A mission to tell the stories of Torono through a vintage neon sign

“Wow, where did all the fun stuff go?” “

Mark Garner asked himself the question when he returned to Toronto in 2013 to become General Manager and COO of downtown Yonge. Business Improvement Association.

As a child of Scarborough, heading downtown towards the bright lights of Yonge Street was a rite of passage. “You went down every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, and you were surrounded by neon lights.”

Garner’s renewed appreciation for colorful radiating panels may have started with a nostalgia for the A&A Records & Tapes and Sam the Record Man of his youth, but it quickly turned into something more. “I did some research and realized that we’re one of the only provinces that doesn’t have a neon museum,” he says. Knowing that there was an important story to tell, he founded the Neon Museum Toronto and has collected old Toronto signs ever since.

The non-profit museum – designed as a multi-site attraction consisting of open-air neon galleries displayed in lanes with an indoor visitor center nearby – will generate income from admissions to the center and associated events, as well as grants, donations and sponsorships.

Garner is pushing the city and real estate developers to establish a permanent brick and mortar location. If DYBIA doesn’t advocate, he says, that won’t happen. “The Downtown Yonge neighborhood is a designated cultural corridor,” Garner says. “We want to see projects like the Neon Museum play a role in the history of the cultural significance of neon and the businesses associated with it.

As the museum works on pop-ups for 2022, with possible locations yet to be determined, its inventory is being stored across the province until signs are displayed – including the Hard Rock Café, HMV, Sunrise guitar. Records, Fred’s Not Here, La Papillon, Labatt Beer, SkyDome and the first Papaya Hut – can be refurbished and displayed.

Garner is captivated by the skill it takes to create signage made out of sealed glass tubes or gas-filled bulbs that are electrified to emit colored light. He likens to an artistic performance the few remaining artisans in the city who blow the glass tubes while bending them into words and shapes.

But beyond a nostalgia for neon, history buzzes through the signs the museum collects and restores to illuminate the city’s stories. “I find that as I get older, it’s about preserving where Toronto has been,” Garner explains.

Hard rock

There are family stories, like the one behind the Canary Restaurant sign, whose name came to define the redevelopment of Front and Cherry Streets now known as the Canary District. The sign was discovered when Addison’s antiques and accessories warehouse sold its collection in 2019. “We’ve spoken to the family since the sign was discovered,” Garner said. “They are there to tell how they emigrated here, how they opened the restaurant, how long he was there.” The story will be documented in the museum’s next book, as well as displayed at the museum and in pop-ups.

Another notable find, the Record Nook sign, was spotted in a Queen West antique store by a music historian who alerted Garner. The music store, which opened in 1969 on Eglinton West, was a vibrant cultural hub and weekend hangout for the Little Jamaica neighborhood. Record Nook co-owner Jackie Mittoo, a keyboardist who immigrated to Toronto, helped establish Canada’s reggae scene.

Just as neon lights up businesses in a thriving city, Garner sees the Neon Museum Toronto as a project to engage those who appreciate stories that have yet to be told through salvaged glittering tubes. “It’s a happy project. It’s fun to look up and say “Wow! Can’t believe we just found this, ”Garner says of his ongoing quest for historic Toronto neon.

“Every sign has a story.”

About Margaret L. Portillo

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