There’s a convenience store for rent in midtown Toronto, beside a Caribbean cafe and across from a church. The windows are in need of cleaning and inside, the ice cream freezers and candy racks are empty and askew. On a shelf by the door, there’s a can of tomato juice and a package of dressmaker pins.
The most peculiar thing about this abandoned store is its sign. It reads: “Tony’s Variety,” in forest green block letters. And underneath, in smaller letters, a question:
“Where is Tony?”
For decades, no one in this neighbourhood has seen or heard from Tony. The store’s landlord, Benito Petruzzo, bought the building on St. Clair Avenue West at Northcliffe Boulevard in 1983. Since he took over, Tony’s Variety in the ground floor unit has changed hands five or six times, but never to a Tony.
Tyler Anderson / National Post: Tony’s Variety has sat vacant since its latest owner, Mr. Lee, left in December. As of Wednesday, the landlord was still looking for a tenant.
“I’ve never seen Tony,” Petruzzo said. “When I bought the place, it was a Korean guy” But the (store’s) name was Tony’s. I don’t understand that.”
“I don’t know who this Tony is” What’s the problem? He owe any money, this guy?”
At the paint store a block over, a customer recalled two brothers running a restaurant beside Tony’s Variety in the 1980s or 90s.
“One of them might have been named Tony,” he said. “I remember because I ate some veal cutlets there once.”
This tip led to a dead end.
“I always thought the old guy was Tony,” said the crossing guard at the corner, Felix Rinfret. “I always called him Tony.”
But the old guy, who ran Tony’s Variety until he shut it down late last year, was not Tony. Residents knew him only as Mr. Lee, a quiet, kind fellow.
“He knew all of my kids by name,” said Christine Horgan, who lives in the neighbourhood with her five children.
Generations of students at the Ontario School of Ballet three doors down have joked about the sign, which hasn’t changed in the three decades Sarah Lockett has been teaching there.
For years, Horgan was secure in sending her girls to the ballet school, because she knew they could tuck into Tony’s if they ran into trouble on the walk home.
“The kids know that they’re safe there,” Horgan said. “(Mr. Lee) was one of those little anchors of the neighbourhood.”
With Mr. Lee gone, this convenience store on the corner is at risk of disappearing, with its strange question unanswered.
Hilda Jasmer was separated from her family during a bombing raid in eastern Germany during the Second World War. A family of Spanish immigrants took her in. They had come to Germany fleeing the Spanish Civil War, only to find themselves swept up in another war. None of them spoke German, and Hilda didn’t speak Spanish.
Antonio Elster, one of the family’s nine children, was smitten with this woman he couldn’t understand. They made it work. He spoke some broken German, she spoke a little Spanish.
Courtesy of Angela Elster: Hilda Elster, in the late 1940s, around the time she was married.
Courtesy of Angela Elster: Tony Elster, aboard a ship to Canada in 1953.
“I married her because she had the best legs in Europe,” Antonio used to say, according to his daughter, Angela Elster.
Antonio, who went by Tony, was a well-built, handsome man, with black hair that he wore slicked back.
“That was never easy for my mom,” Angela said, “because women were always flirting with him and she was so shy.”
In 1953, Tony and Hilda boarded a boat to Canada, looking for work. In Toronto, Tony worked at the Rosco steel factory and Hilda picked up jobs baking and cleaning.
Courtesy of Angela Elster: Hilda Elster with chocolate Easter bunnies at Tony’s Variety, circa 1970.
By the mid 60s, the pair had enough money to open a store in their Italian neighbourhood. Sam and Rose Goldhar, who ran Goldhar’s Cigar Store at 1125 St. Clair West in the 1940s, leased the the storefront to the Elsters.
“It was the immigrant story at that time,” said Angela, who was in elementary school when her family bought the store.
“(My parents) worked there from 7 a.m. to 11 every night,” she said. “I would cook their meals and bring them up to the store.”
The store had eggshell walls and a blue counter. There was penny candy, rye bread and good chocolate from Europe. On days when Tony went to visit his merchant friends on Spadina Avenue, he burst back into the store with arms full of blouses or women’s stockings to sell “” “because he got a good deal,” Angela said.
