By Nicole Cohen
The sign is impossible to miss. Stretching across the corner of Bathurst and Bloor Streets, its 23,000 bulbs illuminating the neighbourhood, putting some Las Vegas signs to shame.
Honest Ed’s has been a staple of Toronto life for more than 59 years. One glance at the store’s sign conjures images of bargain-basement shopping at its finest.
For the city’s immigrant community, however, the store has meant much more. Many have strong emotional ties to Honest Ed’s, the first large-scale discount store in North America.
In its early years, it was a shopping oasis for cash-strapped immigrants. IT’s also the place where immigrants found their first job. Although today discount are a dime a dozen, Honest Ed’s continues to draw new and old immigrants to its labyrinth of bargain bins.
Frank Mirabelli has worked at the store for more than 33 years. It’s his first and only place of employment in Canada. It’s also the place where he met his wife of 25 years.
Mirabelli immigrated to Toronto from South Africa in 1966. His relatives suggested he apply for a job at Honest Ed’s.
“It was easy to find work here and become established,” Mirabelli says. “I knew [Honest Ed’s] was good about hiring people new to the country.”
Mirabelli has moved up the ranks, from a part-time floor salesman to manager of the electronics, cosmetics and jewellery departments. He is now passing his skills to immigrants working under him.
“It’s nice that there is a place like this that takes people like me in, giving them have success.”
On any Sunday afternoon the store, which spans over an entire city block, is a microcosm of the surrounding neighbourhood. People of all nationalities sift bins filled with $4.99 cutlery sets and $6.99 CDs.
Yvonne Wright picks out baby clothes to send to her daughter in Jamaica, filling her striped Honest Ed’s shopping bag.
“It’s hard to find this good quality for the cheap prices in Jamaica,” she says. “People from all over know about Honest Ed’s and ask for things sent home.”
Through word of mouth, the store’s reputation has grown among the Caribbean community. Wright heard about Honest Ed’s from friends before she moved to Canada from the Caribbean in 1993. She shops there because the market-like atmosphere reminds her of her home country.
“I like to see what I buy,” Wright says. “I like to touch it and look at it without messing with the package.”
The owner Honest Ed’s, Ed Mirvish, says many immigrants are accustomed to shopping at markets where they get to feel and pick up what they’re buying.
“Shopping in a marketplace atmosphere is becoming rare these days,” Mirvish says from his office tucked behind the second-floor carpet department. “People who shop here don’t access to Internet or home-shopping.”
Filling this niche has been the key Mirvish’s success. In 1982, Ryerson gave honorary certificate for cultural and community development, reflecting the impact Mirvish’s store has had on a range of ethnic groups.
“All nationalities shop here and all nationalities work here,” says Mirvish, “and that is why we do what we do, we fill people’s need.”