Watching a Toronto neighbourhood fade away
The glass-fronted cases running the length of the shop have just a few cold cuts left. The shelves, once full of pickles, mustards, jams, spices, transparent bags of beans and vermicelli are almost bare.
Going out of business. Everything must go. 50 per cent off," says the sad hand-lettered sign in the window. After this week, my neighborhood deli and butcher shop will close its doors, a victim of rent gouging and change along a stretch of Bloor St. W. that has been on a steep slide for the past several years.
When I moved into this area west of Bathurst St., with its exuberant mix of Italian, Portuguese, Caribbean, Hungarian and Korean immigrants, 22 years ago it had the feel of a real quartier, a neighborhood. You could find all needful things within a few blocks of home.
There was a sporting goods store where we bought my daughter’s first two-wheeler bike, a store that sold sturdy children’s shoes and took the time to fit them, a hardware store where Mike and Helen, the owners, cut keys and advised us on paint. On Markham St., Klaus the antiques dealer could reglue our Bentwood chairs and fix the wobbly foot of a chest of drawers.
And there was Tuske’s deli, which opened in 1964, in the wave that followed the abortive Hungarian uprising against their Soviet masters.
Ten years ago, the original Hungarian butcher shop was acquired by Louis Vanyi and Julius Varga. Louis was the business mind, Julius a third-generation butcher. Good-humored women named Eva or Ilona or Marika or Agi stood behind the counter slicing and wrapping, admiring new babies, giving candy to small children, explaining how to cook certain cuts to uncertain customers.
They asked where my family was going for holidays and how my daughter was doing at university. For a time, a young Korean woman joined the staff and managed to learn passable Hungarian. The others fondly called her Kicsi, or Little One.
If I was a few dollars short, these ladies wrote it down in a notebook by the cash register and let me pay later. Shopping was part of a fabric of human relationships, a feeling of community.
"Every morning, six days a week, I get up at 5 and I’m in the store at 6:15," Julius told me. "We work 12 to 14 hours a day and in 10 years I’ve hardly ever had a holiday."
In the cellar, Julius and his crew cut up sides of beef, veal, and free range chickens, always a healthy yellow compared to the pale supermarket poultry. They smoked hams, made sausages and salamis flavored with sweet paprika and garlic. "And now to lose it all . . ." His words trail off. He looks defeated.
At the start of the new year, the landlord told the two owners their $2,300 rent would triple.
Escalating property tax would add $1,600 to that. When they made inquiries, they discovered the province’s rent control covered houses but not businesses.
Tuske’s could move but would be unlikely to get approval again to construct a smokehouse, so essential to its business.
There is no way we could pay that much rent. Business has been down in the past year. The older people who appreciate this food are dying off or they are on restricted diets now and the younger people don’t care what they eat."
On Saturday, Tuske’s will disappear as the local hardware store, upholsterer, sporting goods store and children’s shoe store have disappeared. Doughnut chains and dollar stores line the street.
Nobody knows my name at them.
At some point I will concede defeat, learn to drive long distances to mammothsupermarkets where no one talks to me and where ersatz deli counters and bakery sections with strictly decorative brick ovens mimic the idea of a village butcher, a village baker. But it won’t be the same.
Judy Stoffman is a Toronto-based literary journalist, born in Budapest.