Toronto’s coolest corner

Citytv may be leaving, but MuchMusic is holding down the fort at Queen and John

IF YOU WALK west on Queen Street toward John Street on any given weekend, you will find a curious mix of pedestrian traffic, ranging from punk T-shirt- wearing teens to snap-happy tourists to label-loving yuppies and everything in between.

The intersection’s mix of great independent stores, such as Pages and Urbane Cyclist, side by side with destination spots such as the towering Umbra Concept Store make it popular for day tripping Torontonians and tourists, alike.

In the 1980s, this strip, lined with restaurants, clubs and street vendors, was the heart of Toronto’s music scene, taking its cue from the MuchMusic broadcasting centre — a cultural hub and neighbourhood landmark. To this day, MuchMusic continues to broadcast from this Queen Street location, often opening its huge, ground-floor partitions, making the street-front studio accessible to passersby.

On a sunny morning, I met up with Sarah Taylor, the charming MuchMusic VJ. As charismatic off-camera as she is on, the reporter for MuchNews welcomed me to her “work zone,” eager to begin our tour.

Having been a VJ for five years, Taylor has developed a natural presence. A MuchMusic fan since childhood, Taylor idolized her predecessors, Juliette Powell and Sook Yin Lee. Once she landed this gig, she says, “It was either sink or swim.”

First stop on our tour: coffee. Actually, Taylor informs me, as we cross John Street and head toward the Starbucks tucked inside the three-storey Chapters (142 John St.), she’s managed to kick the coffee habit, finding solace, instead, in tea. “I just can’t handle the crash at 3 p.m.,” she says. “Because that’s when I have to really be on.”

Back outside and refuelled, the 27-year-old Taylor is on the move.

People smile at Taylor as she passes by, and shopkeepers greet her by name. Holding a high-profile job that allows her to interview some of the world’s most successful artists, Taylor values her alone time. When she’s not on-air or prepping for a show, she might be found enjoying dinner (alone or with friends) at Queen Mother Café (208 Queen St. W.) where she loves the laid-back vibe and recommends the lentil soup.

Wandering in and out of shops along this strip is another way Taylor unwinds. While independent boutiques have to compete with North American chains here, this shopping hub has a few gems.

Pages Books (256 Queen St. W.) is one of the city’s finest independent bookshops, opening back in 1979 and hosting the revered literary event This Is Not a Reading Series.

At the shop, you can find obscure Canadian titles piled lovingly next to international best-sellers as well as a wide selection of contemporary lit, art, film, and photography books.

Lavish and Squalor (253 Queen St.) is a dimly lit, artsy clothing boutique with a vast selection of his and hers vintage threads and new styles. Attracting urban hipsters and curious passersby, the shop delivers a fresh dose of originality.

An animal lover and the proud owner of a Shih Tzu pup, aptly named Vivienne Westwood, Taylor is anxious to take me to a tiny pet clothing boutique. Unfortunately it’s closed when we arrive, but K-9 Couture (313 Queen St. W.), Taylor promises, has the best booties, organic grooming products and doggie treats in town.

Leading me down McCaul Street, Taylor is eager to show off one of her favourite hideouts. If she’s having a bad day, or just not feeling it, she escapes to the confines of Malabar (14 McCaul St.) a costume rental and dancewear superstore. Filled with elaborate dresses, feather boas, hats, shoes and masks, this store evokes feelings of playfulness and childhood.

"I love to try on costumes just for fun," says Taylor with a laugh.  "I usually make my own Halloween costumes, but I come in here for inspiration."

As we continue walking, we come to Grange Park, at teh north end of John Street, where Taylor and her colleagues come to enjoy the warm weather.  The park, in addition to being a green oasis in a sea of concrete, is a stone’s throw from the stunning OCAD cube and the newly minted Art Gallery of Ontario.

Wandering back toward Queen, we pass the new, hot pink Umbra Concept Store (165 John St.), which is impossible to miss.

Opened in the summer of 2007, the massive store is a great alternative to the likes of Ikea for all sorts of cool knick-knacks, furniture and kitchen accessories for the home. In addition, the store features an environmentally friendly design and unique art installations that make it worth a trip.

John Street is also home to Urbane Cyclist (180 John St.) a 12- year-old co-op specializing in commuter bikes and gear.  The place to go if you’re using your bike for transportation in the city, Urbane Cyclist has a knowledgeable staff and a fantastic selection.

After a day pounding the pavement in search of cool, the Fat Belgian, at 115 John Street south of Queen, offers up the finest in brews from Belgium, including rarities on tap such as Erdinger Wheat Stout and Dekoninck Amber Ale and Fruli Strawberry Wheat, as well as a full dinner menu.

Our tour winds its way back to MuchMusic.

Working in such a bustling neighbourhood certainly keeps Taylor on her toes. Her street- level desk allows her to catch glimpses of pedestrians and the many fans that wander by the studio to wave.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO