Toronto architects turned this abandoned space into a vintage bazaar 

On College Street, steps away from Kensington Market, there’s a new shop with an eye-catching, colour display. The 2,500-square-foot, two-floor unit has been converted into a vintage and arts market — and the owners aspire to make it the best market in Toronto.

The space had been abandoned for nearly 15 years before Ameen Ahmed and Lara Hassani decided to rent it, renovate it and operate it as a bazaar with over 70 local artists, makers and thrifters, a permanent version of the popular vintage markets that have taken over the city. 

Ahmed and Hassani aren’t just partners in business; they’re a couple who met on the first day of school at the University of Toronto’s architecture program nearly a decade ago, and fell in love on campus.

“It feels so cliche,” Ahmed says. He moved to Toronto from India for his undergrad, and Hassani had moved from Kitchener. Both new to the city, they discovered their love of art and design alongside each other.

L-R: Lara Hassani and Ameen Ahmed

Now much of their lives still exist within the school — Ahmed as a graduate student of the architecture program, and Hassani as an instructor at John H. Daniels Faculty of architecture, landscape and design. 

They’ve lived in the College-Spadina neighbourhood for some time, and share an interest in developing sustainable solutions for abandoned spaces. Together, Ahmed and Hassani operate a design practice called Studio Wombling, out of which they execute projects related to art and architecture, including repurposed abandoned spaces. The vision that the couple apply to their Bazaar market shares a similar sentiment.

“We ask ourselves, what does that neighborhood need? How can we rescue this abandoned site? And how can we use materials that are already available?” Ahmed says. “Bazaar is the closest that we’ve come to applying an actual business model to our practice.”

Ahmed and Hassani had long been watching the empty space at 306 College St., an old Toronto building which Ahmed estimates was built between the 1840s and 1860s. It was once a Home Hardware, and for a brief time, was used as a condo display unit, before “lease now” signs were hung on the windows.

“We would always speculate about it,” Ahmed says. Together they’d brainstorm what the space could be, and eventually landed on the idea of a market. The more they talked about it, the more possible it seemed. 

To appease their curiosity, Ahmed called the number on the sign, but no one answered or called him back. Then they saw stickers go up on the windows, for what they worried was a cannabis store. “That really put a fear in us of having too many kinds of spaces like that in our neighbourhood,” he says. 

So instead of reaching out to the landlord directly, Ahmed contacted a realtor to reach out on their behalf. “We spent quite a long time negotiating with the landlord, several months at least, before we were able to convince them to produce a lease agreement that worked for us.” 

“I think part of what turned it in our favour was that we were able to tell him that we would make a lot changes in terms of improving the space and renovating it,” he says. They finally secured the place in mid-September, and used their own savings for advanced rent. Having exhausted their start up costs, they began rushing to set it up the unit as a functional retail environment – executing much of the renovations themselves instead of outsourcing labour. 

Their largest feats were the hand tiled cashier counter in the middle of the store, and the hand-painted storefront sign which took them two weeks to complete. 

During the renovation process, they hastily posted a call out on social media for vendor applications, explaining the market model, which Ahmed describes as utopian in nature. “We were lucky that a number of people were persuaded just by our explanation of what it could be because there really was nothing to see in there apart from an empty room,” he says. 

Ursa Major Vintage, one of the vendors at Bazaar. @ursamajorvintage/Instagram

The space is configured so that each vendor has a designated area that they pay a small fraction of the overall rent for, whether that’s a stall, a table or a single shelf. The vendors fill and replenish their space as needed but don’t have to tend to it, since Bazaar has employees who sell the goods on their behalf. A 3 per cent commission on merchandise sales helps pay for admin and labour costs, while everything else goes directly to the sellers, and sales are carefully tracked on a website that givers the sellers live updates. “In a sense, the business sustains itself,” Ahmed says.

Bazaar opened officially on Nov. 5, with just over 40 vendors, and now there’s over 70. Ahmed says they’ve added about 10 people a month and continue to receive applications. “We’re very near to completely full right now which is honestly amazing,” he says. “I don’t think we anticipated that it would be this popular, but I think it speaks to the pressures of renting in the city.” 

He feels the market is a natural solution to the surge of pandemic creators who are have since sought to monetize their hobbies, or expand their existing business into a physical space. “It’s not an original model because markets are some of the oldest commercial spaces in our civilization,” says Ahmed, but it’s particularly useful now because of increasing rent prices in Toronto. “There’s no way any of us even as individuals could ever afford to have a space of any meaningful size on our own in this city,” he adds. 

Vendor Rose Ruffolo of Y2K vintage shop Only Cool Shit says that her share of the monthly rent costs her almost the same as she was paying to participate in most weekend pop-up markets, and the difference is that it doesn’t cost her time. “The store is great. The rent is great, the sales have been good. It’s a great concept,” she says. 

Though Ahmed and Hassani never viewed Bazaar as a permanent pursuit, they plan to operate the business for as long as it is sustainable to do so. “At this point, we’re actually trying to think of how to keep up,” says Ahmed, “which I think is a good problem to have.”

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