Monday, October 18, 2010

Oh, Canada!

Last week I was in Toronto for the International Retail Design Conference and now I can not get the Canadian national anthem out of my mind!  It’s not like that song was being broadcast about by outdoor speakers, in fact I never heard it, but fragments of the song are just stuck in my head.  Not to mention, the only words I know are ‘Oh’ and ‘Canada’!     

Even though I always have my camera with me wherever I go, I did not really expect to find much in Toronto that was blog worthy.  Not that Toronto isn’t a great city, it’s just that it is about as far away from the attitude of this blog as possible. 

Don’t misunderstand me, I liked Toronto.  I used to work with a man who regardless of which town or city we visited on business, he would always make statements like, “I could live here.”  Which was a pretty positive statement considering the places we visited were hot spots like Augusta, Memphis, Columbia and Birmingham.  In fact, on many occasions he described some of these towns and cities in a much distorted reality to entice potential employees. 

“You’ll love Jackson, Tennessee.  It’s the LA of the south!”

I continue playing that little game with myself whenever I visit somewhere new.  I had never been to Toronto prior to last week and understanding that it is the 5th largest city in North America I knew I’d find it a little more cosmopolitan than Jackson, Tennessee.  On my first day the sun was out, there was crispness to the air and it was in the low 60’s.  It was perfect sweater weather and a beautiful fall day.  Toronto is full of fantastic architecture.  There’s great shopping, sports and it clearly embraces the arts.  And it’s not like I thought of Toronto as being a northern suburb of Buffalo!  Although it is very ‘American’, it is clear that the Canadians, and I think especially the people of Toronto, walk a fine line between integrating American culture and still making sure that their own country’s identity is front and center.  An easy way to gage this is to study the television programming.  I caught only an hour or so of TV at night after returning to my room, but from my perspective, I say it was about fifty percent Canadian and fifty percent American.  I liked Toronto, but I must admit that our version of Cash Cab is FAR better than its Canadian knock off! 

Regardless of where I go, I like to find something worth while to include on the blog.  On my first day there I took lots of photos of some great modern architecture and the latest retail, but it was not in keeping with the AJ Barnes theme until I ran across a place called The Distillery District.  This recently revitalized area is on the edge of Downtown and less than a mile from the heart of the city.  The conference had done a good job of providing and arranging tours of the city’s most notable shopping areas, which included Queen Street West’s indie retail shops, the Bloor Street/Yorkville luxury area, and all notable museums and architecture.  One of the overall takeaways of the conference was how retailers need to be more authentic and create a unique intimacy with the consumer; something that I have been preaching for about two years now and something that bows well for AJ Barnes.  But, strangely enough the Distillery District was never mentioned by the conference.  I only found out about it from the not so courteous concierge at the hotel.  Who when asked what retail areas I should visit suggested the same ones as advertised by the conference, until I told him I wanted anything special, unique and different.  

The Distillery District is a  collection of renovated Victorian warehouses which houses a unique collection of art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants.  It’s also a mixed use area located on the lake. There are several beautiful new modern glass high-rises, loft living, a school, performing arts center and it’s just a few blocks from Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market.  Refreshingly there are no Gaps and Banana Republics or even the Canadian versions of chain retailers.  All the stores are unique and have distinctively authentic personalities; whether it was an original classic European bakery, a unique flower and garden shop or a hip denim store.  One store is called HorsefeathersHome.  It’s a cleaver furniture and home d├ęcor store that mixes antiques with modern.  As Joan Rivers would say, “Bitch stole my look!”  Finally, I found Toronto blog material with the Distillery District. 

I am very good a ‘getting the shot’ inside a retail store; most stores do not allow photography.  But, this time I thought I would take a different approach and instead of being sneaky about it, I would just ask.  Much to my amazement, every store was more than generous granting my request. 

So back to my little game; “I could live here,” I said to myself as I passed by one of the oversized art installations along the District’s brick paved pedestrian only streets.  The sun was out and there was not a cloud in the sky.  Then I remembered that I am the person that starts getting nervous when the temperature falls below seventy degrees.  In the summer, when I’m laying around in shorts and Chuck turns on a ceiling fan, I have to grab a blanket!  So as much as I thought Toronto has a beautiful aesthetic, great culture and terrific food, I could not live there.  It’s just too damn cold!

Vintage Gardener


One of the art installations

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