evidence that toronto ever accommodated factories is getting harder to find. Walk past the multiplying condolofts and freehold townhome estates of King West Village and you would never know that people once earned their living around here producing farm machinery at Massey-Ferguson and washing machines at Inglis. Although the drying racks are still on the roof, the Toronto Carpet Factory no longer houses rug-makers, but computer operators in chi-chi high-ceilinged office space. Yet inside this three-storey 1880s brick building, one factory remains that is not only surviving but thriving: Barrymore Custom Furniture.
Tom Callahan, who with his brother Brian purchased Barrymore Furniture 20 years ago, is slightly suspicious of my motives. "I didn't think this would be NOW's cup of tea." He warns me that the furniture made here is "high-end." I assure him I have not come to attack those who provide comfort to the wealthy.
Barrymore employs 100 people, most of them involved in the skilled work of cutting, sewing and upholstery. The song of a caged canary lights up the carpeted public showroom. I feel I should have slippers to replace my mud-covered boots (caused by our new winter rainy season). The chairs and chesterfields (certainly "couch" is too casual a word) all look formal but cushy.
In 1930, Barrymore Furniture was chosen to furnish the Eaton Co.'s "Ideal Home." Although horsehair is no longer used for stuffing, the quality of workmanship has remained high.
Customers at the showroom choose a furniture design plus a covering from thousands of samples, from leather to silk brocade. Basic wood frames are made elsewhere in Ontario. Fancy hand-carved frames come mostly from woodworkers long established around Verona and Padua, Italy, as well as from Spain and Egypt.
Workers at Barrymore are unionized under the Steelworkers. Cutters earn an hourly wage of about $25. Sewers are paid by the piece. As each piece is custom-made, the work is not routine, and great attention must be paid to detail.
The normally noxious glue being sprayed onto the foam seating is water-based here, and I can smell nothing. There's a glassed-in area full of feathers, with a vacuum and a hose to shoot them into pillows. I can picture Lucille Ball doing a 20-minute bit in there. Currently, there are no women in the upholstery department -- unless you count the ones featured on calendars.
It's ironic, considering Barrymore's focus on handwork, that the factory that occupied this space over a hundred years ago was heavily mechanized. Wheels from steam-powered, belt-driven machines still hang next to the massive timber beams.
The Callahans own this 75,000-square-foot building. Businesses pay high taxes in the city, and truckers are becoming more reluctant to get tied up making deliveries downtown, but Barrymore has no plans to relocate to Orfus Road or someplace.
I do not own a home, and any furniture I have is in the "found object" style. The only thing I pay to upholster is myself. When I have the cash, I visit a tailor.
The crankiest people I have ever met are tailors. They feel unappreciated in a world where quality is not recognized.
Cheap clothes, cheap furniture and cheap food are all subsidized by underpaid workers we never meet. Even high prices are no guarantee of properly paid labour. "Provenance" (knowing the origin of the products we use), as they say on the Antiques Roadshow, is everything.