Tony built a sitting room in the back, with some comfortable chairs and a stove. People from the neighbourhood came in for milk or cigarettes, and “they just stayed.”
They drank coffee in the back room and listened to Tony tell stories “” about the time he had typhoid in Cuba and a woman wrapped him in the leaves of an indigenous plant to save his life; or about his mother Adelina, the opera singer; or when he came home from a fishing trip with a bantam rooster named Charlie in his minnow bucket. He gave it to Angela, to keep as a pet.
Courtesy of Angela Elster: Tony Elster, an avid fisherman, on an ice-fishing trip in the late 1970s.
Courtesy of Angela Elster: Tony Elster with his daughter Angela in 1958.
“I said, “˜How do I manage a rooster? What do I do?’ And he said, “˜You’ll figure it out,'” she recalled.
“Charlie lived with us for eight years.”
Underneath the bravado, though, there was a “cosmic loneliness” that comes with being an ocean away from family. Tony went back to Spain each year, where he hung around the bodegas in Malaga, talking to owners. He came back to Toronto with plans. He wanted to import wine and liquor. He wanted to bring in saffron, and a Spanish brand of perfume for babies.
And Hilda, who managed the books, had to rein him in.
Courtesy of Angela Elster: Tony and Hilda Elster, with their daughter trailing behind, on a trip to Europe in the late 1950s.
“That’s where my mom drew the line,” she said.
At Christmas, the only day they closed the store, Tony took a door off its hinges in the house and laid it across two saddle horses, making a long dinner table.
He and Hilda invited anyone in the neighbourhood who didn’t have somewhere else to go “” customers, his doctor, the boarders that lived in their house.
“It was kind of an orphans’ Christmas,” Angela said.
By the 1970s, Hilda and Tony were expanding. They opened another variety store a few blocks over, called Oneway Discount, a laundromat, a textile store at Dufferin and St. Clair, and Blake’s Variety in Regent Park.
Sometime around 1972, the Elsters sold Tony’s Variety to Simon and Fay Rosenberg, so they could focus on their other stores.
“At that point, it was difficult,” Angela said.
There were calls in the middle of the night for break-ins, and Angela had to drive her parents “” neither of whom had licences “” down to get the glass windows fixed and file a report.
At their stores in rougher neighbourhoods, Tony was “trying to save every child” who came in, she said.
“If a little kid came in without gloves or socks, my father would just take some socks or gloves from the rack.”
One spring weekend a few years later, Tony went to the Toronto sportsmen’s show. Without warning, he returned and announced to his wife and daughter, “I bought a fishing lodge up north.”
Courtesy of Angela Elster: Angela Elster at the counter in Tony’s Variety, in the mid-1960s.
Supplied: Angela Elster, who worked in her parents’ variety store and took music lessons down the street. She retired as a senior vice president at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
“And my mother said, “˜What’s a lodge?'”
But the family went along with it. Within a few months, the Elsters sold their businesses in Toronto and moved 350 kilometres north to NoÃ«lville, Ont., to run the fishing lodge on the French River.
Tony was back in Toronto for Angela’s wedding in 1983. He took some relatives out for a tour of the city and they drove by that first store on St. Clair, and it was still named Tony’s Variety. There was a different sign, though, with that question written on it. His family laughed.
“The sign said “˜Where is Tony?’ and he was there, in the car with them,” Angela said.
It is still unclear who wrote that sign. Irving Rosenberg, whose parents bought the store from the Elsters, said it wasn’t his family.
Angela remembered taking her parents back to the store after they had retired in the 1980s. The Rosenbergs had since sold and another couple was running the store. It’s her understanding that the owners were so inundated with questions about where that generous Spanish man had gotten to, they finally put it on the sign.
The central question is answered now, regardless. Tony is gone and his ashes are in an urn at a memorial garden in the east end. In 2004, he died at 86 years old, from a “general shutting down.” Hilda died seven years later and her ashes sit beside his.
In the end, Angela was with her father in palliative care when he lost his English. And after, when he lost the German he used to speak to his wife. In the end, Angela just sang him Spanish folk songs and he mouthed the words.