Category: Little Italy

Returning to Toronto

My husband and I went to Vancouver on January l9th for the winter. We were booked to return to Toronto on March 26th. The pandemic intervened and we elected to stay in place in our apartment on the west coast. Our house sitters were exceedingly generous and insisted that we stay away until we felt safe to return by air. We had assumed it would be the end of April. But then the end of April dragged into May and then into June. Clearly, we had to come back. Our house sitters had a life of their own, and we wanted to come home. It appeared as if Air Canada was “physical distancing” by declining to sell all the middle seats on the aircraft. That seemed safer, but the policy was only in effect until June 30th, so the time to return was now.

Returning home after an absence of five months presents challenges. I have no idea where whatever I need is stored in the kitchen. It’s there, for sure, but where takes some thought. The garden is overgrown and number one priority is to get the gardener in to do a “spring cleaning” and plant whatever is necessary for the summer. Then there is the car. The winter tires need to be changed, and because it has sat for five months without being operated, the brakes need to be rotored. Post-pandemic lock up, I need to get a haircut, and a pedicure. Still on the list is a visit to Costco to replenish basics, a window cleaning from White Shark, a chimney sweep, and a meeting with the accountant to finalize the income taxes we were not able to file from away. The list gets longer daily.

Apart from the domestic issues, Toronto as a city has all sorts of appeal. In the drug store, I found Lysol disinfectant wipes on sale at $3.00 off. In Vancouver they had been hard to find. At Fiesta Farms, I found cleaning alcohol which I never could get in Vancouver. Fiesta Farms has shopping hours for seniors, pregnant women and the disabled every morning from eight to nine Monday to Saturday. Those hours are much more extensive that we have experienced elsewhere.

People in Toronto are wearing masks and masks are now mandatory both on the TTC and in all public places. In Vancouver, masks are recommended on public transit and “when physical distancing is difficult” but are not required. Wearing masks takes some getting used to, and the protocol for how to deal with them (when eating for example) is not clear, but they are reassuring.

In Little Italy, there is considerable change. “Il Gatto Nero,” one of my favourite bistros which has been in the neighbourhood for forty years, has now closed. Around the corner from our home, an old café which I have never seen open has now put out a makeshift patio onto the sidewalk and we actually saw someone sitting there eating takeout. Across the street, a new restaurant opened in mid-February at the corner of Manning and Harbord. Called “Y Not Italian?” It is an excellent restaurant which we visited Saturday evening and which I will write about in a separate post. We probably got reservations on short notice only because the restaurant patio just opened last Wednesday. Within weeks, I predict that it will be swamped and tables will take some time to get.

The prevalence of bicycles in the city is refreshing. The new 25 kilometres added to Toronto’s bicycle network, in addition to another 15 kilometres already approved for 2020, is sufficient to get me back on a bicycle. That City Counsellors voted 23-2 in favour of the expansion saves years of future hassle. Although the addition is considered temporary, I cannot imagine that, when people become used to cycling on the expanded network, there will be any desire to do away with the changes. More likely, this will be a stimulus to further growth. For all the problems of the pandemic, some good is clearly coming out of it.

Aziza Cafe

For years, Aziza Café on College just west of Dovercourt has been a favourite for all-day breakfasts, brunch, and lunch. This past summer, the café moved to a new location two blocks east of Dovercourt, at 870 College Street. Two weeks ago, I was delighted to find the new Aziza Café and to talk at length with Lina Fonseca, and her daughter Amy Fonseca Reis, who are co-owners of the business. Theirs is a fascinating story, and their café is one to watch. It’s a work in progress which promises great things in the future.

The move has brought a more upbeat ambience. A Buddha sits in the window. A wall of wooden shelves and mirrors dominates the room, adopted from the hairdressing salon which was the previous tenant. The walls are hung with art. At the moment, it is a coffee shop (and tea emporium) that serves the same wonderful food made from the finest fresh ingredients that marked the café in the past. Apart from dining in the café itself, their menu is now available for corporate catering at Food-ee/Aziza Café and also for home delivery via Doordash and other residential delivery services.

In the future, the plan is to use the large patio out back, which becomes an oasis of green in the summer, and to encourage a casual vibe where people could come with their computers. They also see their café as becoming Toronto’s first bodega, a grocery store that sells food, as is popular in New York City. See the New York Times story by Julia Rothman and Shaina Feinberg entitled, “We Spent the Night at a Bodega and Wrote It All Down.

