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Toronto’s Honest Ed’s gets tossed into the bargain bin of history

Honest Ed's store at Bloor and Bathurst. Toronto. July 16, 2013.

Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

Even bargains can grow outdated.

Honest Ed's is one of the few discount stores that could ever deserve to be called iconic. With its excitable hand-painted signs (Don't Just Stand There! Buy Something!), utter devotion to retail miscellany, and tongue-in-cheek mocking of now-dead founder Ed Mirvish (Honest Ed's a Nut! But Look at the "Cashew" Save!), the Toronto landmark has supplied the city with readymade retail quirkiness while extending the incomes of budget-conscious shoppers for 65 years.

But the garish and strangely exhilarating complex at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst Streets, an intersection that could be considered prime real estate if a jokey bargain centre weren't hogging so much space, may be too valuable to be left as a place to get stuff cheap.

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The massive but defiantly independent retailer is now up for sale itself – and no one is likely to get the kind of deal that the theatrical flashing lights of Honest Ed's have promised to its customer base of newly arrived immigrants, penny-pinching students, poor people on social assistance and shoppers who simply love the thrill of the bargain hunt.

"It's an interesting site and it's an interesting time," said George Carras, president of RealNet Canada real-estate analysts. He described the property's location as "tremendous," given its subway access on a prized retail street that has been developing from the denser city centre to the east, toward the less intensive Honest Ed's location.

The City of Toronto aims to expand density at its subway nodes, and local Councillor Mike Layton – who grew up around the corner from Honest Ed's – sounded excited by the possibility of a creative redevelopment of the site that could include a mix of retail and residential.

"It's a large site, a lot of really cool things could happen on this site," he said. "I think there's a lot of potential for it."

But any transformation of the property will likely bring sweeping changes to a store that Mr. Layton agrees is "iconic."

In a retail environment where even the cut-rate end conducts itself with dependable chain-store uniformity, Honest Ed's can't help but stand out. This is no job-lot empire, but a single store, infused with the boisterous character and personality from another time – an era of peddlers' push carts and street hawkers, where sales volume was generated by strident self-assertion and a mesmerizing panoply of products, both needed and unneeded.

Cheapness is the one universal of Honest Ed's product line, and everything is sold in cramped rooms that scream out "bargain" by making no concessions to consumer comfort or artful display. For some unknown reason, black-and-white photos of long-gone theatrical figures decorate the store, though it seems unlikely that Dame Edith Evans or Sir Cedric Hardwicke ever queued up for bin-end votive candles or the free frozen turkeys once handed out by Ed himself during the Christmas season.

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On the day that the site was revealed to be for sale, you could buy sandals for $1.99, a rolling suitcase for $19.99, a foldable Canada Day maple-leaf chair for $9.99, a decorative wooden lighthouse for $3.99 and "Ladies or Misses Fashion Summer Dresses" for a mere $2.99.

Every day of the week features its own 99-cent "door-opening special" – two kilos of yellow split peas on Sunday morning, a litre of sunflower oil on Wednesday, a kilo of oatmeal on Saturday.

Weekly specials are also used to lure in customers, who, according to 65 years of Honest Ed's theory, will then be further tempted to fill up the rest of their in-house blue shopping bags with stuff they hadn't intended to buy. This week, 99 cents will get you such necessities as 128 metres of dental floss, a shower curtain, a canister of Pringles sour-cream chips, a jar of Italian strained tomatoes, a kid's T-shirt, a litre of 2-per-cent milk, two tins of chicken Vienna sausages or 50 hardwood clothes pins.

If you wonder who still uses wooden clothes pins, you're clearly not an Honest Ed's shopper.

It may be a fine line between must-have bargain and dust-gathering tchotchke, and the utilitarian Ed's customer who spots a bargain in a cast-iron cooking pot may wonder who passes through the turnstile entrance off Bloor Street ("Come This Way, You Lucky People!") to buy a figurine of Jesus on the cross or a bright bouquet of plastic flowers. But the genius of Honest Ed's was not to make retail a matter of taste or discernment – just throw it all out there and let the canny customers decide for themselves.

As the congratulatory signs state, not far from the giant photos of Honest Ed posing with the Queen Mother, "Through These Doors Pass the Nicest People in the World – Our Customers." It was always the pleasant feeling at Honest Ed's that shoppers were somehow doing him a favour by taking this cheap stuff off his hands.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of former stage actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Sir Cecil Hardwicke. The version above has been corrected.

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