Toronto
4 min

If these walls could talk

The Toolbox counts down its final days

UNDER THE RADAR. With its overgrown greenery, discrete signage and boarded windows, The Toolbox has quietly coexisted in an east end residential neighbourhood since 1984. Credit: Joshua Meles

Sun, Aug 28 will mark the end of an era. It’s the fateful day when Toronto will lose one of its oldest gay bars, The Toolbox, an out of the way club that has provided a home to leathermen and later bears for more than three decades.



“I will miss this place when it closes,” says long-time patron John Weiss. “Guess I’ll just cruise the streets. I stay at this place. It’s my home away from home.”



The notorious institution will remain open until the end of the summer. Regulars can continue to enjoy the bar’s popular Sunday brunches and curious virgins can come by for their first and last beer in the maze – then it’s game over.



The bar’s original incarnation was as 18 East at 18 Eastern Ave, before it moved to the Simcoe Hotel at 508 Eastern Ave, which quietly became the Toolbox and Mother’s Guest House (the outdoor signage never changed). Not surprisingly for a bar with such history, it seems like everyone has a story to tell about The Toolbox.



“Eighteen East was a special place when gay bars were not common,” says Andy Anderson, Mr Toolbox 1989. “There was the Barn, the Quest, Dudes, Katrina’s. There were not that many places. Eighteen East had a kitchen and served food. It was quite popular for meals, burgers and fries and dinners.



“There was a downstairs. That’s a whole other chapter. It was a rarity for its day and what was known then as a leather and denim bar. That was the place to go, with a more raunchy and down to earth crowd.”



A long-time patron of The Toolbox, Anderson remembers the infamous Xcorriga pansexual play party held there in 1990 when he won the zucchini-swallowing contest. He recalls that the whole place was packed that night and that there was an interesting mix of genders and orientations with a lot of visible play everywhere including in the guest rooms upstairs.



Weiss, a retired art-school teacher better known in the leather scene as Dr Perve, qualifies his appreciation of The Toolbox by stating, “I’ve been queer and into leather since 1966. I fisted my first guy when I was 17 in England at the Catacombs.” Weiss also remembers the early days at 18 East and how the new bar changed the existing gay social scene.



“When I was a kid there was Charlie’s [the St Charles Tavern] and then the Parkside, which had a male-only space. Leathermen took to one wall and spilled out into the back lane after closing.” Seedy back-lane sex took place in that lane just west of Yonge St, the tales go, an area still active today.



In time, enough leathermen gathered to form The Lanyards Toronto and Spearhead clubs, and to support a full-time leather bar. In 1981, David Davies took the chance and opened 18 East far from Yonge and Wellesley, which was the gay social centre by that time.



The bar was considered a risky venture in more than just the financial sense. “It was illegal to be a queer when I came out in ’65, not to mention into SM,” says Weiss. “In those days a bar would have a red light that would go on to alert us when the cops came.



“The basement of 18 East was for cruising. Men would grope, not have sex, but meet. It sounds ordinary but it wasn’t until Trudeau in ’69 said the government doesn’t belong in the bedrooms of the nation that things changed.”



Eighteen East was located around the corner from the butch/femme dyke bar, the Cameo Club. Current owner Bob Saunders recalls how well the two bars coexisted. If one bar ran out of something the other club would run some over, replacing it on another day. The men and women got along just fine with their separate spaces in those days.



Saunders, who was a member of The Lanyards in the late ’60s and ’70s, took over the business in ’83 with partner Matt Shields. They asked Jack Mackness, now 73, to bartend for them when he retired from IBM at age 50. “I was the only patio bartender for the bar which was open Thursday to Sunday,” says Mackness. “When it was closed I put a sign up that said ‘Jack off today.'”



In 1984, Saunders and Shields left the 18 Eastern Ave space due to difficulties with the landlord. They decided to join forces with Mackness, a founding member of Spearhead, to buy the Simcoe Hotel at 508 Eastern Ave. Located in a working-class, residential neighbourhood, this was a bold move for a gay men’s leather bar to take. Many wondered how they would survive in the new location so far from the gay ghetto, and what kind of homophobia they would face.



“At first there were all kinds of problems with the neighbours,” says Mackness. “The bike club [on the same block] was no problem to us. I negotiated a deal with the Paradise Riders [now Hell’s Angels] president. They wanted to use our parking lot and we offered it early in the week.”



Local teens were less wel-coming of the new homo haunt. “Molotov cocktails and broken windows were a big problem which is why the windows were, and remain, covered.”



On a brighter note, Mackness’s family came on opening night to show their support. “My oldest granddaughter was a babe in arms and had her diaper changed on the pool table,” he recalls with a laugh. Although Mackness pulled out of the business end of The Toolbox five years ago, he’s remained a loyal customer and will miss the place.



But it’s not just The Toolbox that will be missed. For patron John Gartshore, Mother’s Guest House has been a second home. “The Society Of Spankers [which meet every two months at Mother’s Guest House; the next party is Tue, Jul 27; call (416) 925-9872 ext 2102] will have to find a new home. I’ve stayed here when my place was being fumigated. I’ve stayed here between moves.”



The Toolbox has been a home to leatherfolks in the last few decades of the century, joined by more recently by the bear crowd in the last few years. Until recently The Toolbox was off the police radar and a place where one could get a little action and a beer. There are many rumours about the wild sexual environment but patrons are as secretive on the subject as the bar’s maze on the back patio.



When the walls of 508 Eastern Ave come crashing down, to be replaced by the ubiquitous townhouses that are fast filling every vacant space in the city’s core, an awful lot of history will go with them. If only these walls could talk.



* The Toolbox (508 Eastern Ave) will be officially open until Sun, Aug 28.