In the original write-up here, Ed Mirvish was treated dismissively, which was sad, for his story is an interesting one, and he is a true Toronto institution.
"Honest Ed" was born Yehuda Mirvish in 1914 to Russian émigré parents living in Virginia. When Ed was nine the family moved to a poor Jewish neighbourhood in Toronto, where they ran a grocery store. Life was hard for the Mirvishes, and Ed helped his family in the store. When his father died in 1924, young Ed chose what seemed to him the best of the three options open to boys in the neighbourhood: work instead of school or jail.
For some years he helped his mother run the business, and then he closed the store and opened his own first business in 1940: The Sports Bar. In 1942 he cashed in his wife Anne's $212 life insurance policy to start the bargain emporium which made his fortune: Honest Ed's. (On the name: "I thought it sounded appropriately stupid, but I figured if you knocked yourself, you'd get attention. It did. It hooked 'em," he once wrote.) He bought his merchandise from companies going out of business, and his first ad read: "Our building is a dump, our service is rotten, our fixtures are orange crates. But our prices are the lowest in town, serve yourself and save a lot of money."
Today the one and only Honest Ed's is the largest privately-owned department store in the world. It covers more than three quarters of a city block (on Bloor Street West) and boasts the world's largest electric sign (22,000 flashing lights) and cornball slogans like "Honest Ed's is for the birds: his prices are cheap, cheap, cheap" and "Don't bother our help, they have their own problems." (The ads, each more of a groaner than the last, were written by school children.) Honest Ed's opens every day to line-ups of low-income shoppers eager to take advantage of Ed's door crasher specials (items sold at a loss to get people in the store). Every December people camp overnight on the street to take advantage of the annual free turkey and fruitcake giveaway. Every July 24th on his birthday (Ed Mirvish Day) he hosts a street festival with free hot dogs, cake, pop, and toys. Honest Ed's was named an official Ontario attraction by the Ministry of Tourism in 1988, and Ed still can be found in the store nearly every day, working closely with his staff.
But Ed is much more than a discount mogul and small-time philanthropist. He has changed the face of this city. In the 1950s, neighbours complained about the noise and traffic Honest Ed's generated, so City Hall recommended that Ed build a parking lot. He bought up a row of houses on Markham Street, around the corner from Honest Ed's, so that he could tear them down. By 1963, when the land was assembled, City Hall decided that a parking lot was not appropriate, so Ed had to find another use for the properties. With the help of his sculptor wife, he transformed the area into a little bohemia of art galleries and studios. Ed's son David used to run a private art gallery, and now owns an art bookstore, there. There are funky restaurants, the famous Beguiling comic book store, and other interesting businesses on the city block now known as Mirvish Village.
In 1963 he also bought the once-grand Royal Alexandra Theatre at a fire-sale price, spending twice the purchase price to lavishly restore the building to its former splendour. He then bought up neighbouring run-down properties and opened a series of restaurants, figuring that the theatre and food establishments were natural allies. In 1993 Ed and his son built the spectacular Princess of Wales Theatre just down the street from the Royal Alex. The area, once decrepit, is now a vibrant entertainment district, and has helped make Toronto one of the premier theatre cities in the world after New York and London. Ed also owns the historic Old Vic Theatre in London. "I've grown to love the theater business, but I've never given up my day job at Honest Ed's. I never will," he says. "Through the years I've discovered the bargains are dependable and predictable. I can't say the same about theater."
Ed Mirvish has received the Order of Canada and been named Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, which gives him the right to walk his sheep, untaxed, across London Bridge - and, in the event of his execution by hanging, the use of a silk rope. He won an architecture award for the Old Vic from the Royal Institute of British Architects and has been named Man of the Year and Mayor for a Day (on his 79th birthday). He has received honorary doctorates from Trent University, University of Waterloo and York University.
You (used to be able to/can) see a photo of Ed outside his store, and get information on how to obtain a CBC documentary about him, at
Ed had been ill since 2003, and was rarely seen in public, though when he was, he was wreathed in his usual smile. He died in July 2007, aged 92.