Sometimes I like to take a walk through Shifty Town. Shifty Town is my name for the strip I used to haunt the most in my youth when visiting the city – namely, the Yonge Street Strip, from Queen to Bloor. It seemed rife with the mysteries of life. It was teaming with scrappy “city kids” and strange-but-beautiful people. It seemed like the place to go. Now I go there for entirely different reasons. Mostly to remember. I remember the flashing neon lights, the muscle cars and the heavy rock. I remember the smell of pizza, beer and corn dogs (or was it vomit?) and the strange, almost coded, demeanor of the locals – the true city inhabitants. Of course, it wasn’t really that shifty – not like it was in the 70’s, and not in present-day Queen and Parliament sense – but to a suburban youth in the late 80’s to mid 90’s the strip still held onto its mean streets veneer. When you’re a suburban child, everything outside the protective bubble of your neighbourhood is mythology. Street life, punk rockers, beggars, drug dealers, hustlers, ne’er-do-wells and prostitutes: these were all fantastic creatures, experienced only through TV, movies, hearsay and tall tales; until I was old enough to visit Shifty Town and saw them in the flesh. Now that I’ve lived downtown for over a decade, Shifty Town don’t seem so shifty anymore. Nevertheless, some vestiges of what made the place so interesting back then are still there, if you look hard enough.
The walk really begins at Bay and Edward, north of the Atrium on the Bay mall. Everything south of Edward is just a squeaky clean bore now. Thank god for the BMV bookstore. I can still browse their massive pulp fiction, graphic novel and DVD stock and look through the magazines of my youth (e.g. Omni, Eerie, Savage Sword, Heavy Metal, Starlog, etc.). Sadly, one of my favourite haunts, the World’s Biggest Bookstore is now a vacant lot of depressing rubble. I remember the pre-Indigo/Chapters takeover days fondly. Even in its twilight years the place had some really odd titles and one of the best occult sections in town.
Speaking of the occult, psychic readers still abound in nooks and crannies, among the kitsch shops and massage parlours of Shifty Town, and I even saw a shop where you can buy a real crystal ball, vetted by a bonafide psychic (!) – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Moving up Yonge, Sam the Record Man (and that iconic marque) is now replaced with a massive brutalist-pseudo-industrial temple to glass and steel. The place is perpetually aglow harsh and flickering LCD light. I miss Sam’s warm neon and incandescent exterior and the cluttered-yet-nostalgic vibe of its interior (the closest you can come to it today is Sonic Boom, a pale imitation). It’s nice that the Silver Snail lives here now, but the SS was really never the place to find a sweet deal and I’m not into buying new comics anymore (not right now anyway). I like the coffee shop inside the SS, it has a very inclusive vibe, but browsing the aisles tells me that geek culture moved on without me since the 1980’s and will continue to just move on; churning out the same clichés with slight variation, year after year. So much tits and ass on the covers…still…it’s no small wonder gender politics are exploding in this town (and around the world).
It’s hard to remember where Sams once stood: was it that glass and steel frame cube known as the Ryerson Student Learning Centre? Or was it where the fenced-in shanty market now resides? (Soon to be sterilized, I’m sure.)
I morn for Sunrise Records. Their two locations along the strip held out for quite some time. In their dying days they stocked a lot of paraphernalia (of both music and lowbrow culture sort) and home movies (to keep up with the newly-minted HMV, I suppose). I remember seeing my own album stocked there, right next to Pavement’s Wowee Zowee. Meanwhile, I hear the HMV fights for survival. Many of their Toronto shops have closed in recent years.
My earliest memories of Shifty Town were the massive arcades. Fundland figures highly in my memories, but there were other, less wholesome places, lit only by exterior signage and blinking games. The arcades seemed edgy to me but in retrospect they were just typical noisy teenage hangs (throw in a few older “sketchy types” and punks). You could play games all night and then get a slice of incredibly greasy pizza. You could score drugs. It was really easy at the arcades. It seemed every ten feet I was being propositioned – the word “hash” and a knowing glance. Who knows if any of these “dealers” were actually cops. We never bought from them anyway. Back then, Hash and LSD were easy to score but good pot seemed hard to come by – mind you, my experience may not be universal and I never had to score anyway since my clique had a connection and I wasn’t that interested (and always hard up).
