Toronto through the eyes of Tom's Place's Tom Mihalik
Tom Mihalik likes to say he got his PhD at Spadina and College. He started working with his father at age 12, lending a hand in the family's second-hand clothing business that his father, William, started in Kensington Market in 1958. Arriving in Canada after the Hungarian revolution, the Mihalik family found community with the other new Canadians in the area and continued to foster their retail business.
The store became Tom's Place in 1980, eventually garnering the reputation "as a place for suits," first and foremost. The business today occupies over 15,000 square feet, offering wool suits in every price range and, "the occasional swimsuit," quips Tom. A family business through and through with Tom's son, Tom Jr., now assisting operations, Tom Mihalik has certainly seen Toronto evolve through his storefront over on Baldwin Street. I caught up with Tom on the second level of his store to hear about some of those observations firsthand.
What did Kensington Market look like when you were a boy?
Walking down Baldwin Street, most of the business was done outside. Anything that moved, we sold. Everything was live; the fish was live, the chicken was live. We sold rabbits, too. On Spadina, we had hundreds and hundreds of different mom and pop restaurants and they made the finest foods. It was real homemade food, homemade cooking — Eastern European. It was probably a little bit fattening, but it was good.
What was the community like?
It was a small town. You celebrated together. If somebody died, you went to sit shiva with them. If someone got married, you celebrated their wedding with them. If somebody needed money, you were there for them. This was a community that looked after each other. The neighbourhood would never say no — and you can rest assured, they would pay you back.
What's the biggest change you've noticed in Kensington Market over the past 50 years?
The change that I'm seeing is that we have more restaurants than ever. We had many more fresh food stores, and unfortunately we lost one of the biggest stores in the market: European Meats. That was a big shock to us, but there is somebody new who is opening up and I think it will be very positive for the Market.
Do you think the shift towards more restaurants is a good or bad?
I think it's a good thing. We're moving ahead. Change is good, as long as we can adapt to that.
Kensington Market is one of those Toronto spots where the car vs. bicycle debate seems to come to a head. Where do you stand on the issue?
I think the Market needs both. We have to have parking spaces because we are competing with everyone in the city — we are competing with malls that have thousands and thousands of parking spaces. We definitely welcome the people who are using bicycles; they should also be able to park their bikes. But there should always be access to Kensington Market by car.
I never liked the streetcar. I think the streetcar was the worst thing to happen to Kensington Market; we're totally blocked in. You cannot tell me that an elderly couple can just go on the subway and use the streetcar. The streetcar drops them off in the middle of the road, they have to walk into Kensington, then they have to walk out with their shopping bags and jump on top of the streetcar. That didn't do any justice to Kensington Market. It might keep the air cleaner, it might be good for the environment, but it wasn't good for us.
How does an independent business survive in Toronto for more than 50 years?
This might sound like a cliché, but I don't mind putting in seven days a week. I know whatever I put in, I'm going to be able to take out. I have always been rewarded richly. I'm a very fortunate person to have my business in Kensington Market. All I wanted to do when I was 18, 19 or 20, years old was just to make a living, and I'm doing much more than that. My mother and my father, my sisters and my sons, they all worked in this business, so it took a whole family to become what I am today. So when you're looking at me, there are a number of my family members who worked very hard so I can be here to talk to you.
What advice would you give to someone looking to open their own clothing shop in Toronto?
My advice to is always have a dream, and don't be afraid to put in the time, because you will be richly rewarded. And don't sell clothing one day, and do a restaurant the next day. Stick to it. Work hard. Don't be scared that all you're doing is working, because you're building your future. You have a lot of time to relax when you get old.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Do you live in the area? Yes
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Where do you recommend for women's fashions in Toronto? You'll have to ask my sister
Pro or con: sport coat with jeans? Pro
Your style? I only wear two button, slightly slimmer-fitting shorter jackets. And I like the colours I'm wearing — rich purples
Who is the best-dressed man in Toronto? No doubt in my mind, it's Tom Mihalik.
Photo by Morris Lum