Over the past 40 years, Toronto’s Queen Street West has undergone a transition that’s shifted it from trendy boutiques and galleries to international chains and lively restaurants. As a result, the art scene that long called the street home has been pushed farther west to an area called West Queen West.
And now, even West Queen West is seeing its own transition. The galleries, little cafes and funky hotels are still there. So is the mental hospital that is the area’s major employer. But there are other newcomers, including one from way across Canada.
Gravitypope, with roots in Edmonton, Alberta, and stores in Calgary and Vancouver, opened its first Toronto store this fall. It’s the kind of well-groomed, innovative spot you’d see featured in Town and Country Magazine or a Nancy Meyers movie, with shoes and clothing that look meticulously selected by fashion stylists.
In another time, Gravitypope would have found a home in the opposite direction on Queen West, among the well-known names. But with that part of the street chockablock with retailers, its owner, Louise Dirks, decided she’d be better off away from the fray.
“Everybody kept saying, ‘go to Queen, go to Queen, go to Queen,'” she says of the area. “But I couldn’t find a space with a decent basement,” which was a requirement for the extensive inventories her stores carry.
Dirks is among a number of new arrivals who are staking their claims in Toronto neighborhoods. Some of them, like Nicole Angellotti at Lit Espresso Bar in Little Portugal, are already established in other parts of town, and see opportunities for expansion.
Others are rolling the dice on their first ventures in the city, hoping that the Toronto customers who visit their stores elsewhere are willing to do business with them at home.
Toronto author Shawn Micallef says their investments are the strongest endorsement a neighborhood can receive. “When outside Toronto moves in, you know the neighborhood is on peoples’ radar,” he says.
Dirks pondered her move to Toronto for years before taking the plunge. She opened the first Gravitypope store in Edmonton in 1990, operating as a cafe with a selection of clothing for sale in the back for her first decade. In 2000, she added a second store in Calgary, and then a shop in Vancouver in 2004. Her shoe business grew along with her clothing business, and with them, she incorporated a Web-based operation.
Over the past five or six years, “I got at least one email every couple of weeks from Toronto, begging for a Gravitypope out east,” says Dirks. In 2008, she went on a tour of Toronto neighborhoods, scouting by walking up and down the streets.
Finally in 2011, she settled on a brand new building in West Queen West, only a block from the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction (CAMH). Getting settled was a challenge, and the space was ready months after she originally expected. But since opening in the fall, “Every day has been awesome for us here,” Dirks says.
The location is “a bit fresh,” she says, and thus far, her customers have had no problem venturing out to her. On Gravitypope’s first day of business, 90 percent of her customers were former Western Canadians whose moves had preceded hers.
Manny Nikolaou, who runs Cafe Bernate next door, is among those glad to see a substantial business move in. “In the last five years, this whole area’s changed,” he said, while pulling espresso shots. “Before, it was a bit of a rough type neighborhood.”
He was also a little wary when a Tim Horton’s opened across the street, for fear it would take away his sandwich business. But the “quick sandwiches” made at Tim’s aren’t stealing the customers away from Bernate’s lineup, which includes 30 different homemade offerings.
Nikolaou says upscale stores like Gravitypope can only help West Queen West. “We’re happy to see people like them come in,” he says.
A few blocks away, another western Canadian newcomer has made itself at home on Dundas Avenue West. Ride Away Bikes came to the neighborhood in 2010, setting up a shop that sells new and used bikes, and performs repairs.
The owners have two other shops in Vancouver, and saw opportunity in Toronto’s growing bicycle culture. While the city isn’t as bike friendly as other places, there’s a move afoot to expand the use of two-wheeled transportation. “It grows every year,” says Justin Brady, a store manager.
About two-thirds of his business comes from the surrounding neighborhood, but in the past year and a half, as cycling has become more popular, he’s noticed more people arriving from other parts of Toronto. “Probably, people would have noticed us before,” Brady says.
And, Brady will soon find out whether two new businesses on his end of Dundas West bring him more customers. Two doors down, Queen Margherita Pizza from Leslieville is opening one of its two new Toronto restaurants (the other is a few miles east, in an upscale area called Babypoint). Across the street, Susur Lee, the Toronto restaurateur who competed on “Top Chef Masters,” has opened Bent with his two sons.
The sleek black and red restaurant, which some liken to a nightclub, hasn’t exactly gotten off to a strong start. The Toronto Star gave it just one star, saying it was “more broken than merely bent,” while the Globe and Mail was kinder, pointing out the place has been packed since its opening.
Brady, at the bike store, is glad to see the outsiders draw crowds, at least. “It can only mean good things,” he says.
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[Photo Credits: Micheline Maynard]