The Baker family, originally from Pennsylvania, was granted farmland on Langstaff Road, between Bathurst and Dufferin, in the 1700s. But descendent Isaac Baker, perhaps due to frail health, was unable to do the hard labour of working the land, so he apprenticed with Mennonite craftsmen to learn the harness-making trade instead. Isaac Baker built his shop, piece by piece, with recycled lumber as he could afford to buy it. He opened Baker’s Harness in 1918, specializing in fancy parade draft harness, driving harness, and assorted strap goods, all made with impeccable hand stitching. Anything made of leather, Isaac could craft, including firearms holsters for the police, and specialty items for local fire departments. For the next six decades his store would be a community hub -- a remarkable record of longevity in an age when horses were disappearing from the Canadian landscape.
Isaac Baker was in his 80s in 1980 when he approached his apprentice of six years, Carmen Griscti, to take over the business, for a buy-in of $10,000.
“As a mentor, he was incredibly strict. His way of teaching was to tell me it wasn’t good enough. I had to figure it out. It made me think,” Griscti says.
“He was not an easy man, but he was generous with his time, and had incredibly high standards. He was teaching a way of life.”
Bakers Harness had already survived massive changes in its customer base, transitioning from a focus on harness, to saddlery and supplies for the dozens of riding stables that were springing up all over the Toronto area – places like Leitchcroft and Joker’s Hill.
But a more devastating threat was yet to come. In December, 1984, the harness shop nearly burnt to the ground in a disastrous fire.
Griscti recalls, “It went on all day before (firefighters) got it under control. At the end, the building was still standing, but everything inside was destroyed. It took us four months to open again. I remember trying to salvage pieces of burnt leather, scrape off the worst of the damage and sell it for a few dollars. I had no income at all while I tried to get back on my feet, but I did have some great clients, like the Governor General’s Horse Guards, who supported me when things were at their worst.”
The rebuilt store remained on Langstaff Road until 1986, when the lease was up. Griscti relocated to Woodbine Avenue, outside the Toronto city limits. The building that first housed Baker’s Harness and Saddlery at the new location had once been an antique shop, and before that, a pig pen.
“It was the middle of nowhere at the time,” Griscti recalls. “It was scary, coming up here. But sometimes life forces you to make changes, and it ends up being the best thing you could have done.”
Harness and repairs continued to be a significant part of the business, but became less so as local Mennonites transitioned in large part to nylon harness. English saddlery became the mainstay, and with an addition to the shop that more than doubled its floor space, in 1994, Baker’s selection of riding apparel and accessories expanded.
A second addition, completed in 2013, provided vital space for one of the largest selections of new and used saddles in Canada. Baker’s now offers consultations for saddles, by appointment. The advice on saddle-fitting and which brands and models are appropriate for which horses, based on Griscti’s decades of experience, is part of the experience.
Sometimes, it takes the form of a reality check: “You’re not going to become a better rider just because you bought these boots, or this saddle. It’s hard work, that’s all, and you get out of it what you’re willing to put into it. There are no magic solutions. All I try to do is fit the horse, and fit the rider, so they can move forward.”
Griscti’s daughter, Jessie, became involved in 2012, bringing new ideas, and a social media presence, to Baker’s.
“I think we’ve adapted well,” says Griscti. “We’ve survived all the changes in the area – the road has gone from dirt to four lanes of pavement, subdivisions are moving in, but there’s still good energy here. I’m comfortable here, and the basic thinking Isaac taught me is still here: don’t short-change your customers, teach them something, and do the best job you can.
“There are cats, and some dust, and it’s a little bit messy, but there’s a story to this place. Every morning when I come in here, everything I look at is part of the evolution.”
One thing that has never changed is the name. “Renaming it would have been a disservice to Isaac,” Griscti says. “We dropped the ‘harness’, but it will always be Baker’s.”