Honest Ed's is no ordinary discount department store. It's so extraordinary that it was declared an official tourist attraction by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism in 1988.

Honest Ed's was opened by Ed Mirvish in 1942 on the same spot where it is today: the southwest corner of Bloor and Bathurst streets in downtown Toronto. The enterprise was financed by Ed cashing in his wife Anne's $212 life insurance policy, and the name was a marketing ploy: ("I thought it sounded appropriately stupid," said Ed, "but I figured if you knocked yourself, you'd get attention. It did. It hooked 'em.").

In its early days Honest Ed's was a small storefront selling merchandise picked up from bankrupt businesses; the goods were displayed in orange crates, and they were cheap. The current store is huge, covering three-quarters of a city block; it boasts the largest sign in the world (22,000 flashing lights), enhanced by cornball slogans penned by schoolkids (representative gems: "Honest Ed's is for the birds: his prices are cheap, cheap, cheap!" "Don't bother our help, they have their own problems!"). Honest Ed's has the dubious distinction of being the largest privately-owned department store in the world. Ed has refused many offers to expand or franchise, preferring to maintain his independence and control over the business. (Up by shoes you'll see a curtained-in office; that's where Ed still goes to work almost every day. Now in his late eighties, he still enjoys running the store that has helped to make him a millionaire.)

Since Mirvish opened the store he has become a major landlord in downtown Toronto, and owns several large and luxurious theatres - as well as the Old Vic in London England - but the retail business is where he started, and it's the business he knows and trusts.

Honest Ed's began as a discount emporium, and it remains so to this day. Daily door crasher specials, sold below cost to bring customers into the store, still cause line-ups, as does the annual Yuletide turkey and fruitcake give-away. Inside, you'll find a dizzying array of goods at bargain basement prices, everything from cheap cookware to inexpensive clothes, small appliances, kosher food, hardware, toiletries, furniture, even eyeglasses and prescription drugs.

You can tell Honest Ed's that has grown organically into its present layout as you climb stairs lined with theatre posters and cross causeways to reach all corners of the sprawling store. It's easy to get lost as wend your way down aisles while being serenaded by the Honest Ed song (I've heard it hundreds of times, and all I can remember is "Honest, crazy Honest Ed"). The exits seem impossible to find, and the middle class shopper, used to more refined and inviting locations, vows never to return.

But Honest Ed's is a mecca for low-income Torontonians and a true Toronto landmark. Mirvish himself isn't ashamed of his humble beginnings or his wonky store, and though I rarely venture in there these days, I appreciate the store and the man who made it.

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