Had all gone to plan, this year was supposed to be the turnaround for businesses on Elgin Street, after a bitter year-long street renewal project that had decimated foot traffic and left many small business owners to fend for themselves.
Sam Hopkins, the owner of the boutique printshop Shoebox Studio, can rattle off the casualties: Pure Gelato, Boko Bakery, Tokyo Shop — all closed, either directly or indirectly, by the big dig. Last year was rough, but 2020 was meant to mark the start of the way back.
And then the other shoe — yeah, we all know which one — dropped.
“To be hit with the lockdown right after the construction was tough,” Hopkins said, in a bright, windowed studio overlooking the corner of Elgin and MacLaren. “There’s a lot of empty storefronts already. That’s really scary.”
COVID-19 posed a different challenge for Hopkins though, turning the studio from a place where artists, photographers and the general public could drop by and collaborate on a print project into an appointment-only space. While he readily admits that other businesses are far deeper in the muck than he has been, things have still been tough; for four months, nobody entered the studio but Hopkins.
“The business model is collaborative — having the artist in the space. That’s what the business is based on,” Hopkins said. Hopkins’ vision of the studio was one where artists could come in, open their files alongside Hopkins, talk about papers and inks and techniques. “I still came in every day, and did as much as I could digitally. The best I could do was say ‘Hey, send me any files if you can.’ But all those in-person meetings couldn’t happen.” (How do you show off different paper types on Zoom? Wave it around, he says, only half-joking. “I’m saying, like, ‘listen to this!’”)
In some sense, a challenging environment is the only one Shoebox has ever existed in, and has thrived nonetheless. On August 1, it will turn two years old; nearly its entire lifespan has been spent in the shadow — first of the construction, then of COVID-19.
Shoebox is not your average printshop — “we’re not doin' $3 8x10’s” — catering to perfectionists (as Hopkins might self-identify) and people with particular needs. Within Ottawa’s creative community, Shoebox enjoys a stellar reputation, both for quality and the level of work that goes into each piece.
“You can always just hit CTRL+P and print an image,” Hopkins says, explaining his philosophy (and justifying his correlated price points). “The advantage of Shoebox is all the extra time and interest we’ll put into making it correct.” That means you’re also paying for: his thoughts on paper choice, his thoughts on ink choice, test strips, proofing prints, proactive edits on every single image, adjustments, re-adjustments and everything else that goes into getting something as close to perfect as he can get it.
As the COVID-19 lockdown starts to lift, Hopkins has the sense that this trend will continue, even if the gallery show jobs — he calls them “the best and biggest jobs” — are “not going to happen, for a while.” But there’s still art being created, shared and sold. The creative economy chugs along.
“What we’re seeing, post-lockdown, is far more new clients, far more new artists,” he said. Part of it, he thinks, is creatives with some disposable CERB money, looking to support their own industries. Others are people “who were stuck at home, musing about doing stuff with their art.”
And in that position, Hopkins has had a bit of a front-row seat to the creative incubation of the whole experience. Lockdown was a clear “creative dead zone,” he calls it, but as it is lifting, he is seeing Ottawa’s creatives come to life again.
“I’m seeing,” he said, thoughtfully, “the result of a post-lockdown creative overflow.”
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