Lina Fonseca, 53 years of age, was born in Mozambique to a Portuguese father and a mother from Malawi. Lina’s father came from a wealthy family and was an officer in the Portuguese Army for thirty years. Her mother came from an African village and had no formal education. She became the mother of nine children and also manager of the large family farm with over two hundred employees. Lina’s father did a great deal of entertaining and insisted that his wife and four daughters learn French cooking. When Mozambique became independent in 1974, the new government seized all her parents’ assets and the family moved to Portugal. There, Lina’s father bought his sister’s family farm, with no running water and no electricity, and the girls grew up having to make everything including all their cheeses and sausages.

Lina came to Canada by accident, alone, at 18 years of age. A Portuguese cousin who spent her summers visiting relatives in Canada broke her leg and could not use her airplane ticket. Lina’s father asked all his sons whether they would like to travel on the ticket, but none wanted to go. Lina said she would like to go to Canada and, because the visit was to family and would only last the summer, her father agreed. By that fall, Lina had tasted life as an adult and had no desire to return. She telephoned her parents and told them she wasn’t coming back. Two years later, she secured permanent residency status.

Since then, she worked as a chef and as a waitress in numerous restaurants and bars, some her own; one she operated for three years in a hotel in Gibsons, British Columbia. She has also helped run a large bakery. She has three children, including a son who is interested in a military career like that of his grandfather and has just joined the Canadian army. She talks to her sisters in Portugal almost every day on FaceTime. She admits that it was her children who inspired her effort to resurrect Aziza Café after her previous business partnership ended with significant debts and a new landlord took over the property.

Lina’s daughter, Amy Fonseca Reis, at 25 years old, is now co-owner of the business. Amy considers herself an introvert, in contrast to her mother who is a “people person.” Amy is an expert in modern technology. She takes care of the books and deals with all the apps which must be used nowadays in the business. She is also an “idea person” who has a vision of where Aziza could go, and what they could do in the future. It’s an ideal combination, one partner with years of experience in the industry, the other skilled in technology and a visionary. At the moment, the two of them run the café themselves. They look forward to hiring more staff and moving forward.

Visit their café, or order in for delivery at home or at your place of business. Their phone number is 416-516-9909. I think you will agree that their fare is excellent.


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Balfour Books

Joyce Blair of Balfour Books has been in the bookselling business since the mid-1970s. When she graduated from U of T in literature, she was offered a government job that would have set her up for life. The night before she was supposed to start, a friend phoned to say that the bookstore where she had worked as a student, at the corner of College and Spadina in downtown Toronto, was faltering. If Joyce would take it over, it could be hers. Joyce had no clue about running a book store but decided that she was too much a free spirit for the government job, so she took the plunge. And she has been at it ever since.

She ran that store for a year or two, and then opened another on Queen Street with a partner. After 15 years there, she opened her own store, this time on College, west of Clinton. After another 15 years at that location, she bought the building where she is now located, closer to Bathurst, with an original ceiling, and tenants upstairs.

Her inventory is rich in art, photography, classics, cultural studies, philosophy, theology, literature, history, biography, literary travel, and children’s books. Murder mysteries and cheap paperbacks at bargain prices are always popular. Close to the University of Toronto, she stocks the books required for course reading lists.

When other specialized bookstores have closed, she has stepped in to fill the gap. The demise of TheatreBooks prompted her to build up her inventory of plays. The closing of The Cookbook Store stimulated her preoccupation with cookbooks. Now, chefs come to Balfour looking for interesting cookbooks. Joyce, and her colleague who specializes in academic books, keep a watchful eye for particular book titles customers seek by special request. A lot of her traffic comes from the street, some people browsing before and after dinner in the local restaurants, others attracted by her bin of books on sale for $1.00.

Talking with Joyce about the business of buying and selling books is fascinating. She says that bookstores selling new books and remainders have been hit harder by internet retail sales than have the used bookstores. Customers who haunt used bookstores do so for the hunt, a pleasure not replicated on the internet. Rare antiquarian books, however, are best found on the internet where the international market is readily accessible and prices are most competitive.

The problem today is that there are too many books out there. Booksellers like her are inundated with requests that she buy books. She seldom does. Instead, she relies on professional book scouts who assess libraries, go to yard sales, mine the recycling shops and the university book sales, looking for the specific types of books and the quality that she wants.

