The best places to shop in Toronto according to NOW readers
Here are the stores our readers picked as the city's best in our annual Readers' Choice poll
By NOW Staff
Nov 30, 2020
Mirta Fratnik / Unsplash
It’s been a rough year for retail in Toronto – especially small business owners. The city has been on a roller coaster of public health measures that has seen stores close in the spring, reopen in the summer and then close again following a COVID-19 resurgence in the fall.
At the time of this writing, Toronto is in a lockdown that requires non-essential retail to close. Many stores are doing curbside pick-up and delivery and have launched online stores. In this context, we conducted our annual Readers’ Choice poll and received a huge response. You picked your favourite restaurants, bars and food establishments. Now, here are the best places to shop in Toronto, according our readers.
A favourite of local art school students, the first location opened in the OCAD vicinity in 1983. It gets its punny name from that first location, which was on the second floor of a building, in a windowless room. They recently started hosting oil painting, pastel and printing demos. They also teamed up with the Black Artist Union for a gift card giveaway in July to provide supplies for artists in need.
“We don’t just sell bikes – we love bikes and we want you to love them as much as we do!” It’s the motto cycling pioneers Sweet Pete’s has lived by forever with its bike swaps for kids and repair clinics for women – not to mention, support for local cycling initiatives. It’s made the bike shop a hub of local activism and community in the Annex (and now beyond).
North America’s oldest surviving LGBTQ book store has weathered rising rents on Church and now a pandemic. The owners were already getting creative by becoming a multi-purpose community hangout, and now they’ve pivoted to livestreaming with a robust schedule of virtual book launches, author talks, panels, burlesque shows and drag performances. The shop is still open, of course. Glad Day has had a patio all summer and has rallied community support with a fundraiser for LGBTQ artists. The store says they’ve raised more than $300,000 since the pandemic began.
If you’re in need of some vintage leather boots, Courage My Love should be your go-to. It’s racks brim over with funky vintage apparel, designer silk scarves and some very cool tie-dyed cashmere. Odd and ends, like glass swans and intricate hair combs are on every available smidge of extra space. Walking in can feel like going through a time portal to 1975, when the store first opened. Go in store or slide into their Instagram DMs to inquire about products. They also have an Etsy where they sell accessories.
104 Harbord, 932 Bloor West, 1321 St. Clair West, 66 Fort York Blvd, iamcafe.com
CAFE’s highly publicized war with the city over its efforts to stay open as a grey market outlet won the retail chain both acclaim and criticism. When the city sent work crews to place gigantic cement blocks in front of the entrance to CAFE stores, the chain doubled down, opening sidewalk operations at its four Toronto locations. CAFE has since gone legal, winning a licence from the province. But it remains a cannabis outlaw among medpot users who’d rather not give their money to the man.
In seven years, Brigid Elmy and Christine Roberts’ market has evolved from a pop-up at the Duke Tavern to a summertime fixture at the Ashbridge Estate. It wouldn’t be a Leslieville weekend without a stop at the flea to check out vintage and handcrafted trinkets and outfits on the way to the neighbouring farmers market. The Leslieville Flea also pops up at the Distillery District and other locations.
For the fourth year, our readers have named this downtown studio one of the best places to shop for flowers in Toronto thanks to its artful custom-designed arrangements, all of which are made using Ontario-grown flowers (and available for delivery or pickup). Along with creating arrangements for weddings, private events and photo shoots, they also host virtual workshops on how to make dried wreath or hand-tied bouquets, and offer private lessons to budding florists.
Where else can you walk into a store and walk out three hours later with a whole apartment worth of furniture? IKEA is Toronto’s (and planet Earth’s) favourite destination for inexpensive-yet-stylish furniture and home goods, from omnipresent Lack tables and Billy bookshelves to entire kitchens and bathrooms. The cafeteria experience feels a little awkward this year, but you can always buy a bag of frozen meatballs to take home.
