A weathered teddy bear from the 1940s, film cameras and oil paintings, coins dating back to the Roman Empire — the treasures spilled out across the tables of a downtown antique market.
Every Sunday, for three decades, the market has come to life here, in St. Lawrence Market: once in the north building, and nowadays under a tent. But this Sunday was the market’s swan song. After 31 years, founder Marlene Cook said she can’t keep it going any longer.
After struggling with business over the last two years, she fears there won’t be enough traffic into the area this summer to get the market back on her feet. Buying larger antiques — rugs, sculptures, and furniture — often required access to a vehicle, she said, and a city pilot project will shutter a portion of Market Street to drivers from June 1 this year out until Sept. 30.
She fears it’s enough to dissuade drivers from coming down to the area.
“I’m closing this Sunday, because I want to go out with a positive market for all my dealers,” Cook said in an interview this weekend with the Star. “What’s going to happen is, hopefully, we’ll have a wonderful market — we’re going to see everybody, and then we can move on from this.”
Through its final day, the market bustled with visitors, ebbing and flowing between its stalls. For more than 15 years, this has been Irene Van Horsen’s Sunday routine, where she displays her collection of antique toys and delicate, handmade lace. With the news of the market closure, she’d been trying to pass along her email and phone number from ella to any regular shoppers she saw.
But, she told the Star, it just wouldn’t be the same without that Sunday gathering.
Hussain Saffar started visiting the market as a collector of fine carpets and area rugs about 25 years ago. For the last four years, he’s been operating his own stand of Persian rugs — most collected from Iraq or Iran. “I was hoping it would stay,” he said of the long-standing market, sitting beside his offerings on Sunday morning. “But, you know, there are realities in life.”
Two tourists wandered by, pausing to ask about a deep blue silk rug. It was $500, Saffar said, though he could offer a wool rug for less. They’d have to jump on the offer today, though, he said, filling them in on the market’s impending closure. Both expressed surprise, and asked if his wares would be on offer somewhere else. “I don’t know. I have no clue,” Saffar replied.
Looking at the other vendors, he said their relationships had come to feel familial. “I’ve known most of the dealers so many years, and nobody is happy about closing it down,” he said.
“People love history, and love antiques, and this is the right spot to find it in Toronto.”
There was a thrill to hunt down a unique item, Cook said — whether that meant a prized comic book, an elegant gold ring, or, for her, a vintage photograph. Sometimes, buying from a market stall meant a chance to learn tidbits about an item’s past life, she said, if a dealer could offer information about where they bought it, such as a stumbled-upon yard or estate sale.
“When they go to a store or buy offline, it’s very cold and it’s not connected,” Cook said. After the isolation of last two years, she feels connection is more important than ever. “When people came to the market after it reopened, they were like, ‘oh my god, I’m so happy.’ ”
When Hans Kotiesen started selling from his old film camera collection, he listed the items on the likes of eBay and Craigslist. But as time wore on, Kotiesen said he wanted to do something more active and personal. “I’m retired and I thought, you know, I don’t want to be out of touch with people, and sock myself away somewhere and just think about the past,” Kotiesen said, sitting at his table on Sunday. “So, I checked into the market. That was about ten years ago.”
“There’s a rush from talking to people, and explaining things, and cracking a few jokes. There’s a lot of human communication going on,” he said. Picking up a camera, I have noted the various mechanisms and the way they let light in. He sees the old machines as a “reflection of history.”
Cook was wistful this weekend. She thought about the old days, when antique hunters didn’t have online tools to immediately judge if something was a vintage valuable or a dated trinket. “Now there’s Google Lens. You can take a picture of something and match it, see how much it is on eBay or Etsy or where it sold. In those early days, who knew how much?”
“You had to have the smarts, or just buy it because you liked it.”
While Sunday was the curtain call for the St. Lawrence show, Cook hopes to one day set up a monthly market elsewhere. On Sunday, cards were set up on a table for visitors to write down their contact information, to be kept in the loop if future markets arise. By 11 am, the clear plastic box was nearly stuffed.
“It’s not just a place to shop,” Cook said, looking back over the decades that had elapsed since she set up her first tables, charging those dealers $25 apiece.
“It’s a community within a community.”
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