Balfour Books, at 468 College Street, is open Monday to Saturday 11:00-8:00 p.m., Sunday 12:00-7:00 p.m. The phone number is 416-531-9911.

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Sellers & Newel: Toronto’s Unique Used Bookstore

Peter Sellers grew up in Leaside and has lived in Toronto all his life. He went to the University of Toronto School and then York University’s Glendon College where he studied English. He worked in advertising, for an agency and then freelance. In November 2011, he opened his bookstore. Having a bookstore, even a small 650 square foot outlet, was the change he had craved.

Ever since high school, he has collected books, all kinds of books, which reflect his personal passions over time: modern literature, crime fiction, biography, military history, otherworldly books, poetry, plays. His own collection of books made up his first shop inventory. Now he does special orders for customers, and buys other books which fill out his collections.

Apart from the content, he likes books as objects, likes to be surrounded by books, and to talk about books and authors with his customers. Twice a year, he travels to London to buy the fine books and older editions that he really likes to sell. He prides himself on selling different books which people may not find anywhere else. To “cull his herd,” he sells discounted books on the street, a loss leader which makes his customers happy.

Peter promotes Sellers & Newel on the internet: “By day, Toronto’s smallest bookstore. By night, a unique and intimate live music venue.” Last year, jazz trumpet player Tim Hamel suggested to Peter that his tiny space would give fine resonance for playing music. Peter seized on the idea and began his S & N Speakeasy. From September to May, Peter opens his bookstore twice a month, usually Thursday nights, for musical performances by local singers and songwriters, and for poetry readings. The bookcases in the middle of his store move to the side, and 35 or so young people (and the occasional older person like me) gather for an intimate evening of music, poetry and camaraderie.

In May, I attended the Speakeasy for a concert given by singer-songwriter Jack Connolly, playing his guitar with fellow guitarist Ian Koiter joining in on the harmony. A delightful, low-key evening, the singing went on and on, each song drawing an even more enthusiastic response. Have the ’60s returned? It certainly feels like it. The next show will be Andrew Mah on Thursday, September 29th at 672 College Street. See the upcoming schedule on the shop’s website.

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Upgrading our Cable Coverage

So long as we have had our Vancouver cottage, we’ve had basic TV cable on our television. Some have lamented that fact; others have said that “it doesn’t matter. You can stream what you want on the internet.” For the Brexit vote, that is exactly what I did, all night live on BBC News.

It appears, however, that there is no live streaming of TSN unless one is a TSN subscriber on cable. Since I wanted to watch Milos Raonic live from Wimbledon last Sunday morning, I phoned Telus to get the sports coverage. By the time we’d finished our short conversation, I had a comprehensive new package which gave us most of those channels previously marked “not available.” The nice Telus lady assured me that this was a short-term upgrade and, as a friend had said, I could cancel when we left the apartment.

Wasn’t last Sunday’s sports coverage special? Seeing Milos Raonic battling it out with Britain’s Andy Murray in the Men’s Final at Wimbledon was a real thrill. They say that Raonic wasn’t playing his best game, but, tennis illiterate that I am, I thought he was impressive. I wasn’t even upset that the Brit won. Good news for Britain has been all too rare recently, and they need a break.

And then there was coverage of Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov, only 16 years old, who won the Wimbledon Boys Championship. I had never heard of him, nor of the Canadian junior doubles team of Montreal’s Felix Auger-Aliassime and Benjamin Sigouin from Vancouver who also won their championship game. According to the Globe and Mail, these three are ranked in the top 15 of the world’s players under 18, and there is no other country with so many players in the top 20. Apparently Canada is regarded as “a serious emerging tennis country, if not one of the leading tennis countries now” because of a decision Tennis Canada made in 2007 to invest in player development and not pay down the debt on the new tennis stadium in Toronto.

Later in the day was live coverage of the 2016 Euro Cup from Paris. I have been resolutely avoiding following the Euro Cup up until now. But as a resident of Little Italy in Toronto, excitement about the final game of any international soccer competition resonates. Now that I know the proprietors of Ralph’s Hardware who give so much to the football festivities on College Street, I would not miss the Euro Cup Final for the world.

