Banner photo is of Charles St and Yonge in 2015. Photo by K Taylor.
If you know me well or have read a few of these entries – or even just walked past as I was spouting off – you’ll know that I can wax romantic about pretty much any old Toronto building. But there are some that really get me in the gut, being a part of my past, and 3 Charles St is one of them.
When I was a kid my Dad had an office in this building, on the second floor. I don’t know what sort of place you might imagine on hearing that, but I expect it might be wrong. It wasn’t ‘80s slick, and there was no “officey” equipment or even carpet that I can recall. As a kid, I didn’t think much of it, probably thought it was what all offices were like. I realize now that it was a remnant of a disappearing world; as close to a Sam Spade-type office as someone from my generation was likely to experience. It had sash windows, high ceilings, a roll top desk and a drafty, shared bathroom at the end of the hall. Adding a splash of glamour, the band The Nylons had the office directly opposite.
Often, in tow with my two older sisters, I’d go there on weekends after gymnastics class. I don’t know what they got up to but I remember being content to sit on an old tweed and chrome office chair reading my Ellery Queen magazine. One memorable occasion was the Christmas Eve my dad locked his keys in his car. I was about 12, sitting at home working on being a pre-teen, when I got the call to bring his spare set to the office. Taking the subway to Yonge and Bloor – which to me was the heart of Downtown – and stepping out into all the bright Christmas-y cheer and bustle was pretty exciting stuff. I felt quite city-savvy as I climbed the stairs to deliver the keys and save the day. Afterwards we went across the street to Toby’s for hamburgers and a 5 cent sundae. That last detail makes it sound like it happened in the 1930s, but it really was just a promo Toby’s ran.
Long before my father had his office here, this building was the cherished home and business of a successful grocer name Robert Barron. … which is so close to “robber baron” you wonder if there were jokes if he put his thumb on the scale.
Robert Barron was born in Elgin, Scotland in 1842 and moved to Toronto in 1871. He started off working in the leather goods trade in York Mills but soon moved to Yonge St where he opened his own grocery store.
When he purchased the lot in 1888, Charles St West was yet to be. Instead it was known as Czar St – a name it would keep until the Russian Revolution came along and it was decided that perhaps it’d be more suitable to give Charles St, which sat on the East side of Yonge, a Western wing.
As for the building itself, Barron couldn’t have chosen a better architect. G. W. Gouinlock had just moved to Toronto and was kicking off his career when he won the contract to design Barron’s grocery store. It would be the first of many wonderful buildings he’d give the city, an incredible list that includes Marshall McLuhan’s Queen’s Park Crescent home, the North wing of the Ontario Legislative Building, a score of CNE Beaux Arts buildings and the Toronto Lithographing Company which I’ve written about here.
Barron’s building, which cost $12,000 to erect, received a gushing review in the Canadian Grocer, where it was noted: “The fittings, which are of the finest material and latest design, cost $1,000, and are a picture of elegance. The counter in particular, is a fine piece of carved work.” I heartily second that. Take a look – it’s a fancy food wonderland.
Well, 1889 turned out to be a banner year for Barron. Not only had his beautiful new building been completed and roundly applauded, but he was also named Vice President of the Toronto Retail Grocers’ Association; a position which was listed on the cover of every issue of The Canadian Grocer and General Storekeeper.
I don’t know what it is but these industry group periodicals crack me up. I think it’s the gravity with which they discuss things like this:
Why throw around a bunch of words – it’s a handsome calendar. See it. From the January 1889 Canadian Grocer.
Anyhow, Barron’s business was growing and in the 1890s he was able to buy the plots to the south and west of his corner. He brought Gouinlock back to expand the grocery store and add a handsome set of stables on St. Nicholas St.
Alas, Robert Barron died in March of 1912 at age 70. His son George took up the retail torch, holding onto the grocery until 1947 when the building was sold to the Cole brothers. The storefront then became the second location in their growing chain of Coles bookstores, with offices like my Dad’s on the second and third floors. An interesting note is that this was the location where the Coles Notes study guides were launched in 1948. (When the Coles sold the U.S. rights to the guides to Cliff Hillegass, they became known as CliffsNotes.)
Happily, I can report that the building is heritage protected, though I suspect some change is afoot. It appears vacant at the moment, and there is an ominous sign that mentions pending “renovations.” Whatever it is they’re planning, I hope it isn’t too drastic – because if Robert Barron isn’t already haunting the place, I’ll have to.