Honest Ed’s is synonymous with ‘landmark’ for most Toronto residents. They know it’s the spot for the best deals on cheap products, for nearly every facet of your life. Located on Bloor and Bathurst Sts, in the safe, culturally vibrant Annex neighbourhood, the one-of-a-kind retail space lights up like a 1940’s Hollywood movie trailer. Oozing with kitch and authenticity, and spanning 160,000 square feet, the bargain haven is akin to that a carnival maze, making shopping here nothing short of a first class navigation expedition. But that’s just part of the “come in and get lost” experience.
Honest Ed’s founder Ed Mirvish never said he’d save you time, but he did promise to save you money. Perhaps no one knows this better than the man upstairs, above the pharmacy section in the West Building. His name is Douglas Kerr, and since the 1970s, he’s been hand painting that famous in-store signage, boasting catchy tag lines and ninety-nine cent deals.
We arrange to take Dougie’s photos. He leads us to a dimly lit alcove, up a stairway to what feels like a secret hideout. With a small window overlooking the floor below, the neatly-cluttered narrow office holds paints and pictures and poster paper, books and pens and scissors, and from 9 am – 5 pm Monday through Friday, it holds our subject, Dougie Kerr, aka Mr. Dougie.
Sometimes the room holds his co-worker too, but, rather thankfully, he’s not in today. Quarters are close and camera angles are tight. Contrarily, the atmosphere is comfortable. As we invade his privacy, Dougie mentions how in all his years of painting, it appears that a good number of people, especially young people, are now reverting back to hand-painted signs, or are at least showing an interest. He’s been approached and asked to teach how to do the hand-lettering. Though he hasn’t entertained the idea to actually set up shop, he does admit “I’m hoping that the hand-lettering tradition and craft can be carried on.” Perhaps, something to consider..
He shows us around, well, really side to side, pointing out photos of celebs, and friends, and of Ed Mirvish himself, of whom he knew personally. “His wife used to come in the store, eh” he tells us, “but not anymore.” The now deceased Ed Mirvish [1914 – 2007] aka Honest Ed, left behind a Toronto legacy, one that started with a $212 life insurance policy, propelled by a never before seen publicity stunt. In 1948, the entrepreneurial couple had an idea to open a bargain basement, even then called “Honest Ed’s”. It was stocked with all kinds of odd merchandise, snapped up at bankruptcy and fire sales, and displayed on orange crates. Nothing fancy. With the Great Depression and two World Wars coming to pass, the unique no-credit, no-service, no-frills business model was an immediate success. Mirvish claimed to have invented the “loss-leader”, below-cost discounts on selected items designed to lure buyers into the store. And boy, did it work.
Billed as the world’s biggest discount department store, Honest Ed’s was bringing in million dollar revenues annually. Expansion of the store and of the neighbourhood were natural causality. In the 1950s, Mirvish started buying up houses on Markham Street running south from Bloor, and in a failed an attempt to build a parking lot, Ed decided to turn the in-the-way Victorian houses into affordable rental spaces for local artists. A community was born. Studios, galleries, boutiques and niche shops form what is known today as Mirvish Village. His reach into the arts was extensive, with the Mirvish family purchasing and even building theatres (The Pantages, The Ed Mirvish Theatre, formerly The Canon Theatre, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Princess of Wales Theatre ). Mirvish was an opportunistic business man and publicity stuns were his calling card. From riding elephants and hiring protesters to picket his own restaurant over its dress code. Above all, Ed was a philanthropist, a true peoples person. Take for instance that every Christmas, Mirvish gave away ten thousand pounds of free turkeys in his store, to shoppers who stood in line for hours. His birthday is known in the city as “Ed Mirvish Day”, and upon turning 92, a lavish bash for close family and friends was matched for the public; many items in the store were on sale for 92 cents.
Of all these, the one bit of Ed that seems most endearing, is the Anne and Ed Mirvish Parkette, steps away from Honest Ed’s many entrances. Nothing fancy, just a tiny patch of grass, with a bench to sit on and ponder big dreams.
But now that Ed is gone, Mr. Dougie becomes the new icon of Honest Ed’s, if only because we can see and talk to him. Blissfully unaware to a point of dumbfoundedness, Dougie is a Toronto legend, and a well kept secret. On both our accounts, we “hope all this dribble gives you an insight into the life of a dinosaur”.
Of course, we would never disrespectfully refer to someone as ‘a dinosaur’, Dougie labels himself as such, but he’s not as old, or at least, doesn’t appear to be as old as that might suggest. It could be his love of cycling, which has given way to a fit physique, or maybe it’s that Scottish wit that keeps a youth about his face. Or maybe it’s because, Dougie has done what he’s wanted to do from the get-go, leading him to a trophy 45 years in an oft-referred ‘odd job’. We don’t know how much he makes. For one we don’t ask, and two we don’t care. A few night courses at the Glasgow Art School, which “didn’t help a whole lot”, and an apprenticeship in the ad industry would kick start the joint.
“Back in the early 60s, a lot of advertising was done by hand on posters; cinemas, billboards, things like that. My first job painting signs was in a display company, but they also had a sign department and that’s when I was first introduced to hand-lettered in-store signage.”
In very industrialized Glasgow, Dougie was busy learning his trade and perfecting his style, but he always found time for friends and pints of Guiness. Moving to Toronto in the 1970’s, a place he describes as “clean compared to an old Victorian city like Glasgow”, Dougie found himself in the sign painting trade once again. “I worked at a variety of sign shops, doing billboards, windows, displays, trucks, gold-leaf lettering, banners, things like that.” He even made friends and enjoyed pints a couple nights a week after work, experienced Canadian summers at the cottage, and those one-of-a-kind Canadian winters. He became a regular Toronto Maple Leafs Fan who, like most are “still waiting for that cup”.
Painting gigs were coming in steady. But then slowly and altogether, they weren’t. The industry began to change, computer graphics and design moved in on the frontier. “It became much more difficult to find work as a sign painter” he says. But as fate or luck or good timing would have it, Honest Ed’s was looking for someone at their sign shop. Needless to say, Dougie got the job.
But just what is the job as a sign painter for Honest Eds? Dougie explains it matter-of-fact. “Working at Honest Eds, I do a variety of in-store signage, sometimes producing 40-50 signs a day. I also paint Honest Ed’s quirky captions on the walls that you see throughout the store.” You know the ones – “Honest Eds – The Greatest Show on Earth!” and “There’s No Place Like This Any Place” and “Fashion Skirts $1.99″, all in that undeniable lettering, that has since become a trademark. “The font style is a casual style, that some people would call ‘slash’. It’s particular to the individual, but there is a basic design to it that makes it recognizable as the casual style.” Dougie was taught the slash style back in Scotland, and in Toronto, there were adaptations of it. Dougie adapted his own.
Curious to see what this looks like in person, we ask Dougie to paint something, so we can get an “action shot”. You can just tell he’s been doing this forever. Without a hum or ha, he sits with his sciatica-bothered leg on a simple wooden stool, slightly hunching over the drafting table. He puts his left arm underneath his free right hand to keep it steady, and begins to paint. It’s almost unbelievable. I look to his hand, then to the signs below in the store. It’s true I think, every sign in Honest Ed’s really is hand painted, hand painted by Mr. Dougie. But how to keep them looking so…consistent? “After many years of hand-lettering, it becomes second-nature. Also, the layout is very important in producing signs. You learn to create good layouts that are consistent all the time.” Almost as consistent as a computer. “Digitally you have the same fonts, and they’re just as good, if not better. But, they’re computer generated, so you lose some of the characteristics. In some cases, the spacing in computerized fonts is a bit off” which, if you’ve got the skill, is something you can control in hand rendered lettering. Though he uses it often, ‘slash’ isn’t his favourite font type. He prefers a nice elegant Serif letter. “With the Serif you can elongate it and make it more individual and give a theme to the message. I wonder if there is something behind the font choice of the signs at Honest Ed’s, some kind of theme. Indeed, there is something very nostalgic-looking about the ‘slash’ font. Does is encourage a flow of endorphins? Does it make us more readily reach for our wallets? Dougie dispels this notion. “You’re making things up. For me, I don’t see the font or the signage in that way. I use the slash font because it’s the quickest and easiest to paint. There are two types of slash – italic and upright. When I do the upright style, I like to add bounce to the sign by staggering the letters a bit which I would like to think adds more fun to the signage. I think people associate the font with Honest Ed’s only because it’s the only font on all of the showcards, but it’s not a conscious effort on my part or on the part of Honest Ed’s – I’m just trying to make as many signs as possible.”
Then I’ve made it up about the colours too. “No reason behind that either, except for that, in the 60s, they used to use all different colour schemes but it was only in the late 60s they changed to the white card with blue, red, and yellow colour scheme to make it more cost efficient and branded.” So what’s cheaper is faster is what’s going to work. But still. There’s something so special about these signs. And maybe I am making it up. But still, there’s something. It could have something to do with those young kids who are interested in sign painting. It could be that everybody knows Honest Ed’s. The history, the name, the deals…
Dougie proposes another stance for our photo. This time he’s standing, cutting a large piece of gleaming white poster paper. He cuts one piece down the middle and stores the halves away. My eyes follow to a pile of unused and non-useable signs. I want to ask so badly for one. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but it did. He looked around, and pulled signs that could no longer be used. “I could of whited-out the mistake and painted over top of that,” he says as he hands them to me “but it wouldn’t be clean.” I couldn’t really explain it, maybe I’m a closet hoarder or a sucker for history, but I was ecstatic to have left with not one, but three posters, really a nice vignette, carefully paper-clipped with the lettered side inwards, so as to avoid any damage. But I’ll do better than that. I’ll find sturdy frames and hang them somewhere nice. Hopefully after reading this, Mr. Dougie doesn’t think I’m a creep. He’s just a really cool dude, a relic in that he has seen and experienced the many changes in the sign painting industry, yet remains almost frozen in time, still using this perfected technique, a true art. Hopefully it can be passed on, and remembered, not left to become something or someone that time forgot.
Photos by Katie Sadie