When customers walk into Désirée Kretschmar’s bath and gift shop on Hunter Street, she invites them to extend their arms on either side to test the store’s width.
“Can you touch both walls?” she asks. And almost everyone can.
Kretschmar advertises her business, which is called Cheek, as the “smallest shop in Peterborough.” At 85 square feet, it probably is. This store is so small it’s comical, and Kretschmar has crammed it full of quirky, queer-positive trinkets and gifts.
Kretschmar has had a soft spot for this retail unit, 219½ Hunter, since she first set foot in it when she was in high school.
In 2019, the entrepreneur opened Plant Goals there. Within months, that business took off and outgrew the unit’s narrow confines, so Kretschmar moved it to a larger space on Water Street. But she kept the lease at 219½ Hunter and opened Cheek there next. She loved the location too much to give it up. “It’s just so weird,” she says. “It’s such a little hole in the wall.”
Kretschmar is only the latest entrepreneur to embrace the constraints of 219½ Hunter. The eccentricities of the unit — and its affordability — have inspired one creative person after another to put their name on the lease and open a business.
With rent that is significantly lower than other retail units downtown, this spot has incubated a number of initiatives that would never have gotten off the ground anywhere else, and Kretschmar believes the downtown needs more units like this one to encourage risk-taking and creative entrepreneurship.
But 219½ Hunter was never designed to be a cheap retail space. It was originally just a hotel stairwell, and it has evolved into its present use almost by accident.
To uncover the history of this charming storefront — and to learn how it became so small in the first place — Currents spoke with its recent proprietors and visited local archives to consult historical documents. Here’s what we learned.
“A messy, chaotic space”
In recent memory, 219½ Hunter has served as a private supper club, a craft and stationary store with a resident pet rabbit, a painting studio, a leather workshop, and more.
But in the late-80s, a group of young activists and Trent students ran “a ragtag collection of social justice projects” out of the unit, filling it with anarchist zines, protest buttons, and a youthful energy. They called themselves Projects for Change.
“We would hang out and talk politics and have fun,” says Tim Piper, who was involved with Projects for Change. But it was also about organizing. “People were doing good work there,” he says. There was a lending library, a little food bank, and a Gestetner duplicating machine for making pamphlets and zines.
“It was a messy, chaotic space,” remembers Peter Rukavina, who was also involved. “But we squeezed a lot out of it.”
After Projects for Change moved out, Rukavina and a pal, Simon Shields, rented 219½ Hunter. The friends called their new partnership the Community Information Agency — or CIA. From their tiny office, the two twenty-somethings set about producing a Who’s Who of Peterborough to document who was up to what in town. They hoped that “by being [able] to see the affiliations of people, we could help to shed light on how connections ran the city.”
Their endeavour landed them in some hot water, according to Rukavina, who remembers being dragged into the Peterborough Police interrogation room after he and Shields published the names and ranks of every police officer in town.
“I was questioned as to our motivations, what the CIA was, why we published the information etc.,” Rukavina remembers. “Ultimately the interrogation led to nothing.”
This flurry of political activity faded after a few years. By 1989, Rukavina and Shields had moved out. And in the 90s, the space was used an office for the India Food House, the restaurant next door. “There was a door into the space from the kitchen,” remembers Alice Horwood, who worked at the restaurant in the late-90s. (This door is visible in a video depicting Projects for Change, but today it’s gone; the space is now sealed off from the adjoining units.)
By the early 00s, the little unit was sitting empty. But one day around that time, painter John Climenhage walked by and rescued it from disuse. The artist had recently moved to Peterborough, and “needed somewhere to work outside of the house,” he says. He saw 219½ was sitting empty, and asked the owner about it. “I got it for something silly like $140 a month.”
For a couple of years, Climenhage used the space as a studio and gallery. “I was doing all these little six-by-eight paintings of Peterborough and I would put them up in the window as they dried.” He called his studio the Five Pin Gallery, a reference to its narrow shape and wooden flooring.
It was around this time that Ashburnham Realty bought the building. Since then, the space has been in more or less continuous use. A bead store followed Climenhage. Then, leather worker Jesse Bateson took it over. He set up his workbench in the front window, so passersby could watch him making belts and bracelets.
“At the time, it didn’t even have a bathroom,” Bateson remembers of the space. Luckily, he was also working next door at Black Honey and was friends with the café’s owner, Lisa Dixon. So the café “was my bathroom, my source of water. I would pop over there and say hi,” he says.
Bateson did some work on the space. He ground away “like 20 layers of paint” to expose a brick wall, and he installed barn board to give the front alcove more charm. (The barn board is still there today.)
The improvements kept coming. Around 2015, chef Shawn Adler installed a bathroom in the back of 219½ Hunter so he could use the unit to host private supper parties. Adler’s new enterprise was called Bezhik, and it wasn’t a typical restaurant. “I did it really covertly, very underground,” he says. Guests would reserve the space for dinner, and they would bring 10 people to the meal, at a cost of about $150 per person.
“It was a blast,” remembers Dixon of Black Honey, who was invited to Adler’s first dinner. The table filled the entire room, and Dixon remembers climbing over the other guests to reach the bathroom in the back.
Adler prepared a six-course meal that night, Dixon recalls, and all the dishes featured wild game, including fish and bison. “It was sensational,” she says. “It was a very special night.”
Working next door, Dixon had long admired 219½ Hunter, and after Adler vacated, she and her son took over the unit and ran the Green Lemon Gallery, a space for artists to create and display new work, until 2019. And that brings us up to the present, and the two businesses Désirée Kretschmar has operated out of 219½ over the last few years.
