I will always know it as San Cheng Lau, which roughly translates to “three-floor building” in Cantonese. My mom tells me that’s what the Chinese grandmas, who didn’t know English very well, called Honest Ed’s. Cheng Lau became part of our vernacular in our household and a place we frequented often, given how close it was to where we lived. My grandma, Ngin Ngin, petite in stature, with permed salt-and-pepper hair, knew a bargain when she saw one. She went to Cheng Lau the most, lining up for the infamous door crashers, at times, or stocking up on dishwashing liquid, toilet paper, toothpaste and plastic wrap. Those 10 cent, 68 cent, 88 cent or 99 cent days were endless.
Ngin Ngin first took me to Cheng Lau when I was about four years old. We went after she picked me up from kindergarten. Every summer, she loved to take me to Ed Mirvish’s annual birthday party, which spanned the whole of Mirvish Village. My birthday landed the week before his so it seemed like a triple celebration of me, Ed Mirvish and summer. Balloons were tied all along Markham Street, beside the store, which would be blocked off to create a pedestrian-only zone for the celebration, creating a fairground feel to the day. There was an air of excitement, punctuated by live music that we could hear from two blocks away. Ngin Ngin and I would line up for hours for the free hot dogs, popcorn, orange juice and cake, and we’d come home with bags of goodies. One year, we stood near the front of the main stage and the cast of “Crazy for You” performed. Towards the end of the song, I saw a small group of people usher Mr. Mirvish through the barricade and help him sneak into the paper birthday cake they were about to wheel out. I gasped! I couldn’t believe it! Was that really him? I’d seen photos of him standing next to celebrities scattered around Honest Ed’s, but to see him standing not too far from me was like seeing Santa Claus. At the end of the performance, out he came; there was a thunderous applause and loud cheers, followed by everyone singing “Happy Birthday.” He climbed out from the cake, stepped down from the stage, and shook people’s hands. I have a vague memory of him shaking my grandma’s hand, a gesture that left a Cheshire cat smile on her face. All I could think was: he’s real.
My dad co-owned a grocery store, Wong Bros. Provisions, on Eglinton Avenue West. It eventually closed due to the loss of business when the Eglinton West subway station was being built. He then worked at his friend’s grocery store near Yonge and Eglinton. I remember my dad would come home with bags of apples and oranges from the store. When I was young, I’d meet him at the door and help carry the groceries into the kitchen.
A few other classmates and I were mocked for shopping there; it was seen as a place where only poor families went.
I must’ve been 12 years old when I begged my dad for a bike. I had hoped we would go to Canadian Tire, but instead he took my sister and me to Cheng Lau. There weren’t many, so the one we chose was red with a plastic, fluorescent pink seat and handlebars, and yellow lettering. It was no Raleigh or BMX, and the seat was extremely uncomfortable, but it was definitely a step up from the tricycle I’d long grown out of. After dinner, when it wasn’t too hot and was still light out, my dad would take the bike out of the garage and into the laneway. Back then, the laneway became the extension of our backyard; it was our playground. We didn’t have to worry so much about cars zooming by like they do now. He taught me the basics in a methodical way, much like how he taught me the basics of addition and subtraction on an abacus and taught me my times tables. It may seem hard at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never forget it. So that summer became the summer of learning to ride a proper two-wheeler.
And by the end of it, I did learn how to ride that bike, but not without shedding some tears. Once, when he let go of those handlebars, I managed to make it halfway down the laneway before I fell off. I cried from my fall, but the bike, despite it being from Honest Ed’s, remained intact. When I was a bit more confident, my dad would let me go out to the laneway on my own. I would peddle as fast as I could, speeding from one end of the laneway to the other. And each time I got closer to the main street, I would test myself to see how much further I could I go before my dad would come out to check up on me. I did make it to the other side of the street, one time, and I felt a thrill of excitement. I was ready to tackle whatever came next.
The next year, when I reached Grade 8, I started to distance myself from Cheng Lau. A few other classmates and I were mocked for shopping there; it was seen as a place where only poor families went. I’d deny I’d been there, or I’d make up a story that my parents forced me to go, which I felt guilty about the moment it left my mouth, as if I was trying to pass on my embarrassment to them. Either way, my classmates knew and I cared. For that brief period of my life, I felt ashamed to be seen at Honest Ed’s, let alone shop there. I think that year I might have even skipped the annual birthday party. My family continued to go; they had no shame. To them, Cheng Lau was about convenience and deals. And as much as I wanted to share their values, all I could hear in my head was “Christina’s so poor, she shops at Honest Ed’s.” The bike that reminded me of the summer that I could conquer the world was abandoned and left to collect dust in the garage. Once I was within earshot of another classmate being made fun of for shopping at Honest Ed’s. Rather than giving in to their taunts, she defiantly said, “So?” I wished I could have done what she did. But when I reached high school, I didn’t have to deal with those peers anymore. I found out some of my fellow students in my homeroom also shopped at Honest Ed’s. I knew I didn’t have to pretend anymore, and I resumed my ritual of browsing the aisles with pride.
