Situated amongst four sets of train tracks, The Junction district of Toronto is a tiny square of a neighbourhood with huge appeal. This was once the area where hapless pigs came to die, processed in Hogtown’s infamous slaughterhouse, but nary a corkscrew tail is evident now in a community living on the cutting edge of chic. Fortunately, this gem has (thus far) escaped the greedy eyes of developers eager to sweep away our city’s history to make room for yet another ubiquitous, characterless box; The Junction’s buildings are still steeped in the years of Toronto past, with wonderful creaking floors, tin ceilings and a sense of our city’s rich and colourful heritage.

Despite its small size, it’s very easy to while away an entire afternoon wandering around The Junction. Most of the action is centred on the Dundas strip at Keele Street, with an array of shops, eateries and curiosities that promise hours of browsing.

I start just east of Keele, on a frigid Saturday afternoon in February, in what appears at first glance to be a slightly upmarket convenience store. Boy, am I wrong. Ko Foods (2842 Dundas St W, #1 on the map) is the kind of chic health-food store that would be unrecognizable to my mother’s generation: there are no dusty boxes of mysterious unguents and concoctions, only pristinely organized shelves boasting things like blue agave nectar, organic peanut butter and health supplements. Completely missing are the tepid offerings of wilted, half-rotten organic produce that were common in such shops even 10 years ago, and in their place stand rows of glossy purple eggplants, fresh greens and young carrots that are positively jewel-coloured. Owner Clark Ko and his wife modelled the shop on its sister store, over in High Park, and are delighted by the community response to their second outlet.

“It’s a wonderful neighbourhood, very supportive,” says Mrs Ko. “The people here are very receptive to health foods. It’s very nice that so many people shop locally.”

I make a quick right up Keele to investigate a place called Oberoi Overseas Imports (382 Keele St, #2). The windows are a spectacular blend of retro treasure finds and hardware. Inside is organized chaos: a wall of power tools and drills that put Home Depot to shame (pricewise, as well as in regard to variety) stands cheek-by-jowl to delicate vintage statuary and chachkas and a selection of curios that would bring pride to any cabinet.

I’m especially taken with a round marble end table, with a built-in lamp and rotary telephone. God only knows how (or where) you’d heft the massive thing should it ever need to be serviced, but it makes up for any such inconvenience in sheer fabulousness. The shop’s owner, a cheery gent named Obie, booms out a welcome to all who arrive. Obie’s been buying and selling stuff for more than 30 years at this location, a place he thinks of as his home away from home. “I spend all my time here,” he says, adjusting a row of brass harlequin masks nestled alongside a cache of Mastercraft power drills. “It is what I love to do.“

Opening the shop was quite a change for the former CN machinist, but the constant hunt for sellable merchandise and quirky treasures never loses its appeal. “It is always an adventure,” Obie laughs. “And don’t forget, we buy and sell anything legal!”

Right next door to Obie’s is an antique store you’d never find in the chichi King West district. Like its neighbour, Mr Antico (384 Keele St, #3) is the kind of place that requires a little hunting for quality items, but once you dive in there’s a wealth of kitschy and elegant finds that are reasonably priced and in good condition. I’m still regretting my decision not to purchase the olive-green Bell rotary telephone (complete with the original owner’s typewritten phone number on the dial) or the Tiffany-esque lampshade decorated with bluebells and birds.

Venturing West on Dundas is quite an epiphany for me. My only real experiences of this area consist of whizzing by in cabs or, on one memorable occasion, taking a wrong turn in a rental car that was about to run out of gas. How did I miss all this pedestrian traffic — particularly respectable for such a cold afternoon — filing into a selection of eateries and shops that make Cabbagetown look like a suburban strip mall in Pickering (sorry, Councillor McConnell, but you know it’s true).

As I pass by the vintage Bank of Montreal building (still occupied by the actual bank), a coin laundry and a slew of small businesses and amenities, I’m struck by how natural and comfortable this stretch of Dundas West is. There are no Gaps or Banana Republics, just a great variety of honest-to-god individual stores, beautifully kept and owned by real people, not American corporations.