Nestled comfortably between the Annex and Wychwood, this neighbourhood supermarket is distinguished by its eclectic product selection and customer outreach – like keeping everyone apprised of new developments on its blog, providing disposable masks to shoppers in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak and prioritizing delivery to vulnerable customers like people over 70, immunocompromised folks and expectant mothers.
At this Parkdale shop, you’ll find the work of more than 100 Canadian designers who specialize in everything from vintage-inspired engagement rings to playful enamel earrings. If you’ve been dreaming up a necklace, ring or earrings, you can work with one of the shop’s in-house designers on custom pieces. Made You Look also offers repairs, alterations and engravings.
The menswear staple is known as one of the best places to shop for made-to-measure suits in Toronto, but in the work-from-home era the store is putting a big emphasis on looking stylish yet comfortable for your next office Zoom meeting. GotStyle offers virtual shopping appointments, a shop-at-home service that lets you try clothes on and even a dine and shop option featuring a private dinner for you and your bubble by Chef Andrew, owner of the private wine club Curatas.
This repeat winner has locations across the city, and specializes in showcasing local, Canadian clothing and jewellery brands – including designs from one of the store’s co-owners. Operating with a goal of 80 per cent Canadian designers or more at any given time, you’ll find brands such as Melissa Nepton, Sara Duke, Valerie Dumaine and Eve Gravel, plus a few international brands. Think statement pieces, elevated office-friendly attire and unique jewellery.
This family-owned denim store has been around since 1975, and you’ll find pretty much any pair of jeans you could imagine somewhere on their infamous denim wall, which has been a mainstay of their store. Now located at the Manulife Centre, the store offers brands including Citizens of Humanity, Paige, MOTHER and more. OtR also offers in-store tailoring and altering services, and you can browse through other clothing, accessories and curated lifestyle brands while you wait.
Crafting cosmetics and skin care out of only fair trade, organic, vegan and cruelty-free ingredients, this local Etsy shop has over 15,000 sales since it’s 2012 beginning. Sudsatorium offers soaps, lotions, lip and hair care (including solid shampoos and conditioners) and even deodorants, all natural and with low-waste packaging. The shop promises products are free of synthetic ingredients, fragrances and preservatives. With over 2,000 rave reviews, NOW readers are not the only fans. Five per cent of proceeds from each sale go toward grassroots charities of the seller’s choice.
Peach Berserk is run by silkscreen artist and clothing designer Kingi Carpenter, who started the brand selling silkscreened garments and delivering them by bicycle. She creates upcycled clothing, handprinted gift cards, accessories and even runs silkscreening workshops. Now she’s added hand-printed masks to the mix. Carpenter uses recycled materials as much as possible, and even offers a stretchy bamboo option. Her masks feature the unique designs and details that Peach Berserk has become so well-known for, and you can even order a custom design or print.
Bird’s consciously designed and ethically made silver and gold-plated jewellery has been adorning ears and necks since 2008. With modern and geometric designs, the brand walks the line between glamorous and understated. Worn by Alicia Keys, Normani, Kylie Jenner and Lizzo, it’s safe to say the brand has taken off exponentially, but it stays true to its ethos of designing jewellery with everyone in mind.
Weekly deliveries from this subscription service come with all the ingredients to make recipes perfectly suited to the subscriber. Founded in Montreal six years ago, Good Food has spread throughout Canada. Meal kits are all the rage for people tired of takeout but who need a bit of guidance in the kitchen, or busy working people who don’t have the time for frequent grocery runs.
Repeat winner Getoutside continues to up Toronto’s shoe game with its classic styles and latest brands for men, women and kids. The independently owned store at Queen and Spadina stocks new arrivals from Converse, Vans and Toms that will hold you down for the fall. And boots from Blundstone, Red Wing, Palladium and Sorel will get you ready for winter.
Pharmacies have become absolutely essential businesses, but during the pandemic they haven’t always been the most fun places to visit. So it’s no surprise our readers picked this big and growing online pharmacy and purveyor of wellness products from skin care to vitamins, diet and fitness to food and snacks. Walk around enough and you might even see a brick-and-mortar outpost or two.
