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cityscape

Boards of Ed

The man behind the hand-painted signs at Honest Ed's.

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From time to time, the landmark store on the southwest corner of Bloor and Bathurst will turn on its famous storefront sign and wash the street in the effulgence of its twenty-three thousand bulbs. It’s a captivating sight.

But often overlooked are the other signs at Honest Ed’s—the ones of blue, red, and yellow that, camped out amongst the items for sale, announce only their names and prices. No avuncular, groan-inducing puns or flashing lights to captivate your attention here; these seem homespun in comparison, easy to ignore. But like all things Mirvish, there is something unconventional about the signs, something off yet showy, and a moment of consideration reveals what it is: they’re all hand-painted.

At first, it seems impossible if not impractical that all these signs, which number in the hundreds, are produced by hand, endeavours of smaller scale nowadays being entrusted to digital means of reproduction. But look closely and sure enough minor variations in the letters start to emerge, perhaps in the vertical stroke of the “E” or the tilt of the “D.” A human hand, not a machine, authored all these signs. And they’re literally everywhere: walk into the store and the little rectangles dominate the visual field. Unconsciously, the eye anchors itself to the constellation of signs that, in the store of sundries stretching into infinity, is the closest thing to a consistent motif you’ll encounter.

Partly owing to a sentimentality for all things outmoded, partly out of sheer curiousity, Torontoist sought out who was responsible for these signs. After talking to a few employees who paused and gave us a look of half-pity, half-confusion when we told them we were interested in the signs, we got a name: Wayne Reuben.

We set up an interview with Wayne Reuben over the phone. At first, we pictured a nice but elderly gentleman—partially sighted, given to walking slow and sweater-vests—bent over a table, working slowly, purposefully, in regular measured strokes, and so was caught off-guard when the voice on the other line was clear and direct, his replies quick and terse.

“Hi, is this Wayne Reuben?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, hey. It’s Torontoist, we were given this number by Maria. We’re interested in doing a story on your signs…Did she say anything about that?”

“Somewhat.”

“Ok…”

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Wayne Reuben looks over the day’s requests.

Wayne is not elderly. He does not dodder. When he enters the room where we’re waiting, he almost fills the entire doorway and has to bend his neck so as to not hit his head. We shake hands. He leads the way to the sign shop, navigating the aisles purposefully, turning into an obscured passageway meant for employees only. “This way’s faster.”

Wayne told Torontoist that he started at Honest Ed’s in 1967, after graduating from college. He didn’t stay long—only two and half years—before leaving to do window displays at Simpson’s, then a large chain department store and main rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but now defunct. He returned to Honest Ed’s in 1995 and has worked there since.

Though he studied commercial art in college, it wasn’t until he became an employee of Ed Mirvish that he started to paint signs. An “English guy” named “John” is all he can recall about his predecessor who taught him the basics of his craft. As we walk through the store, he points out the first sign he did for the store in 1967, still hanging. The letters are inconsistent, diminishing in height as they go from right to left like some evolutionary timeline of letters but in reverse. Some words are crammed together to one side, leaving an unnatural gap. It’s an example of Reuben’s early period.

Eventually we reach a white, swinging door with the words “Sign Shop” painted onto the glass. A long table angled for comfort runs along the wall, splattered in yellow, red, and blue, and a vague lavender where the colours intermingled. Order forms and letter templates hang from above in binder clips, aging cartoons cut from newspapers and framed pictures of Blue Jays from their early-nineties apex beside them. On the shelves are bottles of red, blue, and yellow tempera paint—the kind you used in school. The office is as cluttered and varied as the store.

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Signmaker Douglas.

There is another gentleman, sitting on a stool, bent over a drafting table, finishing the sentence “As Advertised…” Wayne introduces him as Douglas. He’s been here twelve years and he and Wayne make up the store’s signs department. Each department of the store—menswear, groceries, etc.,—used to have its own team of sign makers, Wayne tells me, but now their ranks have dwindled down to two. It used to be that every sign hanging in every storefront was painted. Even advertisements appearing in major periodicals were illustrated in pencil then painted not too long ago. Long gone are those days, and now the overriding concerns of budgets and time constraints make the computer the logical option. “It’s a dying practice,” Wayne says. “Honest Ed’s is really the only store that does it anymore.”

It’s hard to picture an alternative to the signs that have quietly become as constitutive as the electronic sign itself. Wal-Mart-style signs with interchangeable numbers dominating the store, or worse, computer print outs would be terribly sterile and lacking. They’d be mute in a store where everything is optical drama.

Before we can ask what’ll happen when they retire, if the store will yield to the prevailing practice and bring in computers, we’re interrupted by a woman asking if it, a sign, is ready to go. Wayne interrupts the conversation to give the woman, Franka, a freshly painted sign advertising canned peaches.

“Ooh, that’s great, guys,” she says, pausing to examine it before going off to hang it in the store. “Thanks.”
There is a small window in the office that overlooks the store. Looking out it, you can see the main floor of Honest Ed’s. It’s sunny out and occasionally the light reflecting off passing cars will streak across shoppers who meander down aisles, pick up items, and examine them before putting them down again. They’ll glance, for a moment, at the signs, noting the price, but only that. Maybe because they don’t know or maybe because they don’t care, but maybe because in a store where novelty abounds, it fits right in.

All Photos by Matt Kim/Torontoist.

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