In our 5 Shops series, we'll point you in the direction of our favorite independent shops across some of the world's best cities. From food markets to bookshops, vintage and homegrown design, we've found a diverse and exciting mix of local retailers where you can pick up one-of-a-kind pieces.
As a born-and-raised Torontonian, I’ve witnessed firsthand the authentic connection to place and sense of community that is lost when a cherished shop closes its doors for good. Thankfully, some of Toronto’s most beloved independent retailers have survived, largely due to a devout clientele that remains committed to supporting Canadian makers.
For visitors to Toronto, the below five shops provide a window into the local culture – both the history of the city and the people who continue to mold its identity today.
Best for souvenirs: Collected Joy
While most visitors to Toronto head to trendy West End boutiques for shopping, Torontonians know some of the city’s best-kept secrets lie in the east. In the quaint neighborhood of the Beaches lies Collected Joy, an independent shop that’s been a local go-to for Canadian-made goods and up-and-coming Toronto makers for nearly a decade.
Equally as warm as the welcome you’ll likely receive from the owner Sharon upon entry are the wool throws and cozy socks throughout the shop. Shelves are lined with Canadian-made, all-natural candles and tranquil pottery pieces by local ceramicists. An apothecary section displays locally made bath, makeup and skin-care products that are as nourishing to the body as they are for the planet. The “at-home bar” department, meanwhile, is an emporium for foodies, with cocktail syrups, jams and beloved local brands like Sloane Tea and Soul Chocolate.
I’d recommend a visit to the Beaches for any visitor to Toronto – but if the east end is too far afield, head to Collected Joy’s second midtown location, in Mount Pleasant Village.
Best for local design: Arts Market
Skyrocketing rents have made it nearly impossible for artistic entrepreneurs to operate their own storefronts. Happily, since opening in 2011, Arts Market has become a vital year-round market that provides permanent spaces for artists and designers to sell their wares. Across three locations – two in the east end and one in the west – Arts Market houses thousands of handmade goods from over 150 local creatives. From pottery to photography to carpets, vintage antique finds to kitschy modern jewelry…the impressive variety of products keeps locals (and visitors) coming back again and again.
Best for vintage: Black Market and Public Butter
From Kensington Market to Trinity Bellwoods to Leslieville, Toronto is teeming with indie vintage and secondhand shops to explore. Yet long before the city’s vintage boom, Black Market was the place for vintage for local punk rockers and arts students from nearby OCAD (the Ontario College of Art and Design). Today, locals know to look for the discreet open door on Queen St West that leads you down a black-and-white swirl-painted staircase into a sprawling basement hideaway filled with racks of vintage finds. From flannels to band tees to retro jackets, their selection is as vast as it is nostalgic.
As the institution approaches its 30th anniversary, the second generation of Black Market shoppers heads to their sister shop in Parkdale, Public Butter. Here, you can expect to find a more carefully curated (and more expensive) collection than the encyclopedia of vintage housed at the mother ship.
Best for food: St Lawrence Market
As the culinary capital of the country, Toronto has no shortage of food options – but nothing compares to St Lawrence Market. Since it first opened back in 1803, the market has expanded to three buildings in the St Lawrence neighborhood of downtown Toronto, becoming not just a local but a national institution.
Browse 120 food stalls and shops spread throughout the main and lower levels of the original market building, the South Market. Its peameal-bacon sandwich makes Carousel Bakery one of the most popular vendors. If you like yours with some spice, head to Kozlick’s Mustard, a little stall that has been serving up mustard since 1948. For a taste of the East Coast, Buster’s Sea Cove has popular lobster rolls and fish and chips. Cheese lovers won’t want to miss Alex Farm, whose consistently friendly service makes it my favorite place to buy cheese.
If visiting over the weekend, head to the North Market across Front St for the Saturday farmers market, a tradition that dates back over 200 years. The market’s third building, St Lawrence Hall was built in 1850 and functions as a space for retail and city offices. For a deeper understanding of the surrounding Old Town neighborhood, take a market tour with local actor-turned-historian Bruce Bell.
Best for books: Book City
Toronto has sadly lost many of its most beloved book stores over the past 20 years. But one indie bookseller has stood the test of time: Book City. What began as a quaint shop in the Annex in 1976 has since expanded to four locations spread throughout the city – a testament to the customer loyalty they’ve earned. Owned and operated by a family with four generations of experience in the book business, Book City packs its shelves with an eclectic mix of new and backlist titles; you can always expect to find something cheap but irresistible in the signature bargain cart outside. It’s not all books, either – they stock whimsical souvenirs, cards, totes and puzzles, too.