I know it costs more money to shop there
But this was love, this was love
I don’t care what the mall has got
I want back that corner store
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Corner Store 1986
What is it about corner stores? Sure, there’s the fuzzy nostalgia of visiting as children, a few quarters clenched inside pudgy fists – a candy-buying fortune! – but there’s also the fact that they’re perfect little urban buildings. A corner provides maximum visibility, the big windows are great for signage and product display, they’re easy to get in and out of, and they usually have a residential component on top.
But unfortunately for Mr. Richman, corner stores have a lifespan.
Leslieville’s Ravina Variety is a good example. While the 1914 building was on a main street, the predominantly residential area didn’t have enough foot traffic to support another business, such as a restaurant, so there was little interest when the property was put up for sale in early 2010
Luckily, Tucker Finn had been surfing the commercial listings for something she could convert to a residence: “I’m a big fan of flat-topped buildings and weird commercial things, so I always look commercially because the stuff you find is exciting.”
Ms. Finn had been living at her partner’s home, a small row house just a few streets over from the corner store. After making the decision to find a bigger place, the couple visited a few open houses in the area, but none offered the same challenge as the corner store.
And ever since Ms. Finn’s previous residence on Harbord Street had been hit by a car, she’d loved a challenge.
This requires some backstory. Ms. Finn, a Waterloo architecture graduate who’s worked as a set designer in the film industry for almost two decades, had purchased a “tiny, one-storey bunker” on Harbord in 2002. When a car moved it a few inches off its foundation four years later – sitting inside, she thought “a bomb went off” – she had one of those “light bulb” moments…well, after she calmed down.
Because of huge gaps between projects, the film industry is not a place to build a retirement fund. Seizing the opportunity to rebuild this home with the settlement she received, Ms. Finn dusted off her drafting board and turned the bunker into a high-end, two-storey, one-bedroom rental “with a view of the city from the roof.” Her partner – who wishes to remain anonymous – says she also “super-sponged” everything she could by watching the general contractor at work.
So, when the couple got the keys to the corner store in the spring of 2010, Ms. Finn acted as her own G.C., hiring the engineer, trades, ordering supplies and supervising the work. Nine months later and not quite finished, they moved in. Soon after that, they rented out the row house. If you’re counting, that’s two rental properties under their belts, and while important to this narrative, we’ll save that for the end and instead describe Ms. Finn’s design.
“Something like this, it doesn’t need to be over thought,” says Ms. Finn, standing in the kitchen at approximately the same spot customers would’ve queued up to pay for potato chips. “It’s about windows and how you want to live in the building.” Indeed, there aren’t too many ‘design-y’ flourishes besides the sexy staircase, which consists of open, rift-cut oak treads and powder-coated steel stringers. What was important, she says, was creating larger openings for light – such as the big sliding door to the side patio or the big windows on the rear façade – and figuring out where people would pause to relax; for instance, she wanted to change the focus from the front of the building – as all corner stores must be focused – to the large, private backyard without being “rude about it.”
Rude would have been to frost the front windows or reduce them to clerestories. Instead, a generous window in the kitchen continues to connect the building to the busy street. Although the couple wasn’t sure if they’d made the right choice at first, they’re happy now: “We actually love that there are people at the bus stop in the morning when we’re making breakfast,” enthuses Ms. Finn. And TTC patrons take notice, hopefully, of Ms. Finn’s reconstruction of original bay windows on the second floor, rather than opting for something “modern and sexy.”
“Let’s pay tribute to this place and clean it up,” she remembers thinking.
Upstairs is clean also. A simple U-shaped plan makes for large rooms on either end – an office at front and the master bedroom at back – that both open to a large circulation area in the middle that contains the staircase. The only enclosed room is the large master bath.
It’s a simple, elegant design that’s good enough to forgive the lack of licorice shoelaces, gummy bears and jawbreakers. It’s even more impressive when Ms. Finn mentions that she “didn’t fit in” at architecture school.
“This real estate thing has brought me full circle,” she finishes, outlining a desire to tackle another property with financial partners, hopefully, to share in the rental income, “because it’s about buildings and design – I love buildings! – and giving things new life, investing, and doing things that are smart for long-term wealth.”