How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate, “Honest” Ed Mirvish

Key Porter, 1993, 220 pages, C$21.95 hc, ISBN 1-55013-506-6

If you have never been to Toronto landmark store “Honest Ed”, don’t miss a chance the next time you’re in the area: It’s worth a trip to the Bloor/Bathurst intersection only for a visit.  (It’s a lot more interesting than another trip to the Eaton Centre!)  Once you get past the flashy facade that sports 23,000 light bulbs (go at dusk for maximal impact), there’s the store itself: four floors of merchandise organized in a crazy organically-grown fashion, where stairs, basement, an overpass and crooked floors all work together with the bombastic signage, showbiz relics and deeply discounted prices to produce a multi-layered experience quite unlike anything else in the world.  Even once you think you’ve seen it all, you will end up confronting the cuckoo clock… and you will remember that moment forever.  (Usually with an “OH MY GOSH WHAT IS THAT?”)  Such an accumulation of effects can only exist because the store has existed for decades, constantly adding more details and reflecting the passions of its owner, Ed Mirvish.

Honest Ed continues to thrive today years after Mirvish’s death in part due to the impression that his personality has left on the store.  Fortunately for everyone, it’s possible to re-live the Mirvish experience thanks to his autobiography, How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate.  Growing up poor in Toronto in a family of American immigrants, our narrator learns his first business lessons from the family store, before going from one venture to another and eventually founding his own store.  His discovery of the discount merchandising model isn’t obvious, but once perfected the formula becomes hard to resist.  Past the autobiography of his early years, the book’s second quarter section becomes a succession of anecdotes about doing business as “Honest Ed”.  His flair for flashy gimmicks (such as a 72-hours dance marathon for which Mirvish gladly paid store closing fines) becomes a rich source of stories for the book.

The third quarter details Mirvish’s increasingly diverse activities beyond his store, most notably buying two theatres (one in Toronto, the Royal Alexandra, the other one on London, the Old Vic), expanding their scope in a line of restaurants to feed their King Street theatre patrons, and building a third theatre (the Princess of Wales) in Toronto.  Mirvish approaches those ventures with no preconceived notions, and apparently upended much conventional wisdom along the way.  The last quarter of the book is a series of “121 lessons I never learned in school” that riff on anecdotes about the store, the theatres, the restaurants or the rest of Mirvish’s life.

As you may expect from such an eccentric character, the book itself is a joy to read with well-written anecdotes, fast pacing, a triumphant attitude and deliciously accessible prose.  Paul King (A Toronto Star reporter who passed away in 2008) is credited in the acknowledgements as having provided “invaluable help in penning and polishing this story”, and a good chunk of the book’s appeal is surely his.  Mirvish himself is a curious mixture of self-humility (“I was the only adult raised by my wife and our son.”) and cocky self-confidence: like the best of books in the “business inspiration” category, his autobiography leaves readers with the sense that nothing is impossible.  There’s an authenticity in Mirvish’s voice, however, that impossible to fake: I ended up reading How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate the same week that I read Donald Trump’s Think Like a Billionaire and the contrast between Mirvish’s likable persona and Trump’s all-bombast all-self-promotion all-greatest shtick couldn’t have been more enlightening.

The only exception to the book’s overall geniality and accessibility comes in the odd little moments where Mirvish goes off on rants about government, taxes and regulations.  It’s to be expected, of course: Mirvish’s often-successful fights against city hall are part of Toronto lore, and it’s hard for any entrepreneur to be all that well-favoured toward government taxation or oversight.  But his small-c conservative rhetoric is shockingly naive and may put off a few left-leaning readers.

Otherwise, it’s a great book that has the merit of having been written just at the right time to herald Mirvish’s greatest successes.  The Old Vic theatre was sold to a theatre trust in 1998 and while the end of some of his early King Street restaurants is acknowledged in the book, all had closed down by 2000.  Mirvish himself passed away in 2007 to much local mourning, but his legacy continues: Honest Ed is still open and busy, while his theatres are still in business in the middle of a revitalized Entertainment District that Mirvish jump-started by purchasing the Royal Alexandra.

How to Build an Empire on an Orange Crate is currently available on amazon.ca, but with a shipping estimate of one to two months.  It may be better to schedule yourself on a trip to Honest Ed to pick up copies of the book there.  You can’t miss it: excluding the kids’ books, it’s pretty much the only book on sale in the entire building.

(And if you do go to Honest Ed, turn to your left upon exiting the store and walk down a few meters down Markham Street.  Not only will you see a bit of the “Mirvish Village” local artistic enclave, but you will also find yourself at the front door of The Beguiling, perhaps Canada’s finest comics and graphic novel bookstore.  When I’m in Toronto, I visit Honest Ed’s for the atmosphere… but it’s at The Beguiling that I spend serious cash.)

[August 2009: There’s no Business Like Show Business… but I Wouldn’t Quit My Day Job is Mirvish’s second book (also ghost-written by Paul King), and it focuses strictly on theatre anecdotes.  Good, funny stories with nary a political point in sight… but it works better if you know a lot about 1960-1990 theatre legends.  ]

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