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unimaginative2

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Traditional stores forced out of Queen St. W.

Queen St. W.'s trendy epicentre expands westward, forcing decades-old mom-and-pop stores to close
Oct 01, 2007 04:30 AM
Sandro Contenta
staff reporter

Queen St. W. is haunted by the ghosts of stores past.

They proclaim their fading presence with empty storefronts, commercial signs no one has bothered to take down, or a farewell banner.

"Thank you Queen St. for 64 great years," says a banner at the corner of Peter St., from Cooper's Office Furniture, which recently moved to Bathurst St. to escape a rent hike.

Gentrification, which has transformed a western swath of the street into boutiques, cafés, restaurants and art galleries, continues to push Queen St.'s traditional stores out of business, or off the street.

It has also split traditional businesses still on the street into two groups: those struggling with rocketing rents and those that own buildings now worth a small fortune. Business may be tough for most long-time merchants, but those who own their buildings can at least look forward to a relatively comfortable retirement.

The few hanging on thank loyal customers and the ultimate in niche marketing. In the trendy heart of Queen St. W., between University and Gladstone Aves., shoppers in need of a used traffic light or a wringer washing machine can still get satisfaction.

The traffic light sells for $100 at Active Surplus Electronics, which has been "buying and selling everything" at its store near Beverley St. for 50 years. Three years ago, high rent and property tax pushed the family-run business from its street- level location to a smaller, second-floor space next door.

"There's no staying on the main floor if you're a mom and pop operation like we are," says co-owner Ron Kohn, 37. "If there was no second-floor opportunity, we would no longer be on Queen St."

Kohn's great uncle began the business selling used machinery. It evolved into a surplus parts store with strange odds and ends, such as forceps, doll limbs – "We sold tons of them," Kohn says – and miniature Chinese terra cotta warriors.

Further west, near Spadina Ave., Jacobs Hardware store is fresh from doing its bit to make last weekend's Genesis concert at Exhibition Place happen. A roadie in desperate need of a metric bolt toured several hardware shops before finding it at Jacobs.

"That's how we build up loyalty, by having things that nobody else has," says co-owner Larry Krupski, 42, who started as a part-time employee at Jacobs 27 years ago.

The store, opened by the Jacobs family in 1924, is jam-packed with stock, from the basement to the main floor's 4.5-metre-high ceiling. Customers wind their way through a narrow path of stacked boxes to reach the counter.

"I don't want to move. I know where everything is in this place," says Krupski, who runs the store with three employees and co-owner Donald Fetter.

Krupski fears the prospect of packing up every nut and bolt when his lease expires in about two years. He says the landlord has been good to the store so far, but he's bracing for a sizeable rent increase.

He's also worried about losing business to a massive Home Depot store planned on a Queen St. parking lot nearby. To better compete, Krupski is considering extending business hours beyond 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. Saturday. He's also working on a website.

What he won't change is the personalized service. "You can come here for one screw or for 1,000 screws. There aren't that many places where you can do that."

At the corner of Niagara St., where Addison Used Appliances has been for 62 years, customer loyalty has kept business "steady," according to the store's manager.

She wouldn't give her name, but told the story of an old couple – both in their 90s – driving in from the suburbs recently to buy a fridge.

"They said they bought their fridge here in the 1950s, and now that it's broken, they wanted to see if we were still around."

But loyalty can't save stores from an economy that has passed them by.

Zafar Iqbal has a sign on his shop announcing the closing of his radio and TV repair service, at Manning Ave., after 50 years of business.

"I don't blend in here any more," says Iqbal, 67, referring to the street's transformation.

Iqbal bought International Radio & T.V. in 1994 after working there 20 years. For the past decade, it has been cheaper to buy new electronic equipment than to get old stuff repaired.

"I didn't want to believe it. Now I definitely know: This business is dying," he said.

Just west, an old sign above the popular Terroni restaurant recalls a business that sold "a complete line of guns and fishing tackle."

A shifting economy has also put the owner of Pantev Sewing Machines, near the Trinity-Bellwoods Park, out of meaningful business. He last sold a sewing machine in January and says he keeps the store open because staying at home would bore him to death.

"All the manufacturing jobs went to China," said the owner, who arrived from Bulgaria in 1973. "Nobody sews any more."

The consolation for Iqbal and Pantev's owner – indeed, for several of the mom and pop businesses that have closed their doors – is that they own or used to own property on a street where two-storey buildings sell for about $2 million.

Emanuel Belle, 65, has just put his building near the trendy Drake Hotel up for sale at $1.7 million. He rarely sells more than one used appliance a week, not enough to pay for more than $7,000 a year in property taxes, plus utilities.

After more than 30 years repairing appliances, he plans to buy a warehouse and home in Stouffville, and open a karate school for seniors.
 

Urban Shocker

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There used to be a nice Goodwill ( where the Bamboo went in, in the early '80's, I think ), the Marxist-Leninists ( or was it the Trots? ) had their HQ in a tiny space next to the old Rivoli, and Stork's chicken slaughterhouse was still in business on Queen when I was at art school. At least Malabar, tucked away on McCaul, remains.
 

