Some of my fondest memories as a child start with a very hot — humid summer day. If you're from Toronto, then you know exactly what I’m talking about... very sticky, uncomfortable but way better than winter. The one thing that made it bearable was dropping by the neighbourhood variety store, located just around the corner from my house. I would buy a popsicle which cost 5 cents. My first choice always was a chocolate popsicle. If I had an extra 5 cents, I would upgrade to a Buried Treasure — orange sherbet ice cream on a plastic stick. On the top part of the stick (which held the ice cream) was usually an animal or circus character. Sometimes you could find: cowboys, baseball players and several different types of train cars. The stores were usually packed pretty tight with a variety of goods and had a large freezer, fridge in the back. In the corner was a tall standing rack, that can be seen by the clerk and where people would slide their milk jugs down to get their 25 cent refund. My favourite spot in the whole store was the wall behind the front counter, where the clerk patiently waited to welcome customers. On that wall was the jackpot, the piece de resistance, endless shelves of candies…. and chocolate bars. For 10 cents you can get, Liquorice Shoestring Lace, Liquorice Babies, Cherry Sours, Double Bubble (some wrappers were tattoos, wet your skin then place it on the skin for just a few seconds, very cool), Pixy Stix, Sugar Daddy, Popeye Cigarettes, Red Wax Lips, Lik-m-aid and to finish it off, Atomic Fireballs. If I was on my way directly home and not hanging with my friends, I would grab my mom’s favourite in the world... Black Liquorice Pipes. Yuck! They were so disgusting, but she really loved them. The clerk would then drop them all in a small brown bag and if you were good, he would throw in a couple of extra pieces.
These stores have been a part of Toronto’s urban landscape for well over a century. Independently owned by mostly immigrants who moved to Canada. Their only wish, to give their children a better life than what they had. They worked long hours each day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Depending on the type of store, they would sell anything from bread and butter to milk and eggs and don’t forget their biggest sellers, magazines and cigarettes. My father used to send me there to buy him cigarettes either for Rothmans or Players depending on his mood. That’s right, back then it was legal for a kid to purchase cigarettes for your parents. The clerk recognized you and knew your parents very well. As a matter of fact, they knew everyone in the neighbourhood. They were a fixture there and as much a part of the community as any school or house in the area. Before the big changes in advertising from the government, especially regarding the tobacco companies. The owners would get paid to display store front signs to advertise a manufacture (mostly tobacco and soda pop companies) logos and in exchange the store name would be added for free. Although, vary few of the pop companies still remain but forgotten by their advertisers, the tobacco ones are long gone because of the changes over the years in the laws. That was a huge lost in extra revenue for those owners. As you walk around your city, there are still glimpses of some long ago stores. Abandoned stores some with windows covered in paper, the signs still exist as a reminder of the good ol' days.
To all those independent owners, who worked hard and helped enhanced my childhood. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for the memories.