February 28, 2021

Historical Buildings and Reality Checks

Eyes closed, breathing even, space heater purring (because we're missing a section of our chimney — a story for another day), but I can't sleep. My brain is buzzing with the scent of Pine-Sol as I pour it directly on a rag, using it to polish the heritage trim of my mind's eye. I am high up. Ten feet? Fifteen? "Cathedral ceilings" the listing said. The ladder is steady and I'm not afraid and the wood is gleaming and I can't wait to tackle those cobwebs at the transom windows... 

I may never sleep again.

My sister sent me the link and I nearly lost my head. I was in the kitchen beginning supper when my phone buzzed with a new notification.

—You saw this, right? 

(One of the things I love about my sister is that she almost always uses correct punctuation in her text messages.)

It was a real estate listing for the old town library building.

And I had not seen it.

photo from realtor.ca

 In less than ten minutes, the whole family had congregated. Dinner preparations were put on hold while I cast a vision that, somehow, didn't seem to scare anyone.

  1. I have wanted this building since I was a child.
  2. Anyone who has ever had to listen to me talk about an eventual home for my publishing company/magazine knows this building has always been at the top of my list.
  3. Yes, it is bigger than what I need but that means MORE ROOM FOR ACTIVITIES!

"But can you afford it?"

Ah... my dream-crushing, reality bringing, heart-stomping, pragmatic nineteen-year old. 

No. I can't afford it, you monster!

Truth is, the building is listed far below where I expected to ever see it and that's the only reason this family meeting is actually happening: because I CAN SEE IT HAPPENING!

My brain works fast when it knows what it wants. I had a few proposals ready:

  1. We sell our house and live in the library basement and all we have to do is get it rezoned.
  2. We sell our house and live in the van and all we have to do is get rid of a few kids.
  3. We cash in our retirement savings for a down payment and carry two mortgages and everything will be okay because dreams come true every day.
  4. We ask if the town would be willing to lease and then I offer to run a town museum out of part of it for a break on the lease and then we can keep our house and leave our savings alone.

Each plan had its merits. (Okay, maybe not the 'get rid of a few kids' one.) And even though I love where we currently live, I was 100% ready to leave it behind. Because DREAMS!!!

"Let's go see it," my husband said. 

I don't need flowers or jewelry or trips to Europe. If you want to love me, I just need you to see me. I just need you to indulge my dreams, encourage my heart, and come along for the ride with a little touch of wisdom and grace.

We are in the middle of a pandemic. I haven't had a date night in eleven months. I texted back and forth with an agent and we booked a showing. This is the sexiest thing I've put on the calendar since March 2020!

I crunched numbers. I sketched floor plans. I tried to figure out what our current home is worth. I freaked the freak out when I found out that all offers had to be in by noon on Thursday — just five days after I saw the listing. This brought two things to the forefront:

1. Someone definitely wants a bidding war

and

2. I am a lover, not a fighter

On Tuesday night, we stepped through those old doors, the musty waft of thousands of stories hitting us through our face masks as if the books still lined the shelves. Windowsills held years of dust, dead flies resting in their dark corners like tiny soldiers that got tired on their watch. Filthy carpet muted our footsteps and I peeled it back to check the damaged hardwood underneath. Blue Ethernet cables followed the centre arch and stole some of the magic, while the old library desk stood empty and sad with one section hanging loosely. Bookcases stood affixed to the walls, romantic and grand, and I remember losing myself in those stacks as an eighth grader, finally migrated from the children's section in the basement. Huge windows framed in heavy trim, tall ceilings where cobwebs danced as we disturbed the air, the old fire alarm that dinged when you flicked it, the crank pencil sharpener attached to the wall in the librarian's office. 


