Pop-up window displays help beautify Little India retail strip

Grassroots group works to find permanent tenants for vacant Gerrard East storefronts

By  Joanna Lavoie

Blumorpha rendering

Photo/COURTESY

A rendering of the Blumorpha pop-up window display at 1447 Gerrard St. E.; the window displays aim to help beautify the Little India retail strip.

An out-of-the-box experiment to incubate new business in the Gerrard India Bazaar is working.

Inspired by the pop-up shops on The Danforth, a small group of neighbours is working to bring a form of the initiative to Gerrard Street East.

But instead of helping open pop-up shops along the strip, the Gerrard East group is working on a pop-up window display concept where online or home-based business owners clean-up the front window area of an empty storefront and use it as a promotional tool while showing prospective tenants what it could be like to open a store in that location.

Moxie Garrett is an eight-year Leslieville resident who runs MerrilyMerrily.ca, an upcycled and consignment clothing e-store for babies and kids.

She was the first business owner to try the pop-up window display concept this spring in a vacant storefront at 1409 Gerrard St. E.

“I’m on the Gerrard strip all the time and it’s just not an awesome place to be,” said Garrett, a mother of four who runs Merrily Merrily out of her home.

“The pop-up window was a chance for free publicity. It was a lot of work to clean up (the window), but it’s definitely been worth it.”

The landlord of that building landed a new tenant within three months, reported four-year area resident Michael Yhip, who is spearheading the project alongside fellow Little India-area resident Dawn Chapman, who owns Lazy Daisy’s Café at Gerrard Street East and Coxwell Avenue.

“The window display concept seems to be working. … It’s building trust with the owners and showing early results,” said Yhip, who late last year founded The Bazaar Residents Association for those living south of Gerrard Street East.

During a meeting at her café, Chapman said she has been discussing the pop-up concept with various community groups and residents for close to a year.

“The idea’s been a long time coming,” she said.

Last fall, Yhip, Chapman and various volunteers, including local property owner/resident Arnab Chakravarty, started working together to identify, contact and develop solid relationships with property owners along Gerrard Street East from Coxwell to Greenwood avenues.

The group’s ultimate goal is to draw new, diverse and permanent retailers to the strip.

In an effort to learn as much as possible about pop-ups, the Gerrard East team also met with representatives from the Danforth East Community Association (DECA), which has been working to bring pop-up stores to Danforth Avenue since 2012. The group has even partnered with WoodGreen Community Services to hire two people to manage its successful program, which has facilitated the opening of more than 20 temporary storefronts along The Danforth from Greenwood Avenue to Main Street.

A handful of those once-empty storefronts now have permanent tenants, said Gay Stephenson, one of the economic development coordinators who run the ambitious program.

“It’s a huge process,” said Stephenson, a former realtor who owns property along Danforth Avenue.

An at-times frustrating process, she said it’s time-consuming to identify empty storefronts, find their owners and get landlords to agree to having a temporary tenant move in.

“You have to go through a lot of closed doors before you find one that is open. Relationships are what the project is really built on,” she said.

Happy to help facilitate a similar initiative along Gerrard Street East, Stephenson provided the Gerrard East pop-up team with information about how to run the program as well as testimonials from happy property owners on Danforth Avenue, who have hosted pop-up stores.

One of the most notable obstacles to opening pop-up stores on Gerrard Street East has been the liability issue.

DECA, a registered not-for-profit, was able to secure liability insurance.

However, the Gerrard East pop-up team is a more grassroots group made up of concerned area residents and small business owners and has not been able to do so at this point.

“The clincher is liability insurance. It’s our biggest hindrance and a major legal challenge,” explained Chapman when discussing what prompted the pop-up window display concept.

About a month ago, a second pop-up window was set up at 1447 Gerrard St. E., just west of BJ Supermarket, which also owns the building where the second pop-up window is located.

“BJ Supermarket allowed us to go in and beautify it,” said Yhip, whose background is in finance.

The newest temporary window display is being put on by Lisa North, a Little India-area resident who runs Blumorphia, a home-based furniture redesign studio.

“It’s a great way to promote my business,” she said during a recent interview.

“The end goal is to encourage store owners to allow pop-up stores. This is part of a step into that.”

Yhip said he’s excited about opening even more pop-up window displays along Gerrard Street East.

“There’s more to come. We believe strongly in beautifying the strip,” he said.