The houses on this street aren’t just houses. The casual observer will note that, yes, like most homes in this Saskatoon neighbourhood, they have creaking screen doors, front lawns with patchy brown grass yawning green with spring, and probably a rec room in the basement with one of those little plastic basketball nets pasted above the door frame.
But the careful observer will read the signs to get a fuller understanding of what these places really are. Like, literally, read the signs. Small, rectangular and colourful, they speckle the stoops and windows of these squat houses all along 8th Street East. Bold, all caps, sans-serif type sitting on neon oranges, yellows and greens, reading things like:
GREG’S TOP QUALITY
IT’S TAX SEASON!!
WE CAN HELP!!!
These houses serve as storefronts, genuine home offices, abattoir abodes, tax (agent) shelters—places I’d much rather bring my business than a cookie-cutter chain store. Screw the stuffy, sterile furnishing of an H&R Block; I want to go to Karen’s house, hand over my T4s and kick back with my feet on the paisley ottoman that used to belong to her great-grandmother, Delores.
There’s just an added comfort and a certain type of intimacy in getting your nails done in someone’s home instead of a studio. You can scan through family photos on their mantle, pour yourself a glass of water from the kitchen faucet, use their personal bathroom. Maybe they’re an Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader family? I love collecting fun factoids about long-deceased hockey players while moving my bowels.
Someone inviting you into their home, even if it’s for a business transaction, conveys a serious level of trust—you’re entering the place where they eat, sleep and make love. That’s big. And while I never stepped foot in those homes, it’s a lifestyle that still makes sense to me. Growing up in Lac La Biche, Alberta, my mom had to move her business, coincidentally a sign-making shop, into our basement when times got tough in the early 2000s. That meant gruff, old, rural Albertan men looking for decals to splash over their semi trucks would routinely see me in my pyjamas, drinking chocolate milk at 9 AM, while my Spiderman action figure tried to convince Wolverine that it was okay to be sad every once and a while.
That may not seem like the optimal business environment, but its casual nature helped us foster real relationships with those customers. They became like a branch of the family—just one that had to pay us each time they came over. (Which is probably how family should work.)
That street I drove down in Saskatoon—I was tagging along on tour with a friend’s band in the spring of 2018—was a portion of 8th East, which sits at the top of a residential neighbourhood called Haultain. It’s roughly eight by eight city blocks large. I checked: according to the city, this relatively small neighbourhood, as of 2019, is home to seventy licensed home businesses.
I didn’t know why this particular neighbourhood had decided to bring their work lives home, but I surmised that not all of them did it by choice.
In my father’s neighbourhood in Grande Prairie, Alberta, after the province’s economy started its free-fall in 2014, a sobering number of people lost their jobs. My dad barely clung to his own. His neighbours had all worked in the energy industry, and as that sector atrophied and their individual income streams dried up, they came together to start their own mini-industry out of their homes. They pooled resources, leased a small fleet of vehicles and offered the city something it was missing: a late-night designated-driver service. And they made pretty good bank, because even (or especially) in the face of economic collapse, people love to drink.
Maybe something similar had happened in Haultain. It could’ve started at a block party, where over light beer, chips and dip, local folks expressed how expensive their storefronts were becoming, how ballooning rent, taxes and stagnant wages were pushing them to the brink—but what could they do? The world was a merciless capitalist treadmill and the legs of their small businesses were getting tired, someone probably said. Perhaps that’s when another suggested, jokingly at first, that to save money they run their businesses out of their homes, like a residential strip mall. Ha ha. That also could’ve been when everyone chewed that idea over privately in their heads; gauged the feasibility, the pros and cons swirling around like the chips and dip in their mouths, before realizing that that was a pretty tasty idea.
