Saturday, January 9, 2016

Farewell to Nova Scotia - A Most Unwelcoming Experience - Harris House Part 2

Today I am posting the second of three installments of the letter I received from Jane at Harris House in Annapolis Royal.  The painting above is a self portrait of Michael Hames, one of the two owners.  It is so hard for me to imagine that not only did the town of Annapolis Royal not do everything in their power to accommodate such talent and such a beautiful shop, but actually did everything in their power to drive them away.  There is a terrible disconnect between what I heard on CBC yesterday regarding our provincial government's prioritizing of immigration to the actual experience of people that choose to move here.  Why court more people when local governments are making it as hard as possible to stay?
This is their beautiful shop in Annapolis Royal.  It will be closing at the end of September.  Beginning August 1st their lighting will go on sale.  Please go support them and do all in your power  to work for change in Nova Scotia, so that they may return at a later date to reclaim their dream.  Their website is

Here is the second part of Jane's letter:

You’re thinking, maybe, that we gave up pretty quickly and without much of a fight, but as I mentioned at the beginning, I must backtrack to give the full picture of our devastating Nova Scotia experience. It began in another county, Annapolis County, with its own method of interpretation of the rules, equally as frustrating and ludicrous as what’s being experienced in Lunenburg County.

In 2008, based on a love we shared of Nova Scotia, Michael and I set out on a new adventure. It is not an easy thing, leaving behind family and twenty years of business ties, but we were ready for a change. We packed up everything and moved (at considerable expense as anyone who has done this knows) clear across the country, from Vancouver Island to the world’s “most livable” small town, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.

Of course, we didn’t arrive completely blind—we’d done our homework, or so we thought. The home we purchased was based on a commercial/residential zoning and as advised by our realtor, we asked if the property was okay for us to go ahead and set up an original print gallery (etchings, stone lithographs, woodcuts) featuring the work of  historically significant artists. With all the talk of Annapolis Royal being an “artist town” we were sure that our business would appeal, and that we would be welcomed as a complementary attraction to the local art scene.

We were told by the building inspector’s office (at that time it was in Bridgetown) that this would be fine, no problem whatsoever, and so we purchased the property. Upon arrival, we immediately set about all the work required to make a serene and inviting environment. Throughout the winter of 2008-2009 we scraped wallpaper, sanded woodwork, fixed plaster –well, anyone who has bought an old home gets the picture. We did much of the work ourselves, and hired professionals for work in which we were lacking in experience or confidence. We spent a lot of money, locally of course. We also researched the house and named the business not after ourselves, but after a previous owner who had done so much upgrading in the 1920s.

I was called back to BC due to a family emergency, just prior to when we had planned to open Harris House Fine Art in the spring of 2009. While away, Michael did the finishing touches to the entryway and placed our lovely sign out front as a welcome home and to renew my spirits. Upon my return I got right back into it, and made by hand about seventy-five invitations to our grand opening, and we either dropped them off in person or mailed them to every business owner in town we could think of. We hoped that they would think of us as a place to send B&B visitors in the evenings, or anyone who just wanted to sit and have a cup of coffee and enjoy and learn about the artwork in the warm atmosphere we had lovingly created.

About a week after our opening, we received a letter in the mail from Town Hall, and another from the building inspector, instructing us to close our business, immediately, or face dire consequences. The zoning for our particular residence, we were told, did not allow for the commercial sale of artwork, unless it was produced by ourselves. There must have been a miscommunication when we’d enquired prior to buying the house at this specific location, he said, but he would be very happy to show us a number of locations we could rent to legitimately run our business.

Right. We were supposed to go and rent a commercial space downtown  with what for money? (And to run the sort of business that would likely attract such a small audience, we’d be broke before fall.) Everything we had, had been sunk into this dream. Nothing would persuade him of the injustice of our situation. “This is a quiet residential area” he said as though our collection of black and white 19th and early 20th century prints was going to cause a neighbourhood disturbance. “You are allowed to sell your own artwork, if you like.” So we basically were being allowed to “play store”. I’m sorry, but by this point Michael had established himself as a little more than a Sunday painter whose wife could try her hand at selling his efforts in the parlour. Everyone knows that tourists in towns like this seeking local art want to buy a painting of a boat for fifty bucks.

 Was it just coincidence that the Town CAO was great friends and sometimes business partner with the wife of a gallery owner/artist on main street whose previously indicated wife was trying to be a picture framer? (I had been asked by several local artists if I would consider doing framing again as I had for twenty five years out west, as they wanted a choice).How much influence does a CAO and town council have on a building inspector? A lot, apparently, if they happen to be friends.

One of the positive things I’ll say about what happened to us in Nova Scotia is that, by sheer necessity, we learned talents and skills we never even knew we’d need to know. I had taught myself to make a website, and so shaken was I that I went through it and removed prices from all the items, fearing we’d be presented with a fine that we could not afford. We slapped a For Sale sign on the house, me crying all the while. To try to bring in some money, I set up a picture framing shop in hopes to keep afloat until we could sell and move on, god only knew where, but there was nothing they could do about that; picture framing was clearly allowed. We were beside ourselves, felt sick, as we knew when we left BC that there was no going back. Real estate prices there were doing nothing but climbing.

During this first grim time, I was in the post office, which is right next door to us in this quiet residential neighbourhood (there are in fact only a handful of residences on this busy street which houses two grocery stores, hardware, liquor, etc., etc.) A woman asked if I wasn’t from next door at Harris House and I shuddered. ”Maybe I am…” I ventured, wondering what she was going to throw at me. But she followed me home, said she’d heard about us and wanted to see our lovely gallery. After studying the prints for some time, she turned to me and said “Aren’t these antiques?” I’d never thought of them quite that way, but I told her that, well yes, I supposed they were. “I’ll get back to you,” she told me, and soon did. Seems “antiques” are a very legitimate item to sell at our particular address, according to the dusty, last century book at Town Hall..

We marched back in to the building inspector’s office in Bridgetown, armed with our new information. (Prior to this, we had consulted a lawyer, and I had also sent a number of letters to the mayor and town council members. I had threatened to name names, something I am usually loathe to do, but it was so obvious that favours were being carried out to the detriment of ourselves. The business owner on St. George, the one whose wife was such good friends with the then CAO was going around town, bragging to everyone “I’m gonna shut’em down.” Does Junior High never end? I remember thinking, not for the last time.) And this time, when we talked to that same building inspector, he all but rolled out the red carpet, stamped a permit for us and wished us much success, though with no apologies or acknowledgement of the anguish he’d already been party to.

Had it not been for that lady at the post office, I’m not sure what would have happened next, as it soon became clear that we had spent far too much on our house, before doing the renovations, and we couldn’t find a buyer. We decided to try to put the ugliness behind us and make a fresh start. I was starting to get picture framing customers and that rare group of people who liked our art were enjoying our little gallery. We had some trouble with Town Hall over our sign – not because they didn’t agree that it was lovely, but that we had failed to first get permission from the Planning and Heritage Committee to put it up, so we went through the required hoops and it was approved. Because antiques were a definite okay for this location, we started exploring our other passion, antique lighting and began to switch gears to a more viable way of making a living.

The final installment of Jane's letter will be posted tomorrow.

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