Located at the southwest corner of Bathurst Street and Lennox Street, around the corner from Honest Ed’s, was Kidstuff, a small toy shop I often went into as a kid. I remember buying loads of gimp to make those knotted bracelets and also Sandylion stickers (because I collected stickers at the time), and playing with the wooden train set at the back of their store. For the longest time, there was a mural on the side of the shop that depicted Mirvish Village and the neighbourhood. At the top of the mural was Markham Street, and the bottom was the Bathurst subway station. I would pass it on my walk up to Honest Ed’s and to school. I loved that mural. Once, after seeing a mural in a similar style on the northeast corner of Adelaide Street West and Widmer, I managed to track down the artist. Bill Wrigley told me in an email that Ed Mirvish had commissioned him to paint the mural in the summer of 1987 to depict “larger than life figures that I thought represented Toronto, some who were from the neighbourhood. One was Ms. Rhondi Palangio, a fashion designer who owned a shop on Markham Ave., and of course the aforementioned Mr. Mirvish.” But to me this mural reflected the clientele who shopped at Honest Ed’s. Over time, the artwork peeled off in some areas, was tagged and graffitied on, and then was eventually painted over in the early 2000s. I was gutted when that happened, as it seemed to come without warning. Wrigley told me that it was probably painted over because the wall itself already had extensive water damage prior to 1987. He added, “No mural lasts long in the elements anyways.”
In 2007, Ed Mirvish passed away and in the summer of 2013, it was announced that the discount store was up for sale. The Honest Ed’s building was aging, that much was true. Inside the store, departments were downsized. I remember when housewares spanned all of what became the Bad Boy electronics store and the groceries department took up all of what became the Fabricland sewing store. In the last couple of years before Honest Ed’s closed, whenever it rained, buckets with newspaper underneath were placed throughout the ladies department on the third floor to catch the leaks. By November 2016, shelves were being emptied and moved around, areas were cordoned off and consolidated. “Excuse our look. We are preparing to leave! Thanks for the memories,” the signs read. As one employee pointed out to me in early December, “Everything is getting smaller and smaller.” And within the last few weeks, the shop windows — no longer dressed — bore signs saying “Closing December 31st. Thank you for the patronage and the wonderful memories. Happy Holidays. David Mirvish and the staff of Honest Ed’s.” Everything was being cleared out at a swift rate. Bare walls, furniture stacked, lights dimmed, random merchandise and handwritten signs available for purchase. It was a stark contrast to its former heyday.
Every Christmas, my mom would ask if I still saw the Chinese grandmas still lining up for the turkey giveaways. I told her yes, but not like before.
A few summers ago, I found in our garage a garbage bag stuffed with old paper bags from Honest Ed’s. There was a musty smell to them. Quite a few of the bags had faded over the years and some were slightly worn, but a few still held their shape and colour. One read:
to shop at
And another had a Christmas theme. Another time, when I was going through my dad’s desk, I found a full-page ad from 1984 from a Sunday edition of the Toronto Star. It was an 88 cent sale — Redpath sugar, Napoli spaghetti, Aim toothpaste, cassette recording tape, “pom pom sox” — all for 88 cents! Mind you, that was a sale you still could have seen in today’s shop! And from the flyer, I discovered there used to be a record department on the main floor. These discoveries made me emotional, because I wasn’t able to ask my dad why he had kept these things; he had passed away unexpectedly years before in March 2010. Along with the flyer, I also found a commemorative complementary TTC token celebrating the opening of the Bloor-Danforth line, a business card from his grocery shop on Eglinton, an old city directory and a receipt from Simpson’s for a washing machine. These seemed to mark special moments in his life. I closed the drawer and left everything intact. I felt obliged to hold onto those old bags and flyer.
It was a moderately warm afternoon last May, though still not warm enough to leave the house without a jacket. It was just past noon and a small crowd had already begun to gather at both the northwest and southwest corners of Bloor Street West and Markham Street; a police officer was directing traffic. A childhood friend had emailed me the night before asking, “Are you gonna go?”
“I wasn’t sure,” I’d replied, “I’m thinking about it though.”
I found a vacant spot on the concrete tree planter steps away from Kops Records, located diagonally across from Honest Ed’s. I scanned the crowd: it was a diverse mix of both young and old. Quite a few had cameras in hand, and others had their cell phones out, ready to capture the moment. Cars even slowed down to see what we were all staring at. We were witnessing a part of city history being removed. We were, in fact, witnessing the removal of one of the Honest Ed’s marquee signs. It was a painstakingly slow process, as the construction crew took down the sign. The scale and operation were much bigger than I expected. Once a section was removed, what lay behind was pale yellow brick and rusted steel beams.
A few months later, the quirky slogans like “Honest Ed’s a monkey! You can buy his bargains for peanuts!” and “Honest Ed is never right. And his bargains are never left!” that had decorated the Markham Street side of the building were quietly taken down. All that remained were silhouettes of the signs and gaping holes. But it wasn’t until I read an article on BlogTO that I knew they were gone. I walk down that block regularly and didn’t think to look up — partially because, in my mind, I never envisioned Honest Ed’s to not be there.
I struggle with how I feel about the closing of Honest Ed’s. It’s been very hard to articulate to friends and strangers what that place meant to me. I have seen the former campuses of my high school, Loretto College, converted into luxury condos at the Loretto, the Schoolhouse Lofts and B.Streets. The shops in the neighbourhood change over many hands. But the closure of Honest Ed’s hits me the most. In all honesty, it may seem silly or trivial to grieve over the closure of a building, but it was more than just a building. Cheng Lau saw me through my childhood, adolescence and now into adulthood. I will miss its lit-up Vegas-like sign, its slogans along the exterior and interior of the shop, its staff whom I’d gotten to know over the years and, of course, its bargains. Where else will I find a cotton sweatshirt for $2.99, two litres of milk for $1.99 (sometimes 99 cents), houseplants for $2.69 or socks for 50 cents?
At the top of that old ad that I found, it reads: “Often imitated but never duplicated.”