The Features

Hand Finished

From cat pans to lingerie, Honest Ed’s offers the most artful bargain in town.

From the Christmas, 2007, issue 

(No. 19)

Photograph by Conan Tobias
Alfred Holden and Conan Tobias

Once the tributes began to fade for “Honest Ed” Mirvish, the local proprietor and showman who died this July, at the age of ninety-two, the speculation began: what would become of his eponymously named, block-long store, located on a coveted piece of real estate at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets? The loss of Mirvish will surely make Toronto a little less colourful, and the razing of this wonderfully garish landmark could only add to that loss. And anyone touched by Mirvish’s generosity, such as the famous Honest Ed’s Christmas turkey giveaway, would surely lament the emotional and social gap the store’s closing would bring. But the end of Honest Ed’s would also bring about the end of an art form most other department stores have long considered a thing of the past.

So plentiful is the signage offering up bargains throughout Honest Ed’s, and so perfect and identical is the lettering on each, at first glace, one might assume they are printed by machine. But a closer look reveals the strokes of a paintbrush and the slight imperfections that come only from being created by hand.

Wayne Reuben estimates he paints seventy to eighty of these price signs a day. He is one of two remaining sign painters who work in the Honest Ed’s sign shop, a small, narrow room perched high above the shoppers in the store’s west building, and accessible though a low-ceilinged, second-floor labyrinth. Packed into the room are piles of blank, white cardboard, jars of paint, and stacks of previously used signs offering an “‘ED’S’ BARGAIN!” on everything from T-shirts to vacuum cleaners.

“They change the prices so often, it’s faster to do it by hand,” says Reuben, who estimates a single sign can take anywhere from four to twelve minutes, depending on the size. “It’s a fun thing he’s had since he opened the store. We’ve never really had computers here.”

With only a few high-school art classes as training, Reuben landed at Honest Ed’s immediately after graduation, in the late nineteen-sixties. He left the bargain warehouse in 1970 to work on window displays for Simpsons and other stores, eventually returning to Honest Ed’s as a sign painter in 1994. Now sixty, he mainly paints signs for the store’s east building, while his co-worker Douglas Kerr takes care of the west building. “At one time, there were seven guys working here,” Reuben says. “It’s something of a lost art.”

Catch it while you can.

Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias Photograph by Conan Tobias