I have stood at this intersection for 28 years now. The water, cool, shallow in its aqua pool, plays across from me, although I do not hear its gurgle over headphones and traffic, but it is there, as it has always been in summer, the years of construction notwithstanding. To my south, the Four Seasons Centre. No longer new, not yet old. The other three corners, as they have been for many years. The CN Tower looms behind the Shangri-La. Once that air was vacant, not so long ago.
Change boils you slowly, like the proverbial frog, until you look around and realize that the new has pushed up through the old like weeds through a crumbling sidewalk. The city is like the facade of an old Art Deco building slapped onto a new one. You recognize the landmarks, here, here, over there, but the fabric is subtly altering and morphing. Already, sleazy Yonge Street has vanished, replaced with glass and cleaned brick facades. Artsy Queen West has moved further west and upscale. Where there is an old building, there is a developer with a plan for a condo.
I have stood at this intersection for 28 years now, headphones injecting music directly into my brain. WiFi earbuds and an iPhone now, earphones teathered to an Aiwa Walkman knockoff then. Shostakovich now. New Order then.. I arrived in Toronto in August of 1990 and stood here. Explored, over the next couple of months the vintage clothing stores just a block or two west, bought an old army tunic that smelled of stale Edwardian soldier sweat. (Vodka takes care of that, I have since learned). Combed through the shelves at Active Surplus, spent a minute or two with a book at Bakka, bought garnet jewellery at one of the patchouli-scented boutiques further towards Spadina. I was 23 years old, a grad student, and had my artistic sensibilities and geeky style sense to feed.
And then I boarded the 501 streetcar, and went west to Parkdale, seedy Parkdale, to find the nirvana of fabric. Joining the SCA, I had been told about this “Orange Bag Store.” Designer Fabric Outlet. I had never seen such a place. I knew almost nothing about fabric when I first passed through its double doors, other than what I liked, and what I liked on that day was black-shot green taffeta and some geometric trim, diamond patterned, in bright mosaic colours. This, I thought, would make for good clothing for an Ostrogoth. I was wholly devoted to the Ostrogoths in those days, a Theoderic the Great fangirl, and joining the SCA was satisfying my desire to think of myself as one from time to time, to fill in the scant knowledge presented in chronicles and letters with ideas of what life must have been like for people living at that time.
Soon, though, I surmised that green synthetic taffeta wasn’t it. The clothing I made from that fabric was never worn, but instead entered legend (at least in my own mind) as the Ostrogothic prom dress. My second trip to the wondrous store resulted in purple rayon and marvelous wide trim, which I fashioned into what was meant to be 11th century Venetian clothing. If one disregarded the hooks and eyes up the back (after all, they didn’t have zippers—I was learning fast!) it would wasn’t half bad. It sits in my closet to this day.
There were many more trips over the years. Marvelous bullion trim formed the decorative piece for a Rus’ povonik. There were Bayeaux tapestry-style tapestry pieces, and gleaming silks and soft cashmere woolens of many colours. There were the bolts of $2.99 cotton that went into rapier loaner armour that was used for many years. There were Laurel wreath appliqués, and the inheritance fabric—$60 a yard red and gold brocaded silk, affordable to a grad student only because of a bequest from my husband’s aunt—another piece that still hangs in my closet and is worn from time to time. The store changed little, other than to expand slightly. Upholstery fabrics and trims on the main floor, fashion fabrics upstairs.
But the surrounding city changed. In my first decade in Toronto I barely noticed. It was still all newish to me. I don’t remember when the BCE Place was finished. I don’t remember when the Woolworth’s was torn down, although I do remember the parking lot that replaced it and the architectural hot mess that was built later. Then I moved away for a few years, and when I returned, fired by a burgeoning interest in architecture, I started to see the subtle alterations in the fabric of the city. The Bishop’s Block, the oldest building in the city–once a hotel, now dirty, neglected, unloved–was subsumed into the facade of the Shangi-La, a five-star hotel. Queen West—at least the strip between Bay and Spadina—began to be populated not by quirky, funky, artsy stores, but by chains with pretensions of fashionable hipness. Sometime in the 2000s, someone built the first condo in the downtown core, and soon they began to spread like toadstools after a spring rain. Neighbourhoods once populated by students living in decrepit, subdivided Victorians began to attract wealthier sorts, who would buy one of these old homes, shoo out the artisans and aging immigrants, and make them into showcases. The architecture maven in me rejoiced at the rebirth, but the human in me knew the cost to the neighbourhoods.
On the 501 streetcar, now the entire length of Queen, all the way out to Dufferin, became to be populated with the quirky shops that once lived east of Spadina. The marginal—the street kids, the punks, the junkies—suddenly gone. Probably not suddenly, but when I had returned, I lived not in the core of Toronto, but in the suburbs, and I no longer rode the 501 streetcar with any regularity. Life continued without my gaze. Increasingly, I bought my fabric elsewhere—online, at other stores closer to the core—easier to reach from my downtown office—or at the local Fabricland. I was changing, too, no longer the grad student with dreams of life as a professor at some small college, surrounded by eager students, immersed in history. History, my vocation, my calling, was no longer my profession, but I kept it in my life, my passion. Even that began to change, as my love of architecture first, then all things Art Deco led me into the 20th century, where I met up with my first historical love from over 40 years past—the Second World War.
But still, when it was needed, the Orange Bag Store still retained its magic. Nowhere else could you get silk in any colour you liked–dozens just in shades of gold. Bolts of silk twill, with its liquid drape in deep shades of red and blue and black; and more recently, fine white linen at $9.99 and $10.99 a yard beckoned, attracting me repeatedly. Around the store, the boundary of hipness began to spread into Parkdale, yet the margins still held. You could still see the downtrodden, the strange-eyed men yelling at traffic, the litter of syringes in back alleys, but increasingly, the renovators in their BMWs gave them the nervous side-eye, not acknowledging that they themselves were, in actuality, the ones who were out of place.
I have stood at this intersection for 28 years now, waiting for the 501 streetcar, and today I ride it to pay my final respects. After 65 years, Designer Fabric Outlet will soon close, and the entire store is on sale. Soon, the stories of the pilgrimages to the legendary Orange Bag Store will pass into memory, and then fade. Something else will rise in its place in Parkdale, and the not-so-young will pass it and remember, and the young will not understand. Today, I will seek out the bolts of fabric by the door, in search of bargain linen. I will once again climb the stairs to the second floor, run my hand over the silks in rainbow colours, rub wools between finger and thumb, marvel at the textile treasures in the locked cases. I will wander through the trim department, remembering the geometric, mosaic-like trim found there almost 28 years ago and the other finds over the years since—have I truly been coming here well more than half my life? I will buy wool crepe for a 1920s cocoon coat, the yardage and the cost pinned to the fabric as it always has been, and talk with the store’s owner on whether there might be more of the linen in the back. But what I am here for is not fabric, or trim, or buttons, or thread. It is to remember, to pay tribute to what, for a handful of remaining days, is still the shrine of pilgrimage I remember, the enabler of dreams realized, a sparkling ornament in the fabric of the Toronto I came to nearly three decades ago.
I stand at this intersection again, at 5:15 pm, a heavy orange bag in my right hand, a familiar feeling. The second movement of the Shostakovich 2nd piano concerto is in my ears—simple, expressive, notes cascading, glittering like so many jewels upon silk. Across from me, the water, cool in its shallow pool, catches the light, a shimmering aquamarine sheet, and I remember. And then I cross the street, turn north, and the moment passes.