The Lost Art of Living

A lot of my friends dream about finding a place out in the country that has a few acres of land, a huge barn for a woodworking shop and an abundance of quiet.

Not me. I’ve always loved cities, especially the old sections. I like 19th-century architecture, alleyways and the bustle of city life. I also like being able to walk everywhere I need to go and being in close quarters with restaurants, coffee shops, bars, street vendors, theatres and all the crazy little businesses that crop up in a metropolis. Heck I even like the constant hum.

For the last 15 years, I’ve lived in one of the older suburbs in Cincinnati. Our house was built in 1928, I can walk to the grocery stores, the kids can walk to school and we are less than five minutes from downtown Cincinnati. It’s a nice, leafy suburb. We would be fools to leave.

But I have been plotting the next move for Lost Art Press (and my family) and am eager to leave suburban life forever. Just down the road from us is Covington, Ky., an older city right on the Ohio River and across from downtown Cincinnati.

It has a huge inventory of old residential, commercial and mixed-use properties. And I have started scouting buildings. I want a storefront on the ground floor for my workshop and our publishing activities. And I want to live above the shop. I want a back alley. A loading dock. A tin ceiling.

Lucky for me, Covington is lousy with properties like this. Even luckier: My spouse feels the same way that I do about this crazy plan. Her family owned a drugstore on Madison Avenue until Covington’s economy collapsed and all the stores moved to the suburbs. They lost their drug store. So moving back to Covington to set up business has some emotional appeal.

Last weekend I started looking at some buildings up for sale to get a feel for the market. The first stop: A building on Madison Avenue, one block down from the old drug store.

That property turned out to be wrong in too many ways. But the process – and the view from the sidewalks of the city – felt exactly right.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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21 Responses to The Lost Art of Living

  1. Andre says:

    Well Chris, that sounds like a ‘very well cobbled together plan’ if I may say so.

    I can imagine that having all (family, LAP activities and workshop) together under the same roof would be so much more practical. Add to that having a back alley, loading dock and other things that you will undoubtly think of and I can see pictures of a very nice and functional piece of real estate.

    May you find that ‘perfect place’ for you and your family to turn plans to reality.

    Just don’t make the workshop too big….makes you long for more inventory!

    Happy hunting, André

  2. Michael Rogen says:

    Chris,
    I too long for a return to city life after 10 plus years in the suburbs. Having spent the first 42 years of my life in NYC and Brooklyn, a return there now because of my health seems very unlikely. But how nice it would be to be able to walk to and have a cup of coffee at one of the many cafe’s that were springing up in Cobble Hill Brooklyn right before moving to suburbia. It was a very short walk from the house where I lived (which had tin ceilings) to cafe’s, restaraunts and my favorite-bookstores. Now if I feel really good I can manage a short walk to the mailbox.
    It sounds like a wonderful plan and I wish you all the best in finding the right place.

    Michael

  3. ty says:

    I like this idea. I think it has potential.
    In your store can you also sell tools and bench hardware from all your contacts.
    Id love to see a collection of molding planes next to Benchcrafted hardware, next to Lie-Nelson. now you need chairs and a collection of books too, and i’d never leave.
    I am moving to Cincinnati in a month and would love to shop there and see some of your ideas in action. it really cements the words that you write when you see them in action and can see this 1.1 idea vs your new 2.5 idea.
    words like this pop into my head. “hey mom. Yes. I want to go see Chris down the street. OK but come back when the street lights come one. OK bye. “

  4. Colin Hayward says:

    Sounds like a wonderful idea. Being walking distance from where you need to go (especially work) is a wonderful thing.

    Be sure to include room for the “Un-Popular Woodworking Magazine School” when you retire.

    Happy Hunting.

  5. Justin Tyson says:

    Good luck. Don’t give too many details about where the lucky property is located, or else I might be able to find you. And then I might not want to leave :)

  6. joel says:

    As a born and bred city slicker I think a move to downtown would be a great idea. (not sure about living above the store though). You know my family pharmacy two blocks from my house just closed. It’s next to a hardware store. It would be a perfect storefront for you. Schools are close by too.

    You can also come to Brooklyn, you won’t even need a car.

    Good luck with the search I thought Covington is a real nice place and you would be able to walk to WIA.

  7. Ryan says:

    Chris,

    If you’ve not done so, I’d recommend you read Howard Kunstler’s “Home from Nowhere”. It details the evolution of urban and suburban life in America, where he thinks it’s best and why, why zoning has killed the average American city, flaws with the average sprawled suburb, and a myriad of other observations about the geography of American family living. It’s a great read and I think it would ring true with you.

  8. robert says:

    Chris:

    That picture looks just like Lancaster, Ohio, and damn near every town in Southern Ohio. In the course of my work, I have been in a number of buildings just like that and have a little un-solicited advice.

    Visit the building when there is lots of traffic on the street – heavy trucks – does the building move more than a little? Some that I have been in will sway enough to induce seasickness.

