In a city that has experienced massive expansion and development in recent years, Toronto’s Kensington Market remains a neighborhood in the true sense of the word, not just some condo dealer’s fictitious creation. It has also proven remarkably resistant to change. Aided by strong community activism, Kensington has fended off numerous attempts by big-box retailers to open within its borders. A recent try by Walmart was stymied, at least temporarily, by a one-year freeze on large retail development in the area. It is unlikely that the tides of commerce will be stemmed forever, but the market I visited this week was remarkably similar to that of my youth.
I recognized many shops and faces among all the new arrivals. Turnover has always been high, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many stalwarts remained and the creative new businesses that have taken over once-familiar spaces. The distinctive Victorian architecture remains largely intact, and even on a blisteringly cold winter day there was a healthy crowd roaming the streets.
I was there to shop vintage menswear, and this is where many of Canada’s oldest and best secondhand shops call home. My first stop was Exile. Full disclosure: My first job in fashion—my first job, period—was at Exile. I inquired after my former boss, Lynn Harpell. She founded the original shop in 1975 and has been in operation in various locations around the market ever since. The young man behind the counter informed me that I had missed her by a few hours. He also mentioned that Lynn happened to be his mother.
Lynn’s son, Jed Lueras, is now roughly the same age I was when I worked at Exile. The selection remains as strong as ever and about quadruple the size. There is an emphasis on denim and rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts, but there are also many more refined pieces to choose from. I happened to note that the daily cash report Jed was working on hadn’t changed since my tenure there a lifetime ago.
Arguably the first vintage store in the market, Courage My Love is also in the hands of the next generation. Cece Scriver, daughter of founders Stewart Scriver and Patricia Roy, now co-owns and runs the boutique. Courage has beautiful pieces, particularly for women, as well as a huge selection of beads and jewelry handpicked from all over the globe.
The butchers, cheese shops, and produce stores that have thrived in the market for generations are often family-owned and -operated. In the case of at least two pioneers, Exile and Courage My Love, the vintage shops are now as well. Just another reason I hope this neighborhood manages to retain its unique character, despite the odds.
Photos: Courtesy of Sean Shuter