I walk into Post and Beam Architectural Reclaim (2869 Dundas St W, #4) and am immediately entranced. Soaring ceilings, creaky wood floors and a selection of reclaimed items that make it feel like a film-studio storage building. Antique stained-glass windows hang all around, twinkling in the sunlight. Columns and plinths from another era reach majestically upward, towering over a selection of marble slab just waiting to be repurposed in some lucky kitchen or bathroom. Massive iron gates lean casually against the wall next to old entry doorways that range from normal to Amazonian heights.

Almost equal in size are the oak mantels, growing from perfectly normal bungalow-sized to cavernous beauties you could roast half a cow in. Art consultant Flavio Belli has worked at Post and Beam for more than a year, having previously been one of the store’s customers as he sought out merchandise for his firm’s clients. He’s also responsible for the shop’s distinctive look: industrial, artful and eclectic. “This place has some incredible finds,” he says. “And the prices are pretty reasonable. Many of our things are reclaimed, but we also have items that have been made from repurposed materials.”

These items include a stunning harvest table constructed out of old timber by Amish craftsmen and a selection of painted stars made of hammered metal that steal my heart — but not a great deal of my money. These are Costco prices for Pottery Barn quality, with the added bonus of authentic character and history.

Belli directs me across the street to Smash (2880 Dundas St W, #5), another reclamation dealer owned by Post and Beam’s previous business partner. Clearly, there were no hard feelings when the two parted company, and on entering Smash, I understand why there’s no sense of fervid competition between the two establishments. Part gallery, part museum and part art house, Smash is like a lifestyle store without the tacky place mats and scented candles. This is a place that could furnish an entire apartment without the owner worrying that everything would look like it came from the same store, or even the same era. Overhead hangs a fantastic neon sign, shining its red light upon a white fibreglass sofa that must be seen to be believed. It’s also surprisingly comfortable.

Owner Paul Mercer handpicks each item that comes through Smash’s door, attending a whirlwind of auctions, sales and shows to nab unique objects. “We’re pretty aggressive in our buying, so things aren’t too expensive,” he says. “It’s always pretty exciting to find something unexpected and different. I really enjoy that part of the job.”

I leave Smash with two silkscreen posters printed on heavy fibre paper, one a hand-drawn map of the old Hudson Bay territory, the other a trio of female archers in aqua green. I’ve seen posters at IKEA sell for more coin, with far less quality or panache. I bookmark the store’s page to keep track of the artists-in-residence they host, as well as the occasional performance.

My stomach’s rumbling, and Smash’s lovely saleswoman directs me across the road to Playa Cabana Cantina (2883 Dundas St W, #6), where I consume the best Mexican food I’ve had outside of California. I’m struck by how the businesses here recommend each other so readily, with a sense of camaraderie that gives shopping in The Junction an almost village feel. If there are any cutthroats here, they’re hiding it well under some really friendly scarves.

Much refreshed, I continue down past Above Ground Art Supplies and Phil’s Internet Café, arriving at Snug as a Bug  (3022 Dundas St W, #7). The shop’s window is adorable, featuring all sorts of children’s clothing and toys, along with an entire family of mannequins, baby to adult, attired in full-body footie pyjamas. I initially assume that the grown-up versions are some kind of decorating gimmick, only to discover an entire range of the painfully cute sleepwear hanging inside.

Liz Heyland started her business 10 years ago, mailing out her wares to customers and other shops, until finally making the leap to retail. Mail order is still thriving, as is the walk-in trade from both the community and beyond. “We make everything with the Snug as a Bug brand name,” Heyland says. “We have winter hats, sun hats, snugglies and, of course, the footie pyjamas. They’re an especially popular item.” (Of special note: apparently Brandon Matheson, Xtra’s illustrious publisher, was given a pair of these for Christmas. A shiny new $5 bill to anyone who manages to snag a photo of him wearing them.)

Four hours and a couple hundred dollars later, I leave The Junction feeling both impressed and hopeful. With such a strong community in place, supporting its local shops, it seems like this little diamond can maintain its unique sense of history while still offering a surprising number of unique — and locally owned — businesses and services.
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