In my youth, cruising was the de rigor in Shifty Town. You borrowed your parent’s car and filled it with your buddies. You drove up and down the strip and you did it slowly. It was a way of experiencing. It was its own language. Nobody cruises Shifty Town anymore…well that’s not true, some still do but only those with the flashy cars and the shitty attitudes and they got it all backwards.
I still use the Zanzibar strip club as my flashing landmark to locate the hidden staircase that leads to the Hairy Tarantula comic shop. The “Hairy T” is a great place. A bit dusty, but a great place to find out-of-print RPGs.
Things start to sanitize considerably once I get to College Park. There are large swaths of clean new development around the mall. I nearly turn off the main strip, but then vestiges of Shifty Town’s old grit come back once you get north of Grosvenor. Here, some of the old businesses still survive: mostly porno shops, cigar stores, perfume dealers, Canadiana souvenirs, pawn shops, a few old diners, the venerable Metro Sound Music, House of Lords salon, ABC Books, and Eliot’s Books (among many others). Eliot’s is like a beacon of respectability among baser fare. It’s the classic used bookshop you see in every movie sporting the “eccentric bookseller in big city” trope. Where are the mogwai kept? It wasn’t very long ago that I was on the top floor, browsing Canadian literature, and I could hear the muffled thumping and muted moaning of a porno booth in the adjacent establishment. Some of the older places are shuttered and vacant. An old tavern, sporting a dark Spanish-style triple arch exterior, is now a Money Mart. More than a few of these payday loan places have sprung up. 1,000,000 Comix has moved to the west side of Yonge – kudos for staying alive. Is that the old Grey Region location? It’s hard to tell now. I miss the Grey Region. The place was already dusty and unfocused when I discovered it, but I could tell it was once a mecca for all manner of nerd. I bought many classic 1970’s/1980’s TSR modules there (like the G series) for a mere few dollars a piece! I remember seeing “little black book” Traveller there too – but in the mid-2000’s I wasn’t savvy enough to pick that up. In its final days the shop became more of an internet cafe before closing for good. Somewhere around here, I remember Monster Records, a primo-bookshop and a great repository of low brow culture. I found a cheap copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s, Hell’s Angels there. I miss that place too.
Speaking of which, Shifty Town still has internet cafes. Most of them are hidden away on upper levels. Who needs an internet cafe these days? Tourists? Backpackers? I pass one on ground level. It’s quite spacious but still dark. I didn’t catch the name of the place – think it was an [i]Klick. It advertises its printing services, a fairly legitimate use, but actually houses many men, mostly middle-aged, gaming and surfing anonymously on tower PCs. Behind the front desk is a beautiful woman with short pink-blonde hair in a rather elegant black dress…Hmm, it’s right out of a spy novel, or an episode of Veronica Mars.
A street cleaner walks behind me singing John Lennon’s Imagine at full volume. The dream ain’t over. I duck into ABC Books for a moment. The place is cleaner and more organized than I remember. I need a snack. I chuckle openly as I walk by a cannabis dispensary (one of many) next to a fairly clean pizza joint (the Pizzaiolo chain). There’s a dude with a large black backpack leaning against the wall out front the always-busy 7-Eleven. At first I thought the booming hip hop was coming from the black limo, parked half-over the curb with it’s four-ways on; but no, the noise is coming from inside the backpack. The kids working the 7-Eleven show the calm humility and bottomless patience that only a CS-student-with-a-mc-job can…soon, once they graduate from their engineering program, they’ll be making more money in a quarter than I do in a year.
The long-shuttered building on the corner of St. Mary was once the Toronto Church of Scientology. ‘Nuff said.
Things chill out considerably north of Charles St. New development has taken over. Only the Brass Rail remains. The street widens like a rich boulevard. A homeless man lies on the curb’s edge, stretched out and relaxed, as if on a couch, gleefully watching the crowd across the street. The number of homeless in Shifty Town seems to have remained the same all these years but looks can be deceiving.
I get up to Bloor. I’m standing on the edge of the once-famous Yorkville Village. The one-time bohemian enclave is now merely a collection of malls, chain-cafes, condos and upscale boutiques. I turn the corner, heading west on Bloor. I have obviously slipped from the realm of downtown into the more upscale midtown. It’s a fashion connoisseur’s mecca, with upscale shops like Lacoste, Prada, Gucci, etc. The street is wide and clean. Cabs wait outside an expensive hotel. I could be in any city, anywhere in the world – they all have their own sanitized good-consumer’s-boulevard. Hey, next time you’re window shopping Prada, take a walk down Shifty Town instead.