"Wow, this is so not me" laughed Dave as he reluctantly agreed to be photographed. "Beard, plaid shirt, and holding a bunch of kale," he jokingly complained. So if this is not Dave Kurcic, who is he?
The drizzly day outside seemed to do little to deter clients from visiting Mixed Media, an art shop owned by Dave Kurcic and his wife Suzanne, located on Hamilton's James Street North - the city's vibrant de facto art district who's very existence can be attributed to the vision and success of Mixed Media and a handful of art galleries. Mixed Media's beautiful hand-picked products, ranging from art supplies to fountain pens, maps, prints, and greeting cards, were not the only draw for the visitors. Dave wasn't just there to give a "thank you" and a warm smile when ringing in your purchases. It was clear that he and his business were more than just a storefront, they were a community cornerstone. And if the urban gardener coming in with a box of fresh produce and selling spinach and kale didn't prove the point, nothing would.
"We were looking for a change, something radically different, something that we could create and put together and something that would help this neighborhood." Ten years ago, Dave, a graphic designer, and his wife Suzanne, with a background in bookkeeping and accounting, left their jobs and set up shop on James Street North, a then rundown and forgotten part of the city home to a small community of local artists. The local art supply store had closed down and they didn't want to have to resort to shopping at large chain stores. Kurcic knew that just art supplies wouldn't keep the business afloat so he diversified and brought in other products, inspired by stationary stores in Montreal. They brought an experience to Hamilton that was not present at the time and that people had to drive to other cities for.
Why James St N? Simply put they liked the setting of the street. "We thought that this was a street that people should be walking on, congregating on, it was the central spine of the city, where the seat of government was, the armouries were," explained Dave. A Hamiltonian born and raised, he describes always being interested in the city's history and wanting to live in that glorious Hamilton of the 40's and 50's, when it was bustling with people and with energy. Dave said there was no downtown in Ontario that more undervalued than that of Hamilton and that all the positive change is coming from within. "A lot of folks at a certain age leave a city like Hamilton, whether it is to go away to school, or whether it's just to escape. Those folks are now beginning to come back as we start talking about the "New Hamilton" but for myself and my wife, who is the other half of this business, we've always been here and I think that's the interesting thing about what's going on in Hamilton. The regeneration is happening from within, people who are from here or born and raised here care about their city."
When asked who should be responsible for revitalization Dave has a ready response. He thinks that if the City had tried to brand the street as an art district years ago, it would not have been successful or at least not in the same way. "You know those paths through a park that are unpaved? The ones that people make by walking through them over and over again? I think they are called desire lines. Anyway, we just paved a path that was made by the people, not made by the City." Dave does see a place for the involvement of the City, by means of grants, development fees, and good planning, but not as the primary agent. People wanted places to go to like Mixed Media and the neighboring businesses on James St. South. People are deciding to come here to make their purchases and that's what keeps these places going. It's become a drawing force, with people that associated downtown Hamilton with blight and closed storefronts making the trip to have soup at the Burnt Tongue, a newly opened restaurant, or shop at one of the unique boutiques that line the street on both sides.
It's no wonder it has taken Hamiltonians a while to come down here. Ten years ago, much of the streetscape was in poor shape with empty storefronts, absentee landlords, and nothing worth visiting for. Yet, this situation allowed those that wanted to invest into unique businesses to grow their businesses slowly while paying little for rent and eventually being able to purchase their own location. The Kurcics bought their century old building and put a lot of work into it to make it functional for their store. David had the good business sense of purchasing his building so as to secure himself from the rising rent prices that gentrifying communities bring. They also rent out artist studios above their store and the storefronts on either side of them. David describes himself as a sympathetic landlord and swears that "good communication" can fix most problems.
If you really want to get the feel of who Dave is, just seeing what's in Mixed Media should give you an idea. "What you see in the store is a real reflection of us, reflection of our history, and reflection of what we enjoy and like to surround ourselves with." Better yet, visit Hamilton's James Street North on a second Friday of the month where, without fail, more than 20 to 30 creative spaces open their doors that night to all willing and interested parties. It is completely free and self-directed, and according to Dave, outrivals any art event in Toronto. It was also the inspiration for Supercrawl, an annual festival in Hamilton. "It's nice to be part of something special, something bigger than just a storefront."
DISCLAIMER: This article was written for THE CAROLINIAN MAGAZINE, a future project showcasing community shaping enterprises.
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