Given the terrorist attacks last fall and the considerable time we have spent in France over the years, my husband and I were initially cheering for the French. A home team victory would be nice. But then the Portuguese team lost their key player, and the game went on, and on, and on, and the Portuguese goal-keeper prevented so many French goals, and it seemed as if the Portuguese were determined not to give up. Then, in the second half of extra time, Eder scored his goal, and the underdogs prevailed. We knew that our Portuguese friends and neighbours on College Street would be ecstatic. We were happy to share the excitement with them, if only from the west coast.

Having access to CNN this week has been more than sobering. First, there was live coverage of President Obama’s speech on Tuesday during the memorial service for the five police officers slain in Dallas. Yet another moving speech from a gifted orator who appeals to the best of the nation and of the world. Thursday, it was the horrific attack on those celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Developing coverage non-stop all day long. Watching becomes compulsive and is probably not healthy. Like the attack at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, and another in The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, this strikes all too close to home and is heart-breaking. And then yesterday, the attempted military coup in Turkey…. Not so long ago, we visited that glorious country with such pleasure. Now, we watch history in the making, live as it happens. And the future of Turkey is frightful to contemplate. 

Next week is the Republican Convention from Cleveland and, the week after that, the Democrats will be meeting in Philadelphia. Since the likely results from both events are known, watching the conventions is probably unnecessary. But Andrew Coyne has described next week’s convention as “shaping up to be one of the greatest political disasters since the fall of Rome,” and no political junkie will miss it. So we will likely feel compelled to watch all the CNN coverage. We could always press “mute.”

***** For those of you interested in our son’s response to my recent post on the Trudeau government, check out the extended comments from “Bob” you will find there. Clearly, assessing the achievements of the new Canadian government will be a continuing debate.

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Lilliput Hats

Some people plot to pursue a particular career. Others fall into their life’s work by accident. Karyn Ruiz, founder of Lilliput Hats, was one of the serendipity group. After an education in social work and intending to pursue a Masters degree, she planned to sign up for a tap dancing class with the Toronto School Board night school program. When she found that the dance class was full, she opted to take a millinery class instead.

The rest is history. Within weeks, she found that she was good at making hats, and the work appealed to her sense of creativity. In her second floor apartment on Bathurst Street, above the veterinarian across from Central Tech High School, she set up a sewing machine on her dining room table, and, with a few hat blocks that she had acquired, began to make hats on consignment. For five years, she worked out of her apartment, making hats for independent shops on Queen Street. Then she started wholesaling her line of hats to Holt Renfrew, selling her hats at One of a Kind and, after some publicity in a Canadian Jewish News article, making custom hats for women in the Toronto Jewish community. She carried on her hat-making business in her upstairs apartment, creating a showroom and a workspace where her roommates had been, for twelve years.

When her landlord required her space and she had to move, she rented the premises of the former tailor shop run by the Sherman brothers at 462 College Street for 55 years. Their location was as far south as she thought her Jewish clients from North Toronto would travel. After renting the premises for four years, she bought the building in 2003. Even today the Sherman children and grandchildren come to visit, pointing out the elements of the original premises (like the original tin ceiling, the back windows, the back shelving, the cutting table, and the cement carved with the initials of the children) which still exist and which provide a “nice thread of continuity.” Today, she and her husband live on the second floor of the building, and they keep the third floor loft area as an Airbnb that can accommodate four people.

Lilliput Hats is a full service working millinery shop, creating all the hats and reviving or repairing vintage hats. She has seven employees whom she trains herself, and who produce the hats when not providing service to clients. Karyn also has a collection of over a thousand hat blocks, many of which she acquired from other millinery shops when they went out of business. Her collection dates from the early 1900s to 1960.

What makes her shop unique, and which most find intriguing, is that clients can see the twenty-step hat-making process in action. Raw-materials are dyed, bleached and dried before the process begins. Then, the hat-makers use steam, pins, and pulling to shape the flat materials around the many different types of hat blocks. Once the base hat is formed, wires are added to keep the shape. Then, the hats are embellished with feathers, flowers, and netting. The entire process takes four to eight hours, all done by hand. During the busiest months of the year, May and June, the shop can turn hats around in 24 hours.

