Make a visit to Honest Ed’s Bargain store on Toronto’s Bloor Street and you are instantly transported back to an almost impossibly innocent era of extra buttered popcorn, cars without seatbelts and genuine retail optimism. This magical feeling, in large part, is due to the proliferation of hand-painted signs on everything in the store. From a basket of 99¢ ‘leather’ wallets to a 10-foot high cuckoo clock, literally every piece of in-store communication is lettered by a (very talented) human being with a brush.

So why wouldn’t they just use a digital printer like everyone else? Honest Ed Mirvish was one of the original rags-to-riches entrepreneurs – perhaps he just never wanted to spend money on a computer. But perhaps he knew that a real bargain has to feel like a bargain, not a cheap rip-off. And perhaps he had an intuitive sense that hand-lettered signs would someday play a part in differentiating his store from the big-box retail annihilators that would eventually sweep most of his kind from almost every town and city on the planet.

When is the last time you saw a real hand-painted sign? Looking closely you can actually see the imperfections and brush strokes on each individual letter, yet the fonts are remarkably consistent, and each stroke is confident and clean. If you have every tried to paint your own ‘Garage Sale’ sign, you will know just how difficult this is.

I am a self-admitted non-big-box shopper. Yet in Ed’s Honest environment I found myself happily buying souvenirs for my family back in Vancouver, while marveling at the unique range of items offered. (Purple tuxedo vests anyone?) I chalk this feeling up to a sense of escapism, from the supply-chain-paranoid world of globalization back to a simpler era. The fact that Ed’s itself is an independent brand has much to do with it, but I think there’s more.

What these signs add is a sense of humanity that no number of ghoulish, price-dropping WalMart happy faces can ever hope to emulate. People are employed. A sense of beautiful handmade imperfection is brought to the retail environment. Maybe it’s OK to get a bargain once in a while, and enjoy shopping again.

On second thought, I hope WalMart never reads this.


For graphic designers, sign geeks or anyone who doesn’t believe humans could possibly paint this many signs, this excellent blog from the Torontonian takes you inside the world of Honest Ed’s in-store signwriters:

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