Zephyr

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While I am not for mass culture US style, with yet another Home Depot, Starbucks, Walgreens, McDonalds' constellation every few blocks - do we need to mourn the loss of these storefronts? Many if not most of them were not very charming in my opinion, but there is always someone that will disagree with you.

Maybe there is some middle ground to save these businesses without saving this overwrought nostalgia for the crumbling storefront. Change is inevitable - both good and bad change - we have to collectively pick-and-choose what is worth saving, without strangling what I hope will this time be a positive change.
 

parvus

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There used to be a nice Goodwill ( where the Bamboo went in, in the early '80's, I think ), the Marxist-Leninists ( or was it the Trots? ) had their HQ in a tiny space next to the old Rivoli, and Stork's chicken slaughterhouse was still in business on Queen when I was at art school. At least Malabar, tucked away on McCaul, remains.
Trots (Spartacist League I think, not the Socialist Workers folks).

The M-Lers were at Palmerston and Bloor, before moving to College and Ossington. The CPers were at Av and Dav (at least the bookshop was; saw Milton Acorn reading there once), before moving to College and Huron, round the corner from Tim Buck-Norman Bethune House. And the En lutte folks were at Crawford and Bloor.

Now to bookstores on Queen: Remember Abelard and About and Gail Williams? (NW corner @ McCaul) and David Mason and Edwards and Village Books — all in the 1980s between University and Spadina?
 

Ahab

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I recall concerns raised about retail chain stores taking over the street at least 10 years ago. Queen St. from University to Spadina may as well be Any St. in Any Town, North America now. It feels more like an outdoor version of the Eaton Centre than a street where you can go and find unique shops and restaurants. While some old shops still remain, it's really a matter of time before they're replaced by another chain store. What surprises me is that, compared to Queen St., Yonge St. seems completely immune to change (aside from Yonge and Dundas of course).
 

299 bloor call control.

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The change on Yonge is often in the restaurants... for a while we had 1000 sushi joints, they all shut down, then we got 1000 thai joints, which shut down, then we got 1000 jerk joints, which shut down, and now we have 1000 shrawma places... until the next food fad sweeps the city
 

junctionist

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There's plenty more Queen West where that came from. Seriously, go west and there are lots of currently boring storefronts (appliance repair often) and dilapidated yet graceful blocks. Everyone assumes that it will keep going west, and why wouldn't that happen? That is unless slum apartments in midtown locations become the next exciting location for indie artists, but even in that case, Parkdale is right there.
 

unimaginative2

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I recall concerns raised about retail chain stores taking over the street at least 10 years ago. Queen St. from University to Spadina may as well be Any St. in Any Town, North America now. It feels more like an outdoor version of the Eaton Centre than a street where you can go and find unique shops and restaurants. While some old shops still remain, it's really a matter of time before they're replaced by another chain store.

That's a bit of an exaggeration. Queen from University to Spadina may have some chain stores, but it still has many unique, if somewhat expensive, local stores that are doing quite well.
 

Jarrek

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The change on Yonge is often in the restaurants... for a while we had 1000 sushi joints, they all shut down, then we got 1000 thai joints, which shut down, then we got 1000 jerk joints, which shut down, and now we have 1000 shrawma places... until the next food fad sweeps the city

So true. And before the sushi it was Chinese.

I wonder when Ukrainian Food - Pyrohy, Borscht and Cabbage Rolls will get their due.

:D
 

urbandreamer

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^Well Queen West between bathurst and niagara used to be Ukrainian central. Less than 10 years ago your food could easily be found around some dives. Even today, a few remnants remain (Ukrainian Baptist Kirk--always wondered what that grey grim looking building looked like inside.)

If you're into Ukrainian/Russian food, check out bloor west.

Maybe the next big food trend will be Iraqi food? Or Peruvian?
 

CDL.TO

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I can think of hundreds of streets in cities and towns across North America which are full of local independent stores (with a few banks mixed in at the primary intersection(s)). Now, for outdoor streets full of medium-and-high-end chain retailers that would normally be found in a mall mixed healthily with high-quality independent restaurants and stores I can think of very few (are there ANY chain restaurants on Queen West that aren't fast food?). Maybe one or two streets tops in each large city if that. Coexistence isn't very common.

Sure it's almost an outdoor shopping mall, but Queen West is now unique in Toronto. Without the high-quality chain stores it would be any other street in downtown Toronto and if I need to shop at a chain store I'd rather go there than the Eaton Centre any day of the week. It brings people downtown for a different shopping experience and once they get used to it they move on to those other nabes like West Queen West or College Street or Spadina or the Annex that they never would have otherwise. I'd bet dollars for donuts that Jane Jacobs was a huge fan of Queen West.

Even if you have no desire to go there, it's a great asset to the city. Is it any coincidence that the progression of Queen West has coincided almost perfectly with the progression of downtown?
 

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