad, Rawbone notes that his business is moving close to Aikenhead & Crombie’s, which evolved into Aikenhead’s Hardware, which evolved into the Canadian division of Home Depot, where you can buy a gun safe to store your antique Rawbone weapons.

Additional material from the September 15, 1942 edition of the Globe and Mail.

Sam “the Record Man” Sniderman: He Said It, He Did It

Originally published on Torontoist on September 24, 2012.


Globe and Mail, August 21, 1971.

Sam Sniderman was typically modest when he assessed his contribution to Canadian music. “I have done more than any other individual to forward the recording industry in Canada,” he boasted to the Globe and Mail in 1967.

But it wasn’t just ego talking. Over a 60-year retailing career Sniderman proudly championed Canadian artists, whether it was prodding major labels to sign local artists, encouraging government-funded talent development programs, or providing the first significant sales floor space to artists ranging from Gordon Lightfoot to Raffi.

The announcement late last night of Sam the Record Man’s death has rekindled many memories of his landmark Yonge Street store five years after it closed, former customers fondly recalling the first record they bought there, spending hours looking for obscure imports, and joining the crowds lined up for the annual Boxing Day sale.

View of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street

View of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, June 23, 1971. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 3, Item 25

Sam Sniderman entered the record business in 1937, when the 17-year-old budding entrepreneur was given space in his brother Sid’s radio shop on College Street. In the years afterward, he gave several accounts as to why he was drawn to records. The usual story is that he believed it would help woo a girl who loved classical music (if so, it worked—he married Eleanor Koldafsky a few years later). In another telling, Sniderman remembered being wowed by tales about the industry from an RCA Victor salesman, even if those tales were meant to push records. “I was intrigued with the stories he was telling,” Sniderman recalled in 1996, “and I wanted to find some sort of niche for myself.”

By the 1950s, records overtook the shop’s radio sales, leading to a name change: that was when the store became Sam the Record Man. It moved to 347 Yonge Street in 1961, a decision Sniderman once admitted was spurred by arch-rival A&A’s tactic of pasting his ads on their window with his name removed. The battle between the Yonge Street titans was fierce, with Sam’s developing an edge for its bargain closeouts and deep selection. With his trademark wide smile, Sniderman told the Globe and Mail in 1967 that “we’re friendly competitors, except that we’ll stab each other in the back whenever we get a chance.”

Sniderman was a hands-on owner, strolling through the store to advise customers. Local lore held that he had memorized the entire inventory, an impressive feat given its depth. The store became a place where people who came in for a particular record quickly lost a few hours flipping through the bins. Each expansion added to the ramshackle (if sometimes maddening) charm, bringing with it more crooked floors and mismatched rooms. To many tourists, a trip to Toronto wasn’t complete without walking through the doors under the spinning neon discs.

Sitting still was difficult. Sniderman said he was “driven by a compulsion to become involved. I can’t just sit on the sidelines. I’m into an idea and before I know it I’ve said things and made commitments and I know deep down I can’t make six appointments for 2 p.m. on a single day.” Among the things that kept him busy were establishing the Sniderman Recordings Collection at the University of Toronto (which comprises some 180,000 sound recordings), serving as a director of CHIN radio, supporting the Yonge Street pedestrian mall during the early 1970s, investing in a neighbouring Chinese restaurant which bore his name, and assisting numerous agencies devoted to developing Canadian musical talent.

Capital works - Yonge Street and Gould Street. - [between 1977 and 1998]

The Gould Street side of Sam’s, before the chess tables went in, early 1980s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 26.

Helping homegrown musicians was a point of pride; Sniderman maintained that “talent is a country’s best resource.” He pushed multinational companies to pick up Canadian acts, promising to sell at least 1,000 copies of any album they offered. He reputedly landed Joni Mitchell her first spot at the Mariposa Festival. “If Ottawa had any sense,” he told the Globe and Mail in 1971, “it would buy out Sam the Record Man and build those 90 stores just to plug Canadian talent. Why if each shop sold just five discs apiece, we’d have a national hit on our hands.” He envisioned a federal “Canadian Talent Development Board” which would underwrite artists who wanted to record or tour. Not that there wasn’t a profit motive involved: “I make plenty of cash out of Canadian records,” Sniderman said. “If I didn’t, I’d throw them out of the store.”

Musicians became loyal customers, even if it meant Sniderman had to cater to their whims. Glenn Gould annually called the store on Christmas Eve for last minute gifts. When Sniderman told Gould how crazy the last-minute rush was, the pianist pleaded “please Sam, do this for me. I need you.”

When Sam the Record Man went bankrupt in 2001, he admitted the one song that he would take if stuck on a desert island: Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me.” “Anne’s voice had helped through bad periods before,” Sniderman observed. “I find it very comforting.”

For music lovers, his store was equally comforting.

Additional material from the February 11, 1967, August 21, 1971, and November 23, 1996 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the November 3, 2001 and June 30, 2007 editions of the Toronto Star.


The day after this piece was originally published, that week’s “Vintage Toronto Ads” column spotlighted Sam’s.


Toronto Star, December 10, 1948 (left); Toronto Star, December 19, 1952 (right).

Besides the iconic presence Sam the Record Man had on Yonge Street, it was a long-standing advertiser in Toronto’s newspapers. Starting in the 1940s as Sniderman’s Music Hall, the record retailer lured in music lovers with sales on the latest releases and back-catalogue items.

Many of the early ads we found highlighted Sam’s selection of British and foreign-language albums, capturing a city starting its transformation from a staunchly loyal outpost of the British Empire to today’s multicultural landscape. Parlophone Records would aid Sam’s sales from the 1960s onwards…or their major mop-topped act (who was released on an associated EMI label in North America) would.


Toronto Star, November 15, 1957.

Two major changes occurred to the store’s ads during the fall of 1957. The “Sam the Record Man” name appears to have been adopted at this time, though die-hard customers had been using it for a while. Also taking shape was the ad format Sam’s used for the next half-century, filled with pictures of the week’s major sale items.


Toronto Star, November 15, 1957.

There was only so much space to show the records, so lists of other specials were included. The store also touted its easy access from the College streetcar.


Toronto Star, July 20, 1961.

Before Sam’s occupied its best-known location at 347 Yonge Street in 1961, the building housed a furniture store. While Sam’s operated out of a temporary location further south at 219 Yonge, A.R. Collis held a “selling out sale.” Fifty years would pass before the site witnessed another store closing blowout.

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


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


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


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 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.



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


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


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


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


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


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


Quill & Quire, May 1974.

A&A Books & Records


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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 Ad: Miracle on Yonge Street

Originally published on Torontoist on June 7, 2011.


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.