    Vacant buildings are fire-traps – many have burned in my former home town, taking neighboring buildings with them. The former solid facade now looks like teeth in a jack-o-lantern.

    Have an attorney check things out. I had an attorney tell me that every commercial building in Lancaster encroaches on one or more of its neighbors. That is the state of affairs, so long as everyone is OK with it now and in the future.

    Does the building rely on its neighbors for lateral support? What happens if they come down?

    Assume everyone is pursuing their own agenda (lying) in regards to real estate. Once you accept this every negotiation becomes easier.

    Not trying to be a buzz-kill, but forewarned is forearmed.

    Best regards,

    robert

  9. Dean says:

    You might want to contact Mike Holmes to do an inspection before committing to a purchase. :-) I’m sure Mike’s expertise goes beyond just homes and would include ‘commercial’ residents as well.

  10. Joshua Klein says:

    Hey Chris,
    When I was writing my most recent post “How the Seed of Craft is Sown” I couldn’t help but think you might be interested. I know you talk about your desire to teach your daughter these skills. My post is a tribute of sorts to my father who greatly influenced me. It might be interesting for you to read what your daughter may write to you someday. Anyway… here it is > http://www.workbenchdiary.com
    Enjoy.

  11. Eric says:

    As someone who grew up in the shadow of Covington, I can appreciate the allure of the older buildings the city still has to offer. I am too young to remember Covington as it used to be – a lively, desireable place to live and work. Sadly, during the 70’s and 80’s (and mayber sooner), it followed the same fate as too many of our cities. When I was growing up during those decades, “Covington” was a bad word. It’s heartening to see it trying to make a comeback, and the restoration of the some of the grand old homes along the river is encouraging (and the transformation of the Newport riverfront right next door is nothing less than astonishing to me). I’ll always root for Covington to reach its potential again.

    Being able to ditch the car is also a high priority of ours. It’s one of the reasons we chose Portland, OR as a place to live. We could have a had a large spread in the ‘burbs, complete with a big workshop for me. Instead we have a 120-year old Victorian with a sketchy basement that I’m making into a shop. But everything is a 10-minute walk or bike ride away and we wouldn’t trade that for anything.

    Good luck with your search.

    -Eric

  12. mike hamilton says:

    Hope you secretly have an offer pending on a place. We all know the post “Schwarz-post” reaction of prices. I’d hate to see you do it to yourself.

    Mike

  13. Jonathan P. Szczepanski says:

    Go for it Chris. I would move back to the city if I could. You can’t beat the energy and vitality you find in the city. It’s much more inspiring creatively too. I wish you luck.

    Jonathan
    =================================

  14. Scott S. says:

    Not my cup of tea in general, but I have seen some revitalized urban neighborhoods that are extremely appealing.

    I will echo Colin from above: give thought to some classroom space for Chris’ Wood University. :)

  15. You just “Schwarzed” the Covington real estate market. A rare mistake. You’ll recover.

  16. Bob Engl says:

    I love the idea. Hope it works out well. Hope to visit someday!

  17. Tim Henriksen says:

    I think you were just attracted to the box jointed exterior. Keep looking … I’m sure there’s a tin ceiling with your name on it … perhaps even with a dovetailed brick exterior!!!

  18. Glen says:

    Hey Chris,
    although we live in places where the water gurgles down the plug ‘ole in differing directions, we share some similar stories. My house in the ‘burbs is being Auctioned tomorrow for our move to the country, where my wife & I always thought we would buy a farm and do the whole ‘tree change’ thing. We’re still moving to the country, but have bought a empty block in the main street of an old historic town with gold-mining heritage running through it’s buildings and veins. There I will build my dream workshop, house and shop front to sell my windsor chairs and furniture and teach chair making. Fresh air, more space and a beautiful small town in which we can watch our young boy grow up safely….. but in amongst the cafes and great restaurants we love. Magic stuff. Go for it mate, you’ll never regret it and enjoy your time with your daughter as I’m sure I will with my boy in years to come. Come visit if your ever down in Australia! http://rundellandrundell.blogspot.com/
    Cheers
    Glen

  19. Mike says:

    That corner is very near to a great dance studio. Friends run the swing dance night on Thursday. Covington Latin (high school alma mater) is down on 11th. Very nice town. Good luck

  20. Mark says:

    I can tell why the first property didn’t work out just by the picture… too many tax people nearby!! ;^)

    I can say that since I am one of those peeps. Neat idea although I’m a country boy at heart- I like my space.

  21. Joe Cunningham says:

    I can relate to this. My own small city in CT has many buildings that look just like this and I have often dreamed of someday chucking my lucrative job and starting a small workshop with a store-front bench view of me doing my thing–so passers-by can see work as it used to be done. In my case the dream is to make instruments, but the skills are not near that level yet. Look forward to taking a class with you this August…

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