From hotel hallway to downtown laundromat
Creatives have certainly made the most of this anomalous retail space over the years. But why is it so small to begin with? Could it really have been designed this way?
The answer is no. According to local historian Elwood Jones, this building was originally a hotel designed in the 1880s, and 219½ was merely an entranceway and staircase to the rooms above. (The upper floors have been apartments rather than hotel rooms for most of the building’s life.)
So when and how did this old stairwell become a retail unit instead? Peterborough’s fire insurance plans provide clues. Produced to aid in fire risk assessment, these city-wide maps feature intricate diagrams of all the structures that were standing at a given time. They are an unparalleled resource for researching the history of Peterborough’s built environment. (Thanks to the Trent Valley Archives and Trent University Archives for providing access to these incredible documents!)
Take a look at the plans below. The 1915 and 1948 plans illustrate the original layout of 219½ (the unit is highlighted in yellow, and the addresses on the top are on the street-facing side of the building). Just as Jones describes, these two plans show a large staircase occupying the space where our little shop is today. But take a close look at the 1968 fire insurance plan. The staircase has been cut in half! And the resulting empty space is now being used by a laundry service, the map suggests.
This laundry business had already been operating next door for decades. According to the city’s archival directories, a business called Kawartha Laundrette occupied 219 Hunter, the unit immediately east of 219½, since at least 1950.
By the early 1970s, it’s clear that the laundry business was using both spaces. A photograph taken by architectural historian Martha Kidd from that time shows Kawartha Laundrette’s sign above 219 Hunter and a sign for Speedy Towel Supply Service above 219½. The latter had the same phone number as Kawartha Laundrette, suggesting they were in fact the same business.
Kidd’s photo also clears up another question — what’s with the “½” in the unit’s address? The “½” has been applied inconsistently over the years. Today, for example, Cheek lists its address 219 Hunter without the “½.” In the photo, note how Kawartha Laundrette and the law office to the left of it occupy separate units. In the archival directories, the law office is listed at 217 Hunter, and Kawartha Laundrette is listed at 219 Hunter. But today, these two units have been merged into one unit (occupied in the 90s by the India Food House, and today by Karma’s Café). The combined unit’s address is 217 Hunter. That means 219 Hunter ceased to exist as its own unit, creating the strange situation of having a 219½ on the block, but no 219. It’s understandable, then, that “219,” the number, has migrated, and has sometimes been used to refer to our little retail shop. But the archival documents make clear that the space itself was historically under the address 219½.
It seems likely that the renovation to combine 217 and 219 Hunter also helped to further shrink 219½ Hunter. Take another look at the fire insurance plans, and note how they depict 219½ Hunter extending right to the back of the building. That’s not the case today, and it hasn’t been for a while. The length of 219½ has been curtailed as well as its width. In fact, Bateson remembers hearing people “banging away” behind his back wall when he was there. Also, “if it was a late Friday night or a Saturday night, you could smell Karma’s cooking,” he says. When did the back half of 219½ Hunter get taken over by the unit next door? The renovation that merged 217 and 219 Hunter is the most likely time, and this happened in the late 80s or early 90s.
This was all the information Currents found regarding the shifting structural design of 219½ Hunter. It’s not enough to make definitive conclusions. But it does narrow things down quite a bit.
And so we put forward the following theory: Peterborough’s tiniest and most impractical retail unit was created through two renovations to a space that was originally just a hotel stairwell. The first renovation was sometime in the 1960s, and involved cutting away half of the staircase to accommodate the expansion of Kawartha Laundrette. The second happened later, around 1989, and involved cutting off the back half of the unit to accommodate the expansion of the India Food House.
Whoever pushed forward with these renovations could hardly have known they were creating an important retail space for artists and entrepreneurs a half century later!
More cheap retail units needed downtown
Starting with Projects for Change in the 1980s, the various proprietors of 219½ Hunter have all been drawn to it for the same reason — it’s cheap.
Kretschmar says the low rent allowed her to take the risk of opening Plant Goals. And Bateson, the leather worker, tells a similar story. He rented the space in the late aughts, and today he owns and operates a business called Solid Leather. He attributes his current success to being able to secure that first downtown storefront.
“If it wasn’t for that store, I would not be where I am today,” he says. “And a lot of that was the affordability, and being able to be right downtown with that affordability.” Bateson says the space cost him $300 a month.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any other spaces like 219½ Hunter in town. And that means the little retail unit is a hot commodity. Paul Bennett, who owns the building, says he never has to advertise it; there’s always demand. “When it comes up, everyone knows it’s coming up [and] twenty different people are interested,” he says, apologizing in the same breath to all the “people we’ve upset because we didn’t give it to them over the years.”
Kretschmar’s and Bateson’s stories illustrate the economic and cultural benefits of accessible and affordable retail space. On the other hand, they show how a lack of such spaces might be holding back our downtown economy.
“There are a lot of people who I know who are kind of on a perpetual waitlist,” Kretschmar says. They “would love to open something downtown if the right space comes up.”
With many heritage buildings currently under renovation downtown, Kretschmar hopes that there will soon be an increase in retail spaces that are accessible to entrepreneurs such as herself, ones who have good ideas but not a lot of startup capital. An increase in affordable retail spaces would make for “a more rich and vibrant downtown,” she says.
Will Kretschmar’s hope for the downtown be realized? It’s hard to say. But for now, at least downtown still has 219½ Hunter.
“It’s up to history, what the next thing will be,” Kretschmar says when asked what she thinks will happen with the space after Cheek. “But I don’t plan on letting it go for a while. I really liked this spot.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the highschool Désirée Kretschmar attended. Currents regrets the error.
Update: This article was updated on February 7, 2023 to add new details about the use of 219½ during the 90s.