3 min read

Living in a Chicago Storefront

This is the story of how Rachel and I inadvertently rented a storefront.

A few weeks ago, we bought a Shapeoko. It’s basically a Dremmel on a robotic arm that carves blocks of wood based on a 3D model (much like a 3D printer). I saw this thing and said “That’s awesome, but it kind of seems like a pain in the ass, and I don’t need another side project.” Rachel saw it and said “We need one of those,” to which I replied, “You are amazing.”

So we bought one with a plan of making… something… and selling those somethings on Etsy. There’s a problem though: The Shapeoko is loud. And messy. Spits sawdust everywhere. And our 1.5 bedroom, 500 sqft. apartment isn’t built to be a woodshop.

The next week, our landlord emailed us saying that she is raising our rent from $1000 to $1075. That’s a big jump. Not enough on its own to make us move, but enough to annoy into perusing Craigslist. And then we thought, “Hey, if we move, we could have a dedicated space for the Shapeoko.”

So we told her we wouldn’t renew our lease, and started looking for a new spot. It was scary, letting go of one place before the next was secure, but we prayed about it, and had a lot of peace that this was the right move.

Then the frustration started. Something happened in the Chicago leasing market over the last two years. Demand surged and supply did not. We looked at place after place where four couples showed up for a single showing. We had a weird list of requirements so we could run the Shapeoko at night: either a coach house with no neighbors, or a first floor apartment with a basement. Despite that, we found two spots that were “perfect.”

There was a coachhouse in Bucktown that Rachel saw while I was in Salt Lake City. Rachel applied on the spot, along with three others, and the next day the landlord called to tell us that she took someone else because I wasn’t there to see it.

That was disappointing, but the day I got back we found another place even more “perfect.” It’s a gorgeous first floor 2BR in Wicker Park with a private basement. We spent an hour talking to the landlord, and tried to apply right then. He said he wasn’t ready to put in on the market, took our number and told us he wouldn’t show it anytime soon. When we called him back the next week, he said he had been pressured into renting it to his neighbor’s daughter who had just broken up with her boyfriend.

We tried to stay upbeat and faithful. We tried to trust God, but frustration and fear clouded our days. It would have been better had we not seen two places, perfect by our standards, that had slipped through our fingers. But it was as if God was saying “I know what you want, and I have something better.”

A few hours after Mr. Perfect confirmed that his place was unavailable, we found an oddball listing two blocks from our house: a live-work storefront at 1440 N Ashland. There’s a 400 sqft. efficiency apartment in the back, and an 800 sqft. storefront, with a basement that runs the length of the unit. We applied on Monday morning, and signed a lease on Wednesday despite “dozens” of other people inquiring about the place.

Last year Chicago passed a live/work ordinance, but since you have to walk up three stairs to get from the store to the apartment, ours is considered a walk-up and doesn’t require the new permit. But kudos to the City for making it easier for families to start businesses. As Alderman Moreno, who proposed the ordinance, said, “This is how Chicago was built: family in the back, store in the front.” Also, mullets.

With the tax savings we’ll get from writing off the commercial lease, our effective cost is $75 more than what we would have spent on our current apartment had we stayed. Not bad for four times the space.

So what are we going to do with all that space? We don’t know. The lease says it’s an Artist Studio/Gallery, open by appointment only. The basement makes for a great workshop, not only for the Shapeoko, but for all sorts of creations. And the storefront gives us a place to do…. something… that never would have been possible if our “perfect” plans hadn’t fallen through.