Lilliput Hats specializes in weddings and in outfitting women for the Kentucky Derby, the Queen’s Plate, and the Royal Ascot. When hats are purchased for these events, the shop keeps a register of which client buys which hat, to ensure that all the hats they supply are unique and there will be no two alike. Karyn also has a big export trade. Twice a year, in December and April, she brings her hats to a large craft fair in Chicago. She finds that American women have a great respect for hand-made goods and are not shy about spending on themselves. She still sells wholesale to Holt Renfrew and to the Granville Island Hat Shop in Vancouver. Others buy hats using her website. In recent years, custom hats for men have become increasingly popular. One of her regular clients is Victor Micallef, one of the Canadian Tenors. Lilliput Hats is also a corporate sponsor of “The Thrill of Ascot,” a fundraiser held at the Woodbine Racetrack early every June for the benefit of Best Buddies.

Lilliput Hats is at 462 College Street, just west of Bathurst. The telephone number is 416-536-5933. The shop is open Monday to Friday, 10:00 to 6:00 and Saturday 11:00 to 6:00.

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The Riverside Florist

When Colin Gulin Su and his wife Ann Bai Yan were strolling along College Street one evening twelve years ago, they spied “The Riverside Florist” and stopped to take a look. The shop had a sign and was labelled a “florist” but appeared to be anything but. Inside an old Chinese proprietor was operating a low-level somewhat ramshackle convenience store, selling chocolates, cigarettes, chips, pop and not much more. Colin asked the proprietor if he wanted to sell the business. Although he had only had the store for three months, the woebegone shopkeeper was happy to sell. Seven months later, the convenience store was gone. Colin and Ann cleaned out the decrepit convenience counters, installed a cooler, built the shelves, the suspended ceiling, the counters for plants and, voilà, “The Riverside Florist” was open again as a flower shop, selling plants and flowers. Colin doesn’t know why it was called “Riverside Florist” but the sign fits and so it stays.

It is totally fortuitous, and lucky for the locals, that Colin and Ann have resurrected a first-class florist shop on the site. They come from Kun Ming, the capital of Yunnan province in southern mainland China. Yunnan borders Viet Nam, Myanmar and Thailand, and has a very temperate climate. Their home town used to be known for rice-growing but, in recent years, has become the centre for growing high quality flowers which are sold all over China and exported throughout east Asia to Korea, Japan, Singapore, and elsewhere. The rice paddies have given way to large greenhouses built with overseas investments and specializing in roses, lilies, mums, calla lilies, tulips, freesia — all the different flowers and house plants consumers cherish. Now known as Spring City, Kun Ming produces, raises and markets flowers all year round.

Colin studied chemistry and worked initially as a chemist. He then spent four years working as manager of a large cosmetic company. His first venture with flowers was a very successful promotion giving a red rose to each customer who purchased cosmetics for Valentine’s Day. When his company transferred him to Shanghai, he discovered the large flower market there, gave up the cosmetic business, and set up his own wholesale flower company bringing flowers from Kun Ming producers to the Shanghai market at favourable prices. For three years, his wholesale flower business kept him more than occupied.

Immigrating to Canada was at the initiative of his wife and her best friend. They wanted to move to Canada and since all had training in chemistry, they were readily accepted. They came with their three and a half-year old daughter Sophia. While Ann took ESL courses and later a Chemical Analyst Diploma at Humber College, Colin worked sharpening knives for restaurants and later at a slaughter-house. The same year that their son Paul was born, he opened The Riverside Florist and has operated it ever since.

The flowers and plants at The Riverside Florist are fresh and lush. To spend time browsing there is like being in a horticulture park. Colin buys his stock at the Ontario Flower Growers Flower Auction in Mississauga at the corner of highways 401 and 410. Twice a week, very early in the morning, he checks out the stock on auction and chooses the best quality products at the best possible price. If a wedding or funeral requires particular types of flowers, he must pay higher prices. Otherwise, he can wait and choose the best value. He says that most imported flowers in Toronto come from Ecuador and Colombia.

The shop has a superb choice of orchids and succulents, and Colin is very knowledgeable about all the plants and flowers in his shop. He is happy to recommend plants best suited to particular growing conditions, and to give advice on watering, fertilizing and re-potting the plants. And he also delivers.

The Riverside Florist is at 600 College Street, just west of Clinton and east of the Royal Cinema. Summer hours are 9:30 to 8:30, Monday to Friday and 10:00 to 8:30 on weekends.

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Ziggy’s At Home

Ziggy’s at Home offers the epitome of good taste in furniture, design, lamps, housewares, bath goods, and gifts. Modern and eclectic, proprietor Julie Fass shops the world for her unusual and elegant stock.

