I often joke that although Open Sesame — my gallery/shop/event venue, which until Feb. 28 occupied 220 King Street West in Kitchener — wasn’t a registered nonprofit, it was “not profitable.”
Case in point: last month, a customer in Alberta ordered two magazines, which cost only $14 because we were having a sale. I put the magazines in an envelope, which I brought to Canada Post. The shipping fee was $16. We made -$2!
When I started Open Sesame in the fall of 2015, I knew I wouldn’t get rich selling “thoughtfully designed” housewares and accessories, graphic novels and feminist zines, in addition to hosting art exhibitions, concerts, and poetry readings. But, I figured I would break even, especially because I wasn’t paying myself a salary. I was lucky and privileged enough to have a partner whose income could support our family. I promised him we would never go into debt.
Welp. I was wrong about that — and a lot of other things.
Five minutes after I left Canada Post, I realized I should have repackaged the magazines in separate envelopes to circumvent the weight limit for unregistered mail, which one Open Sesame vendor always does to keep shipping costs from destroying their business. I should have stocked fewer magazines, which never sold well, to begin with.
I should have listened to my parents and become a lawyer.
My lack of business acumen surely hastened our storefront’s demise, but not all of my decisions were stupid. The feminist zines regularly sold out. I hired Kitchener artist Sarah Kernohan as our curator, and she organized more than two dozen exhibitions that were as good as the gallery shows I saw in Chicago, where I worked as an art critic before moving to Kitchener-Waterloo.
Open Sesame collaborated with organizations I respect, such as CAFKA and Open Ears. We donated money to SHORE Centre, OK2BME and Reception House. We sold books about social justice and sought out books whose authors and protagonists reflected our community’s diversity. We gave local artists, writers and musicians a place to share and sell their work, and affordable rental space to progressive groups who needed it.
Still, Open Sesame’s sales never offset our expenses, most notably our market-rate rent and property tax.
Kitchener and Waterloo Region don’t yet invest enough in public transit, cycling infrastructure, or snow clearance for downtown businesses to thrive without dedicated parking — which we didn’t have.
Some customers were disappointed by our prices, and unmoved by my arguments that Open Sesame paid a Living Wage (currently $16.15 per hour in Waterloo Region) and stocked products that can’t be found at Walmart. Knowing how rapidly the cost of housing and the prevalence of precarious employment have increased in Waterloo Region, I can’t blame them for being frugal.
When well-meaning customers suggested we relocate, I had to explain that our rent was low for downtown Kitchener, where I have viewed several vacant storefronts that are more expensive and in worse condition. One had rats in the basement.
I am at least not naïve enough to move to uptown Waterloo, where we may find double the foot traffic but quintuple the rent. Thanks to gentrification, Open Sesame probably can never have a brick-and-mortar space in Waterloo Region again.
“Too bad—so sad,” says a sticker from Stay Home Club, a witty Montreal studio that’s one of my favourite vendors.
I can’t get too broken up about my concept shop closing when Grand River Hospital is slashing its nursing staff. Open Sesame’s maintaining its online shop (opensesameshop.com) and it will keep organizing art exhibitions and literary readings in KW. (I hope the City of Kitchener, which owns 220 King Street West, turns it into a cultural space.)
I had to lay off my talented employees, though. I think we lose something when a retailer disappears, to be replaced by a chain that contributes little to the community and has no interest in supporting local makers. Or replaced by nothing at all.
There are no laws obligating landlords, utilities, city governments, or Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) to give discounts or special assistance to businesses that are independent or socially responsible.
What would downtown Kitchener and uptown Waterloo look like if there were? I suspect they wouldn’t be filled with bank branches, mediocre fast-food restaurants, and empty storefronts. But if my time as a shopkeeper taught me anything, it’s that we need to destroy capitalism.