Queen West vendors fear closure in face of development

The MEC store is opening in fall 2017, but what will happen to the merchants who have been there since the 80s?

From the early 1980s to the mid-90s, Queen West was the centre of Toronto counterculture. It was punk rock. It was eclectic. It was the place to be seen.

Since then, stores like Gap, Lush, Adidas and Oakley have moved in. It’s posh and slick with a manicured complexion having shed its raw, edgy skin.

All that remains of its former grunge self is the Queen West Vendor Market. Since 1985, silver and handmade jewelry as well as funky clothes and more has been sold from portable booths out front of the parking lot on the well-trafficked corner of Soho and Queen.    

Though the market has shrunk from near 20 booths at its height to its current four, it has persisted and mainly avoided gentrification – until now.

A three-storey building is set for construction on the site of the parking lot and will house Mountain Equipment Co-op’s new flagship store, which is scheduled to open its doors in the fall of 2017.

Sheryl Genser, a Queen Street vendor for the past 23 years, said when she first heard of the plan last week she “burst into tears.”

“I actually felt sick and faint,” she says. “I started shaking and I couldn’t breathe and then I started crying … It was just absolutely shocking. I’m not sure what [the city] is going to do,” she said.

She and her colleagues have launched a petition so the public can voice their support for the market and help urge the city to stop “the homogenization of Toronto” that will put “hard-working independent businesses and their employees out of work, in place of yet another corporate chain.” 

“I’m hoping [the petition works],” says Théa Geurtsen who works with Genser, “because we are such an installment here on Queen West. But I’m hoping that a lot of people really fight and our voices are heard and this city realizes that we are an integral part in downtown Toronto.”

Councillor Joe Cressy, who presides over Ward 20 that includes this section of Queen, says he has already contact both MEC and City Hall about this issue.

“We are still a year and a half or more away but at this very early stage, for the vendors there, we’re going to work to ensure that they’re not displaced, and we’ve already raised it with MEC and [City Hall] staff.”

Kiki was one of the first vendors to open shop there in ‘85. She, too, believes the city will lose a piece of its identity if the market closes but said she was not blindsided by the news.

“I’m not surprised. We were bound to deal with this since aside from the Soho Street parking lot there are few sites along the Queen left to develop,” she says.

One customer, a Mrs. Haywood, found out about the vendors’ situation after having purchased a pair of silver earrings from Genser.

“I used to come here before it was kind of cool, trendy and hip. It’s part of the culture, it’s part of the vibe here on the street and I would hate to see it turn totally commercial. I think that would take away a lot of the personality of Queen Street,” Haywood says. “It’s a bummer.”

website@nowtoronto.com | @darrylcoote

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