Bath and beauty products, Lampes Berger, and BacSac outdoor planters from France, Fatboy chairs and Secrid wallets from Denmark, Chilewich indoor-outdoor carpets from the United States, Sloane loose leaf teas, Cate and Levi stuffed animals and puppets, EvJewels from Toronto, a range of lighting… a huge variety of quality products are found in the store and on her website.

Customers often browse the Ziggy’s website, then visit the shop to enjoy the best of personal service. Furniture pieces in her store are samples of lines available through catalogue order. As part of the personal service she provides, Julie will help source exactly what her customers want, and send them to the manufacturers’ showrooms to see for themselves. Complimentary gift-wrapping is an added touch of care which is much appreciated.

When Julie Fass opened her business ten years ago, she gave it the nickname of her grandfather, Zelig Fass, to honour his history and the family tradition of personal service in retail sales. 

For 50 years, until just before Zelig Fass died at the age of 91, Fass Leather Goods at 794 College Street was the place to go for purses, wallets, luggage, and briefcases. Ziggy Fass and his wife were Polish Jews from Krakow who had escaped to a displaced persons camp in Russia, and then immigrated to Toronto with their son after World War II. Initially, they operated the store in the front half, and lived in the back. They made holsters for the RCMP, medical sample bags for the pharmaceutical industry, and briefcases for Grand & Toy. As the business expanded, the family moved upstairs.

Although the family ultimately moved to the north of Toronto, the shop on College Street remained the centre of family activities. Mrs. Fass had been the salesperson working the front of the store and she knew all the customers. After she died in the 1970s, the grandchildren and their cousins worked in the store on Saturdays and Sundays, helping their grandfather. Julie remembers that her grandfather always had work for them to do. Once, when she was very young, he gave her a jar of keys and asked her to find the key that would fit the lock he had. An impossible task? Not for Julie. See the video of Ziggy Fass in action on the Ziggy’s at Home webpage.

The style has changed, but the passion for customer service remains the same. Julie Fass is a board member of the local Promenade Business Improvement Area, and is as determined as her grandfather was to make the retail shops on College Street a destination. The store hours are Monday and Tuesday 11:00 to 7:00; Wednesday to Saturday 10:00 to 7:00 and Sunday 11:00 to 5:00. The shop’s telephone number is 416-535-8728.


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Ralph’s Hardware

It’s soccer season, Euro Cup is just ahead  (June 10 – July 10), and Little Italy is gearing up for big multinational festivities. No one is busier at the moment than Libby and Mike Sinopoli, the proprietors of Ralph’s Hardware, on College just west of Ossington. Their shop, bedecked with the brightly coloured flags of the soccer nations, becomes “action central” for soccer accessories and memorabilia throughout the summer.

In addition to t-shirts and hats for all ages from infants to grandparents, Libby fashions dresses, tank tops, golf shirts and fedoras  emblazoned with the emblems of all the teams and countries. Where mainstream suppliers do not provide for particular countries, Libby creates the right accessories herself. She likes to give for her customers what she would want to wear herself. There is something for everyone, so all can dress for the party.

Libby was brought up in the Açores, where celebrations were held for any occasion – some religious, some in response to the afternoon bullfight, preferably every weekend, as often as possible. She and Mike liken the summer soccer season in Little Italy to those Portuguese festivals where everyone stops, joins with their friends and neighbours, and has a good time. For Libby and Mike, the soccer season is the highlight of the year.

The historic sign on “Ralph’s Hardware” is a bit of a misnomer. Beginning around 1906, the Whetstone family owned the building and ran the hardware store for three generations. Mike’s father bought the building and the business sixty years ago and ran it as a traditional hardware store. Forty years later, Mike and Libby settled into the upstairs apartment and took over the store. The wall of wooden drawers behind the cash counter is original to the hardware store, each drawer with a story to tell.

Since Mike and Libby took over, the business has evolved into something quite different. What started as a hardware store, and still stocks all the hardware basics, has morphed into an amazing emporium well worth the browsing. Apart from the soccer memorabilia, it is a cache chock-full of collectibles, home-made lamps, used furniture, restored porcelain, goods on consignment, garden goods, jars, baskets, all sorts of hidden treasures just waiting for you to discover.