That would explain the signs, their consistent aesthetic and same earnest, urgent messaging. They clearly all went to the same sign shop—I would know. This also included the house at the end of the block whose sign I had to Google to figure out exactly what kind of service they were providing. When I first saw it, its words just didn’t compute. They were a jumbled, jarring non-sequitur, like someone chopped up the subject lines of all of my spam emails, put them in a hat and plucked out four all-caps words at random:
After a few troubled minutes of trying and failing to piece together what a LASER QUIT SMOKING MASSAGE could be, I gave up; Google revealed that it is a type of acupuncture, except with lasers, which you shoot into your face and hands, which then helps you to quit smoking. Obviously.
I imagined what it would’ve been like as a kid if, instead of bringing the sign shop home, my mom had been a laser masseuse. Watching clients come into our house, take off their shoes, hang their jackets in the closet next to my stepdad’s prized print of Emily Carr’s “Big Raven” in that tacky gold frame, my mom getting me to bring said customer a glass of iced tea as they leaned back in the recliner, taking a sip before being blasted in the face with a goddamn laser. It probably would’ve been pretty cool.
Running her shop out of our house wasn’t any easier than the storefront, though. The long hours, stress and uncertainty my mom endured at work wouldn’t stay in the basement—it always slinked up the stairs, showing itself in coldness at the dinner table or quiet tears as she smoked alone on the porch. Having her source of income always below her feet must have been a constant reminder that if it failed, those floorboards could come crumbling down after. Did the kids in these Saskatoon houses feel the same pressure I had felt? The pressure that was both unknown and, at times, overwhelming?
I wanted to know. I reached out to Saskatoon’s city planning department via email and learned that it’s not just 8th Street East that’s turning homes into home offices. Since 2008, there’s been a 72 percent increase in the number of home businesses in the city. Ellen Pearson, one of Saskatoon’s senior planners, agreed with my general downturn theory, saying, “I think there is a lot of truth to the general economic factors of operating out of one’s home instead of renting a commercial space...” however, there was a snag: “...but I do not have any data to provide to you to back that up.”
I called the Laser Quit Smoking Massage place but they didn’t return my calls. An acupuncturist two doors down responded tersely to an email, explaining that he doesn’t live out of the house itself, which seemed to be the case for a few of the places on the street. Then a local musician, who used to live around the corner from 8th East, weighed in. His financial advisor and a friend’s nutrition business are on the block.
He explained that the street, which is a mix of commercial and residential zoning, has cheaper real estate than a traditional retail strip. He also said that, despite the recent increase, the situation still isn’t unusual—that’s just the way he always remembers it being.
In retrospect, I realized that was true for me, too. In a house just down the street from my childhood home in Lac La Biche was the town’s only taxi service, and the family counsellor my brother and I begrudgingly saw practiced out of his basement. There’s even a hair salon renting out my grandparents’ old home just off the main drag—where, in the front yard, is the first tree I ever climbed and subsequently became traumatically stuck in, perhaps a reason for said counselling. Maybe these places were more a sign of resourcefulness and the innate ability to save a buck, a distinguishing trait of the prairies.
Saskatchewan’s economy isn’t even in a downturn—in fact, a national think tank, the Conference Board of Canada, predicts the province’s GDP will climb by as much as 2.2 percent in 2019, a quicker pace than its prairie counterparts. These home-storefronts are probably just making it easier for folks to get by, each house its own financial and emotional economy I’d never be privy to, no matter what I thought I saw in them. Much like our neighbours growing up knew nothing about ours.
Further Googling informed me that the same laser techniques used to help people quit smoking could even help those struggling with depression. I thought of Wolverine and all the times I had used scraps of my mom’s adhesive vinyl to bind him to chairs, walls, and the hot-water tank in the basement—Logan’s depressive, apathetic states often leading to his capture and constraint. If I had as easy access to those lasers as I did the vinyl, maybe I could’ve done something for him, shot a few lasers into his grimacing plastic face; steadied his mood, helped him keep positive and out of the clutches of Shredder and the Foot Clan.
And maybe I could’ve turned that laser around on myself, my brother and my mom. And maybe when things did eventually crumble, it would’ve kept us from the heartbreak that followed. Or, at the very least, kept us from smoking.