NOW readers love the relaxed feel of this optometrist and eyewear store in the Beaches. Eye Candy is a full service store, offering trendy glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses, while optometrist Maryam Rezvani handles vision care. Everything you need for your peepers.
Since opening in 1983, the worker-owned cooperative has become an east-end staple beloved by the entire city thanks to its grocery store, vegetarian deli and popular juice bar. The Carrot has since opened a second location in the Beaches. Since the pandemic started, the store now offers online shopping as well as a designated shopping hour each morning for seniors and immunocompromised customers.
The pet store chain has locations across the country with food and supplies for dogs, cats, birds, fish, reptiles and other small animals. Find a large assortment of pet food and treats, toys, furniture, clothing and accessories like collars and leashes, as well as expert advice on nutrition and care, grooming and behavioural training. Pick up the store-specific monthly flyer for deals to spoil your furry friend.
Sometimes that camera on your cellphone isn’t going to cut it. The staff at this family-run business offer a ton of expertise with each camera purchase, so a visit is worth your time. Find lighting, drones, printers, used items and accessories. You can also shop online while getting an education via Henry’s Learning Lab. The online courses cover everything from the basics of capturing beautiful photos to hands-on post-production workshops.
Tucked into a narrow space on Spadina, Black Widow specializes in black and grey, single-needle and traditional Japanese work. Owner Chino brings 27 years of international tattoo experience, while fellow artists Jeremy, Vince and Guido round things out with a variety of approaches to black and grey body art.
Sonic Boom feels like it’s always been in Toronto. A perpetual Readers’ Choice winner, the sprawling Spadina emporium of vinyl, books, band merch, turntables, CDs and tapes (yeah, even tapes) made a major shift online for the first time during the pandemic. More than 25,000 vinyl records are up for sale on their website. But if you can, it’s still worth coming to flip through the new used records, handily separated with plexiglass shields. If you’re more comfortable at a distance, you can also get free contactless pickup or free delivery on orders over $100.
Since opening in 1997, this sex-positive store in the Annex helps people of all genders, orientations and desires find high-quality sex toys – including Bluetooth toys for our socially distanced times. Good for Her also offers online workshops such as giving great head, female ejaculation and open relationships, as well as sexuality coaching from founder Carlyle Jansen. Those who prefer to shop in-person can make private appointments.
It’s pretty much impossible to walk into MEC’s Queen West location and not want to escape into the woods, boulder up a cliff or kayak through northern Ontario. Its huge array of outdoor recreation gear and clothing is just that enticing. For those who aren’t ready to fully commit to a new outdoorsy hobby yet, MEC also rents out all types of gear for reasonable prices, from sleeping bags and tents to trekking poles and snowshoes. Pickup for online orders is also available at the Toronto store.
This gifting mainstay is the place to go for novelty knick-knacks and kitschy presents. The shop’s website conveniently breaks down gifts by occasion – baby shower, housewarming, Mother’s Day – and there’s also a pandemic collection. Now you can pickup hand sanitizer face masks (including kids’ masks), puzzles and “can’t wait to hang out” cards for those special people in your life that you likely won’t see until this is all over. One of the best places to shop in Toronto for kids face masks.
A Queen West staple for local university students looking for a deal, this vintage store stocks a wide selection of thrifty essentials such as graphic tees, vintage denim and accessories of all sorts. If you know where to look, you’ll find a unique piece or two at a great price. Since their move from the basement across the street to the second floor of nearby building, Black Market is a little more roomy, but you’ll still find a lineup to get in on busy days due to COVID rules.
Its first location opened in 1990 in Edmonton, then quickly expanded to Calgary and Vancouver. Now Gravity Pope is also a Toronto gem, offering shoes of all styles and prices, along with clothing, accessories, jewellery, beauty and more. You’ll find everything from Frye to Acne Studios to Camper to Canadian-made Manitobah at this Queen West boutique.