Libby and Mike are into re-using, recycling and restoring. They welcome second-hand furniture, kitchen goods, silverware, collectibles, which they are happy to accept on consignment and put on display in the window. If there is something you want to get rid of, Mike will come and pick it up. He will also make house calls to attend to built-in lamps needing attention.

Since she was a child and earned her own pocket-money, Libby has always worked with her hands. In her 20s, she sold her homemade sheepskin moccasins, jewellery, and hair bows in the street. Now, she makes many of the soccer goods for sale. She also collects old glass lamps, rewires them, and hangs them from the ceiling, all the better for customers to see the lovely range of colours. She repairs lighting and restores porcelain and other collectibles. She fixes costume jewellery (not gold). It occurred to me that she is like my father, who had the skill and the patience to fix anything. I think I will bring to Libby that box of old costume jewellery which has sentimental value and needs to be fixed. During the quiet winter months, she has time to attend to that kind of work.

In the meantime, the soccer season is moving into high gear, and the party will begin. Ralph’s Hardware is open 9:00 to 9:00. Later, during soccer season and other festivities. It is located at 840 College Street, Toronto M6H 1A2. The phone number is 416-533-7294.

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Mimi’s Linen Bazaar

Shopping locally is the name of the game. For years, I have bought beautiful seasonal tablecloths and runners from the M & F Linen Bazaar on College Street, just west of Clinton. The cloths have always attracted compliments, are easily washed and need no ironing.

Walking home from the Y in recent weeks, I have given myself the time to browse the street and discover what is available in my backyard. Do not be deceived by the racks of cotton aprons, kitchen cottons, and slippers at the store entry. Look closely in the display windows and discover the treasure trove inside. The tableware collection at the Linen Bazaar is much more extensive than even I had realized, with cloths, runners and laces in all colours, sizes and materials, plain and beautifully decorated. Holiday table ware for all occasions.

The surprise to me was that the Linen Bazaar also carries a full range of dry goods. There is bedding of all sorts. Italian bedspreads, matching pillows and bed ware, sheets, comforters, pillows, pillowslips, even 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheet sets for under $100.00. Brightly coloured vinyl and flannel backed vinyl is available by the yard and custom cut to size. There are carpets and hosiery. Lingerie includes fine cotton and wool underwear from Italy for men and women, and a wide choice of nightwear. The white linen nightgowns like those I buy at the One of a Kind show? There is a great choice right here, complete with instructions to wash them in the machine but hang to dry.

Had I known the range of goods available here, I could have saved myself hours of trudging downtown and out to the big box stores where I bought lower quality at greater cost. Barbara and Servi, two customers who live at Parliament and Gerrard, come to the shop they consider “the best in Toronto” to buy their dry goods by the batch. They already knew what I was just learning. My buying patterns are clearly going to change in the future.

The best part of shopping locally is that I am getting to know the shop-owners. Mimi Santelli opened M & F Linen Bazaar 34 years ago, in the building owned by her parents. Her parents had come to Canada from Agrigento in Sicily, in the early 1950s. Her father came first, and then arranged for his bride-to-be to join him from back home. She was Mimi’s mother who had a sister in Toronto already and vaguely knew her future husband from their social circle in Italy. Engaged by proxy, they married in Toronto on her arrival.

Mimi grew up in Little Italy and went to Grace Street Public School (now Pierre Elliot Trudeau French school) and St. Lucy’s Catholic School (now St. Francis of Assisi) on Clinton Street. In the 1950s, her father was the produce manager at the Power grocery store which was formerly in the CHIN building. He bought his first building at 613 College Street, across from his former employer, and opened a fruit and vegetable business which he ran until the late 1970s. When Mimi married in 1978, she ran her parents’ fruit store and lived above the store with her husband. When her father sold the produce business, he bought his second building (where Mimi now has the Bazaar), and moved to Etobicoke. Mimi opened the Bazaar in October 1982 and, five years later, she and her husband moved to Mississauga.

Although she and her parents now live elsewhere, her heart remains in Little Italy where the neighbourhood is “very tight” and “like family.” Like many, Mimi is preoccupied with providing care to beloved parents “who have given (her) so much.” We spent the next two hours, until I had to go home, talking about the challenges of caregiving.

The hours of the Linen Bazaar are Monday to Saturday, 10:00 to 6:00. The address is 603 College Street and the telephone number 416-531-1023. 


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