history variety stores Toronto

What variety stores used to look like in Toronto

Tracking the history of variety stores in a city like Toronto is probably one of the surest ways to evoke nostalgia, what with their pastiche signage and general mom-and-pop aesthetics — both of which seem to harken back to putatively simpler times. It's somewhat amusing (and surely uncritical), but even the branding from Coca Cola and various cigarette companies seems free of the corporate baggage that one associates with these logos today. Everything just seems so, well, pleasant in these photographs.

The modern day variety store starts to appear in archival records in the 1910s. Alternately referred to as smoke shops, cigar stores, and food markets (only later are they called convenience stores), at this point many also double up as pharmacies and tobacconists. There's even a few that appear to be part corner store, part barber shop. I haven't been too picky about the selection process here, as the spirit of this post is aesthetic more than anything else.

Many of these corner stores have survived in this very capacity for longer than you might think. Local photographer Patrick Cummins has been documenting this particular element of our streetscape — one which somehow feels distinctly our own — for the better part of 35 years. His photos present these storefronts as urban palimpsests, where the history of the city and its neighbourhoods is written across the ever-changing facades.

That's a wonderful way to think about an urban element that tends to be so easily overlooked and yet enjoys such a rich history in our city. Here's a look back at what variety stores looked like in Toronto before the rise of Beckers, Mac's Milk, and 7-11.



714 Queen West, 1923

variety store toronto

York and Front, 1925


Hooper Drug Store, 1927


Scott's Grocery, 1930


Yonge and Eglinton, 1930


Stop and Shop, 1930


306 Davenport, 1930


908 Queen Street East, 1930


Yonge and Gerrard, 1938


Markham and Queen, 1940


Gerrard Pharmacy, 1947


Patoff Grocery, 1950s


Yonge Street near Gould, 1950


437 Jones, 1952


Greenwood and Gerrard, 1954


Roach Drugs, 1956


Woodbine Avenue, 1956


The Queensway, 1957


Avenue Road south of Dupont, 1959


630 Queen Street, 1960


Bay and Bloor, 1970s

Variety Stores Toronto

For more photos of the changing face of Toronto's variety stores, check out Patrick Cummins' collection here.

Photos from the Toronto Archives unless otherwise noted

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