 
I saw it all at once and one bit at a time. I knew where I'd host workshops and where I'd meet with clients. I saw the best spot for the coffee bar and that the light from the east window would inspire amazing new stories. I saw my children leading class field trips through this shiny hub of publishing glory. I imagined my nieces playing hide and seek around the corners and my nephews reading comic books on a leather couch. I felt the ache in my muscles after hours of freshening up the white paint. I envisioned a gallery of original work by local artists, and how my typewriter collection could continue to grow and grow and grow.

I saw it all.


I saw the water damage on the ceiling, the damp smell of the basement, and the critter with a million legs who approached my boot with little fear. I saw the "kitchen" that was really just a closet with a sink and a hot water tank. I saw the bathrooms which were... shall we say "less than desirable"? I saw the single pane windows that would never stop a brisk wind, and the limitations of taking on a designated historical heritage building. I saw dollar signs where accessibility ramps and chair lifts would have to be installed. I saw the outdoor space which was little more than a few parking spaces in the back.

Yes, I saw it all. Every nitty, gritty, painful, expensive detail.

But I was also Belle in the bookshop in Beauty and the Beast, pushing off on that library ladder as if I could fly. I was Belle in the castle when the Beast opened the curtains and showed her shelf upon shelf of stories to keep her company. I was Belle at the table when the candlestick invited her to be their guest...

Every romantic bone in my body said "yes!" 

But my brain said, "Whoa, girl!"

The moon shone down between the south wall and the next door church steeple as we returned to our car. "It was really important for me to do this," I told my husband.

I needed the reality check to bring my brain and heart in line.

I asked our agent to find out if the town would be willing the lease the building. The town said no, they want to sell. They planned to take the top two offers to the council meeting and make their choice. More confirmation that they were setting up a bidding war.

I decided to take their 'no' as a 'come at us' invitation, and I wrote a letter to the mayor. (See a brief excerpt of my letter posted below.) I shared my heart for the building, the importance I feel it holds to the history of our town and the vibrant arts community that has become such an ingrained part of our local culture. I talked of my own vision for the space, but more than that, pleaded that the council (should their end goal be to unload the property) to consider mission over money — not to sell it to a developer without a personal tie to our town — but to consider bids that will contribute to the arts. (Oh, and p.s. if nothing like that comes across the desk, maybe you'll think of me and my big plans and reconsider that option to lease.)

 

With readings, book signings, author events, workshops, mentoring, and more, I see that old building being a vibrant hub of creative activity. In partnership with other organizations (Words Aloud festival or Ontario Culture Days for example) it could be a venue for various cultural events year round. With a keen eye for local engagement and a mission of being a champion for creative living, it could also be a powerful tool in the mental health crisis - giving like-minded artists/authors/poets and anyone curious a community hub: a place to share their work and journey.

I love my little town. I love it's quirky arts community and I want to be a more visible part of it. And if that means wearing my heart on my sleeve and putting all my cards on the table then I'm willing to do it.

I believe in seeing what you want and then chasing after it. I believe that if things don't fall into place then it wasn't meant to be. I also believe that if one thing doesn't work, the dream is not dead. I may never hear back from the mayor. That's okay. I move on to fight another day. But for now (and I just checked) the listing is still active. So who knows... anything is possible in this strange shared experience we call life.


UPDATE: Less than an hour after pushing 'publish' on this post, the mayor responded to my letter, thanked me for my vision, and assured me that she would get it in front of the entire council. And if nothing else, it's so empowering to feel seen and heard. ❤️

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4 comments:

  1. Wow! This would be amazing! Prayers it all works out!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! It's definitely taking up a lot of space in my head right now. The dream is not dead! Even if it's not this building, I know someday I will have a space dedicated to this vision.

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  2. This is so very inspiring!
    I hope God helps to open the eyes of those who can help you on your journey and that he flings open the doors so that you see a clear path! Love

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Tiffany! I definitely believe this vision has been placed on my heart for a reason. I also recognize that the vision is more than the building, so if it's a no on the structure, I am confident it's not a no on the vision. It will live on no matter what!

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