TORONTO — Melissa Austria looked at the steady stream of customers coming in and out of her Distillery District clothing shop and pondered aloud why she hadn’t seen more Americans traveling to the Canadian mecca for rampant shopping sprees.
This was after I told her I came to Toronto to see the sights — and to take advantage of the weak Canadian dollar by shopping until my credit cards melted. Perhaps that detail was better left unsaid.
“It’s like the whole country is on sale right now for Americans,” she said as she straightened a stack of collared shirts in her store Gotstyle . “It’s good for you, maybe not quite as great for us.”
The US dollar was worth about $1.45 in Canada at the beginning of 2016. I was in Montreal at the time, and I viewed the entire city as a bargain. It was a very frigid bargain, but a bargain nonetheless.
Hotels, restaurants, cocktails, and clothes, all on sale! Thank you, currency exchange rate, don’t mind if I do. I used it as an excuse to snap up a DVD of the Xavier Dolan film “Mommy,” and a vintage 1976 Montreal Olympics ashtray. I don’t smoke, but you never know when an occasion may call for commemorative 1976 Olympics ashtray.
After Montreal, Toronto seemed to be the next logical Canadian city for a retail safari. Don’t tell anyone, but it was my first trip to the city, so I was using shopping as a road map for my visit. Before you roll your eyes and label me a shallow dimwit for taking this approach, I’ll have you know that shopping is a great way to explore Toronto. It’s easy to find the CN Tower and the aquarium, but not so easy to find the best egg custard tarts this side of Lisbon unless you’re meandering around the city.
Before we hit the stores, here are the basics: Toronto is the fourth most populous city in North America, following New York City, Mexico City, and Los Angeles (sorry Chicago). Its residents are incredibly diverse, and, this is important for shopping purposes, it’s huge.
By my choppy count, there are 55 different neighborhoods and/or important shopping thoroughfares in the city. Divide that by the three days I visited, and I would need to cover 18 neighborhoods a day (technically 18.3 for you persnickety math types keeping count). The Toronto tourism bureau puts the neighborhood count at 25. Either way, it’s a shopper’s paradise.
You can get around by the subway or a system of charming red streetcars, but not all neighborhoods are connected or easy to reach. I whittled my list to about five must-see neighborhoods — Keningston Market, Leslieville, Queen Street West, the Distillery District, and West Queen West. I still found myself walking about 10 miles a day. After three days I made more of a scratch than a dent in my plan. Learn from my mistakes, friends. Be smart, study your neighborhoods, and plot out your course on a map.
My shopping goals were focused around finding small, locally owned, independent shops, so I skipped the Bloor-Yorkville neighborhood. Commonly referred to as the Mink Mile. This is where Tiffany, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, and Hermès can be found. I also spent a limited amount of time in Yonge-Dundas Square. The district resembles a baby Times Square and is anchored by the massive Eaton Centre mall. You’ll find all the international chains here, but I reasoned that the skinny jeans at the H&M in Toronto wouldn’t be all that different from what the Swedish retailer offers in Boston. I did, however, stop by Hudson’s Bay (usually just called the Bay), Canada’s major department store.
I wanted to save my energy for Queen Street West, and its western end, a neighborhood called West Queen West. This is the strip that most requires your attention — and your cash. After spending hours on the street, I started calling West Queen West “Yas Kween Yas.” This is what happens when you walk 30 miles in a weekend on a diet of Tim Hortons Timbits.
Unless you have a working knowledge of Toronto, it can be tricky to figure out where Queen Street West ends and West Queen West begins. It’s particularly difficult for me because my map-reading abilities are on par with a young Mr. Magoo. Queen Street West (between Simcoe and Bathurst) has more cool chain stores, while West Queen West (Bathurst to Dufferin) is a bit scruffier and contains more of my beloved independent stores. It is the neighborhood of the moment here.
I worked my way east-to-west on Queen Street West. Stores such as American Apparel and Club Monaco eventually give way to artsy boutiques and galleries. This is where I needed to start using my time judiciously to make it through all the stores that caught my eye. Naturally I failed.
There was a moment on Queen Street West — I think it was when I was browsing in the store Lavish & Squalor — that I realized that I wasn’t going to be seeing 25 neighborhoods in a weekend. Lavish & Squalor sold a well-curated selection of men’s and women’s clothes. But it also sold hipster home goods, hot sauce, jewelry, preserves, pricey soaps, and small batch air freshener. How on earth had I survived without Toronto-made small batch air freshener all my life?
I happened to be in the city on Record Store Day, an international day celebrating vinyl, so I paid respects by buying albums at Kops Records. I also suggest a trip to Sonic Boom for hardcore vinyl enthusiasts. Because Toronto is a city well known for its thrift stores, I also needed to see the legendary Black Market.
Keep heading west, and eventually you hit West Queen West, which Vogue named the second hippest neighborhood in the world two years ago. You can see where it all began at the Drake Hotel. The bar and restaurant at the hotel is a scene, and the hotel’s general store sells all Canadian merchandise – fashion, not gallons of maple syrup. West Queen West cements its rep with an entire alley of city-sanctioned graffiti. This is the city’s cultural district, and Lord knows I can use all the culture I can get, so I spent an afternoon here.
Step off Queen, and there is still more shopping. Ossington Street is essential thanks to a deliciously twee boutique called Crywolf and an airy modern furniture store called Style Garage. I thought Ossington would be a quick pit stop. Nope. Back on Yas Kween Yas, er, West Queen West, there was dinner at the minimalist restaurant Dandylion.
The following day I headed to Kensington Market, a counter-culture haven that is winking and flirting something fierce with hipster gentrification. Dusty vintage stores co-exist with boutiques, upscale cafes, fruit vendors, and tacky T-shirt shops. This is a college neighborhood (it’s bordered by the University of Toronto and Chinatown), so a Swedish cafe called Fika is packed with students after they shop for cheap leggings nearby in thrift stores. This neighborhood is thrift store central, although I have to confess that I spent more time in the BYOB Cocktail Emporium, which sells vintage cocktail glasses and an obscenely wonderful number of bitters and syrups.
I fell hard for a neighborhood called Leslieville, which is filled with rainbow-colored benches and fun locally owned stores. One business owner told me the neighborhood was once a scary part of town ruled by the Hell’s Angels. I didn’t see any motorcycles, but I did see, and consume, a local delicacy called a peameal bacon sandwich. Fortified, I went to the clothing store Good Neighbour, and then partook of some credit card melting at Studio We.
Back to the west, I landed in Little Portugal for egg tarts and shopping on Dundas Street West. My last purchase was one of my favorites. At a bookstore called the Monkey’s Paw, I zeroed in on a mint green machine called the Biblio-Mat. It’s a first-of-its-kind vending machine that dispenses vintage books. Put in a $2 coin and it randomly chooses your book. I got a 1955 catalog from an exhibition called “Glass Drinking Vessels – The Corning Museum of Glass.” Although I have to confess the bigger thrill was trying out the world’s first coin-operated, randomized book vending machine.
My dusty vending machine find may not have been the most treasured acquisition from the trip, that distinction belongs to a gorgeous Swedish sweatshirt. But it helped me appreciate just how much fun and unique Toronto can be. I’m throwing down the gauntlet to other cities. Just try to show me something more inventive than an automated green vintage book vending machine. I dare you.