If Saturday afternoons were earmarked for buying government-controlled beer with my dad, Saturday mornings were all about buying cheap groceries with my mom. For years, this meant taking a trip down to Knob Hill Farms, the discount “food terminal” owned by former Toronto Maple Leafs chairman, Steve Stavro.
Knob Hill Farms has been described as a precursor to Costco, except that Costco’s target market is the suburban middle-class, whereas Knob Hill served the large community of working-class immigrants that still lived in Toronto’s west end in the 1970s and 80s. The store was housed in a cavernous warehouse that loomed from behind the corner of Dundas and Lansdowne Streets, an area that was unnervingly seedy at night and only marginally less so during the day. As consolation, it featured the lowest prices in town on a limited range of basic foodstuffs: sugar, ketchup, beans, potatoes, meat. If you were in dire need of gourmet coffee or portobello mushrooms, well, you were shit out of luck. Then again, you probably didn’t shop at Knob Hill Farms anyway.
The store was dirty, disorganized, and absolutely immense, which made it a perfect playground for me and the small army of kids that were left to roam freely as our mothers focussed on the infinitely more important task of securing the best chicken legs the butcher had to offer. I have vague recollections of games of hide and go seek that involved squeezing between boxes of wilting cabbages and waiting breathlessly to be discovered; I also remember seeing entire families of mice scurrying away as I approached, and making it a point never to sit down.
Knob Hill did not play Muzak, which would have incurred additional expense, nor did it possess any soundproofing materials to speak of. Instead, it was a teeming container of din, which rose up from the concrete floors and floated toward the corrugated steel of the roof. Stout, kerchiefed women in formless black skirts yelled alternately at the butcher, their children, and one other as they crowded together at the meat counter. The employees, almost all of them southern European men, shouted and swore at each other over the motors of the small forklifts they drove erratically through the aisles. Children fell down and emitted piercing shrieks that outlasted their breath. Boxes thumped, cans rattled, glass broke, and always there was the staccato symphony of the cash registers, which still sounded like old cars rather than computers. The place was intoxicating and overwhelming, wonderful and horrible at once.
Knob Hill Farms went out of business in October of 2000, a victim of the rapid wave of gentrification that transformed Toronto completely in the span of a single decade. I remember reading about it in the Globe & Mail one morning, and feeling deeply saddened by the news. Preservationist that I am, I am proud to keep in my possession one brown plastic Knob Hill Farms basket that has served as my laundry hamper for almost fifteen years.
The store’s last days are documented in Eroded Margin, a remarkable bookwork project by Greg White and Patricio Davila that I urge you to look at. They also inspired a thoughtful companion piece by Ryan Bigge, Everything Falls Apart, which is very much worth reading. Please do.