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Step into the Imperial Pub, walk up the brick-walled stairs, smell the faint scent of spilled pints from years ago, and enter into the diffused light of the Library Lounge bar. Frank Sinatra is likely playing on the ancient jukebox, groups of friends and work colleagues are scattered around the square open room, some at tables and others nestled into one of the overstuffed couches. Bookshelves, not TVs, line the walls. Depending on the time of day, Sara, Lee, or one of the other staff will swing promptly over to your table.
“What can I get ya?”
No matter what you order, you’ve already gotten today’s special on the house, and that’s a taste, a look, into a Toronto long gone.
This year is the pub’s 70th birthday. When it was opened by Jack Newman in the spring of 1944, the Second World War was still raging, the population of Canada was less than 12 million and the Leafs made it to the semifinals. The world has changed considerably.
The Imperial? Not so much.
Newman’s son Fred, 68, runs the pub now. Father and son ran the pub together for more than 40 years before the patriarch died in 2008 at the venerable age of 94.
“I love when people walk in and say, ‘It’s exactly the way I remember it,’” Newman says. “It certainly is a reflection of (my father). We’ll keep it this way as long as we can. Which is as long as we want, that’s the beauty of the thing.”
But the pub has changed a little. In 1944, men and women were not allowed to drink together, so a dividing wall bisected the downstairs room allowing for segregated drinking.
The upstairs Library Lounge originally was a nine-room inn, again a stipulation of draconian liquor laws, which stated that only an inn, restaurant, or hotel could serve hooch. And later, when patios were licensed, the pub opened its own. Today, it offers an unusual view of the manic chaos of Yonge-Dundas Square.
Yonge-Dundas Square is a prominent part of the pub’s recent history. For all of the ups and downs of life, finances, weather and politics, it was the new Yonge-Dundas Square which almost killed the Imperial.
In 1996 a man came round, he sat upstairs at a table near the window, and told the Newmans that they were being expropriated.
“He said, ‘There is no appeal. The only thing we can do is discuss price. You’re going to be expropriated,’” Newman recalls.
The city wanted the land that the Imperial stood on for a new mega-project aimed at revitalizing the area, a “park” the man called it.
Undaunted, father and son hired their own city planner to produce a report stating the city didn’t need the Imperial’s land for their project.
But the future of the Imperial hung on one moment, on one day, when the Newmans faced the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) to plead their case and fight for their pub.
“My father got up to the stand and he was at this point … 86, I guess. He says, ‘I just want to run my pub. I’ve been doing it since 1944, I just want to run my business. I don’t want to get into an argument about money, I don’t want to get into an argument about whether you’re right or wrong. Why can’t we run the pub?’ He was fabulous.”
The pub was saved.
“My daddy saved the pub … for me,” says Newman.
Safe from development, the Imperial continued to be a haven, hangout and watering hole for the neighbourhood, particularly for thirsty Ryerson students.
In fact, it was Ryerson that inspired the name of the upstairs bar, Library Lounge. “We came up with the idea only for Ryerson,” says Newman. “We ran an ad in both The Ryersonian and The Eyeopener and it said, ‘tell your folks you’re at the library.’”
And Ryerson students have been “at the library” ever since.
“We all really liked the idea of being together in that very easy, informal way,” recalls Janice Biehn, “When you’re in a large group of people and you can keep moving around and the conversation never really dies down.”
Biehn is a 1992 Ryerson graduate who remembers the weekly escapes to the Imperial for R & R and cheap beer as integral parts of her life as a student.
But the Library was more than a place to hang out and exchange ideas. In her case, it led to love. “That’s what the Library really makes me think of … getting to know my husband, or my boyfriend at the time, and thinking ‘this might be the one,’” she says. “We went there a lot with our group, and that was how we, sort of, fell in love.”
And Biehn isn’t the only one to have a love connection with the Library. The pub has hosted dozens of wedding receptions over the years, and four ceremonies. A 1993 marriage ceremony was held at the pub because it’s where the bride and groom met.
But for Newman, the most treasured memories are the ones that involve family.
Both his sons, Ricky and Sam, had their bar mitzvah parties there.
The staff are family too. It’s not unusual for them to spend 10 to 20 years working for the pub, an unspoken expression of loyalty. Newman, who’s almost as old as the pub, hopes that one day his sons will step into his shoes. “We’re celebrating 70 years this year and I’m looking to 100. So, we’ll see,” he says.
If there’s one thing he lacks, it’s regret. “I don’t know anyone who’s had more fun in his life than I have,” he says with a smile.
It’s a warm and wet April in Toronto, spring 1951. Five-year-old Fred Newman runs through his dad’s bar, his short pants rustling with each small step.
To him it’s a playground, but one day it will be so much more.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 9, 2014.