Adjusting to change is always difficult. After spending your life interacting with certain places and surrounded by particular landmarks, it is hard to watch as the layout and demographics of an area shift.
In March 2014, Honest Ed’s department store held a massive sale, giving away its extensive collection of signs and posters from as low as 50 cents. As I stood in the grueling eight-hour-long line to purchase the mementos, I was hit by an overwhelming gust of nostalgia, reminding me of all the times that I was hopelessly lost in the beloved store that is soon to be shut down.
Instead of seeing the iconic sign that reliably lights up the intersection of Bathurst Street and Bloor Street West every night, Honest Ed’s is set to be torn down and will very likely be replaced by another addition to Toronto’s already extensive population of condominiums.
Turnovers in building ownership are hardly limited to major neighbourhood landmarks like Honest Ed’s — it is a challenge that the majority of business owners in the Annex are facing, caused largely by the ever-rising cost of rent.
Tony Merant, manager of Seekers Books — tucked away in the basement at the corner of Bloor Street West and Borden Street — has some colourful things to say about renting out space in the Annex.
“The rent is ridiculous in this area. It’s out to lunch, and it’s not good at all,” Merant says dolefully. “The rents are so high that we can’t cater to students without raising the prices, and then we just scare their business away. Even I’m having trouble, and I don’t pay the rent like others here.”
As the owner of Seekers Books for the past 27 years, Merant has seen the changes to the atmosphere and architecture of the Annex unfold around him. According to his account, in the past decade, the Annex has gone from a moderately priced neighbourhood to almost unbearably expensive.
“The bottom line is, taxes are getting too high. I pay $12,000 a year in property tax for this space, and this is just a basement space. So, what does that mean? It means that I have to sell $20,000 in books just to cover that tax,” Merant says, adding, “When I started out 27 years ago, it was about $350 a month. It’s gone through the roof, and it’s bullshit.”
In the same building as Honest Ed’s, a Bad Boy furniture and appliance store has set up camp where music icon Sonic Boom used to reside. The store’s move was not unprecedented; in 2011, Sonic Boom vacated its original spot beside the Bloor Cinema due to lease issues — eventually closing its Annex location.
The changes do not stop there. Book City was essentially run to the ground when the ownership became unable to afford the cost of renting out the space. Their struggles with rent were heightened by competition with BMV Books, whose prices are substantially cheaper.
Mike Murray, the manager at the BMV location on Bloor Street West, had little to say about Book City’s closing, but had a similar opinion to Merant’s on the Annex’s current financial quandary.
“The rates around here are going up,” Murray admits. “It’s unfortunate to see places like Honest Ed’s closing. Everything changes in this neighborhood, and a lot of it has to do with the rates of square footage.”
A LOSS OF CHARM
The closure of neighbourhood staples is only the beginning of the Annex’s new reality. As these iconic locations disappear, often accompanied with the demolition of their buildings, something new must inevitably take their places.
Neighbourhood transition isn’t always negative, however. Many Toronto neighbourhoods, including Parkdale, the Junction, and Regent Park, have undergone or are in the process of transition. In Parkdale and the Junction, the change has been for the better, including, among other aspects, the flourishing of a vibrant cultural scene and an increasingly engaged community.
These transitions, however, are in many ways unlike the transition in progress in the Annex. These neighbourhoods had a clearer impetus for change — namely to improve the standard of living in the community.
On the contrary, transition in the Annex has been largely driven by rising rent prices accompanied by businesses simply not making money. These changes amount to new architecture coming to an old neighbourhood and a loss of historic charm.
In just the past few years, condo developers have moved into the area, planting one oversized condominium after another in an area that is often recognized for its unassuming shops. These hip storefronts now exist in the shadows of mega-towers, looming above the neighbourhood’s original architecture and serving as a reminder of how unbearably expensive so many areas of Toronto have become.
Paul Bedford, Toronto’s former planning chief and guest professor in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto, explains that these changes disproportionately affect small businesses.
“Perhaps the key challenge is rising rents for small merchants who do not own their buildings. There will likely be a continuation of this given market trends if there is a demand for new and higher-end shops,” he says.
A COMMON PROBLEM
Bedford also notes that these challenges are in no way unique to the Annex. “This is a common problem everywhere [in Toronto],” he adds.
In Merant’s opinion, even if you are able to afford to live in one of these condos, it would not necessarily be worth your while.
“I’ve heard from friends who own condos that pay $800 a month in mortgage, and their condo fees are $700. They ask, ‘What am I getting for these condo fees?’ and the owners say, ‘Well, we clean the swimming pool once a week.’ … Who uses the swimming pool anyways?” he says.
For students, the cost of renting in the Annex is often unmanageable, and the possibility of eventually living in a charming downtown home in the Annex seems increasingly unlikely as the city becomes more gentrified and housing prices skyrocket.
According to Louis Ceriz, the manager at Suspect Video, “[The Annex is] becoming less of a cultural hub, and more of a place to go eat and buy clothes, and that’s it. In terms of any kind of culture significance, it’s lessening, unless what replaces the stores when they’re displaced are other interesting establishments. But I can’t see that happening since usually the rents are jacked up, so no idiosyncratic store can open up in this place, and it just ends up getting homogenized.”
As condos gradually arise not only in the Annex, but also in the entirety of downtown Toronto, living in niches like the Annex will become much less plausible and the exodus of residents to the ever expanding urban sprawl of suburbia is likely.
Having grown up on the outskirts of the Annex, I have a certain attachment to the buildings that are no longer there, or that will soon be gone. The image of Honest Ed’s — from its outlandish signs to a line of jacketed Annex-dwellers swathing around the building waiting for their free Thanksgiving turkeys — is embedded in the cultural memory of Toronto. The highly nostalgic landmark being bulldozed can seem like “a goddamn tragedy,” as one local passerby dropping into my conversation with Ceriz poignantly suggests.
But in the natural life of a city, beloved buildings disappear and are replaced with new, modern architecture in cycles. In a burgeoning global hub like Toronto, the pace of change is remarkable, but somehow, the allure of the city seems to persist — and the Annex, with its streets of old Victorian houses, short buildings, and students ambling along the sidewalks, is weathering its evolution for now.