As part of a new project called Change Makers I am interviewing people and organisations who are doing things a little differently and are creating positive change in the world. The aim of this is to showcase some inspiring projects, connect people looking to be the change to companies that can help them achieve that goal and maybe even encourage you to start something of your own.
The Homesteaders Emporium is a store that I have visited a lot since I first discovered it. In their words they are 'a one-stop-shop for urban homesteading'. If you aren't familiar with homesteading, it is anything related to living a self sufficient lifestyle. Growing, preserving and making your own food, raising animals, foraging... it's a long list that comes under the homesteading umbrella. So for me The Homesteaders Emporium is like being a kid in a candy store. It is empowering to know that there is an alternative to simply relying on paying other people to make things for you and that with a little bit of patience, practice and mindfulness you can take a lot more responsibility for the things you consume.
Tell me about The Homesteaders Emporium what is it all about?
Homesteader’s Emporium is a small brick-and-mortar shop located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Our goal is to make it more accessible for folks to gain skills, tools, and materials to move toward more self-sufficient lifestyles. Living in a pretty unique period of time where it’s almost impossible to ignore how our interactions, behaviours and ways of life affect not only our own immediate environments, but the global climate as well, this shop is an effort to offer access and opportunity for urbanites to develop skills in self-sufficiency for more sustainable living practices. We sell and rent supplies, create community to learn with, and are also a bridge for folks to access mentors and teachers to learn news skills through our workshop programs.
Homesteader’s Emporium is one tiny window folks in the city can look into to find connection to the everyday basics of life - things our fast-paced city lives can miss entirely. I was listening to an elder share about his last train ride when a little boy pointed to some animals outside and said “what are those?”. His mom answered “cows.” The elder was shocked. My roommate had a similar story working with kids on a small farm called Southlands. Recently she told me of a group of kids who were super excited about helping out on the farm because it was like being in Mine Craft. They moved around the farm walking like pixelated square avatars, moving bales around and feeding the chickens in robotic motion. A part of living in the city means prioritizing efficiency and productivity, which sometimes means not being able to, or forgetting to prioritize the basics of life, such as food. What is ground beef? What is soap? Where does my fried chicken come from? WHAT?!?! A real chicken?? But they’re so cute!
What was the inspiration behind starting The Homesteaders Emporium?
Our store was born of necessity. In 2012 if you lived in the Lower Mainland and wanted to get into beekeeping, cheese making, fermenting, etc, there wasn’t really an easy way for you to do that. You had to track down a club, mail order supplies you’d never seen before, fiddle around and jerry-rig your own equipment, and generally work pretty hard to be successful. We wanted to make DIY just a little bit more accessible, and our own experiences indicated the best way to do that was to make supplies and education available in a brick-and-mortar space.
What did those involved with the start-up do before this? Were they very experienced in this industry?
Our starting team was drawn together by our hobbies and passion for making from scratch, but none of us really had professional experience with running a store. We just were trying to create something we felt was really important. The owner (Rick) worked a bit at Mountain Equipment Co-op, and that really coloured the type of shopping experience and work environment we wanted to create. He also tutored kids in an after school program, and dabbled in IT consulting. The other early hires were a hair stylist, off-duty school teacher, and a young mother re-entering the workforce. We were and are a bit of a ragtag crew, but we make it work!
Were there any difficulties you faced in starting such a unique business?
There were and are. The biggest challenge is education - after all, we’re not really in the product business, we’re in the skill business. The products just happen to be where we get our revenue, but they aren’t what keeps us in business. That means we spend more of our time coordinating workshops, compiling resources, and writing instructions than we do selling product - even though we don’t earn money on those things!
Most stores selling specialty goods end up charging a high premium, but our whole aim is to make the activities we cater to accessible. That means we’re trying to juggle a large number of suppliers and many, many different products, without applying a higher markup than a larger chain store might. To do this, we use inventory tracking that is much more complex than the average store our size, and spend a lot of time sweet-talking suppliers to work with us on our orders.
Why should people try homesteading instead of just buying things from a store?
- It’s way more expensive to buy ready-made products from a store. For example, sauerkraut takes about 30mins of effort to make, but costs $5-10/litre in stores and farmer’s markets. If you made it at home it would cost you about buck or two at most and I’d bet you’d like it more!
- It’s gratifying to make things. People are creators. We’re agents of change. We like to move things around and transform them. Growing your own food from seed, making your own cheese, composting your own scraps then turning it into nutrient-rich soil for your garden - doing these things not only FEELS satisfying, but it creates a special connection between you and your self. Learning these skills shifts where your source of life comes from - your source of life being food, water, shelter, clothing, community, etc. It is extremely empowering to be very closely connected to your source of life. When you make something from scratch, you become attached to every aspect of the process. When you buy something, you’re only attached to the outcome. Can you imagine what kind of impact this can have in our lives?
What tips would you offer someone looking to start being more self sufficient?
Start small or go all in. Whatever works best for you, but don’t be too attached to the outcomes of your experiments. The other day I wanted to make no-knead sourdough bread, which was a first for me. I had seen some folks do this at different stages of the Tartine-style process but I had never seen the whole process through. I also have a short attention span for multi-stepped instructions, so I skimmed the process and went for it. At the end of the day, I had messed up every possible step either in timing or in technique, but decided to bake my loaves anyway. They weren’t the perfectly chewy crusted, soft and airy loaves my partner and friends make, but they were excellent toasted with butter and I was happy to share them with my friends and family. Most importantly, I learned a bunch from the million mistakes I made (turning and shaping are different things for example!), so I am really excited to apply those lessons to my next batch! I imagine, like with most things, these projects get better with time, as long as we stay open enough to keep learning.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business that contributes to positive change?
Your greatest challenge will likely be to find a balance between pursuing your mission and making enough money to keep operating. Remember that while you may not be in business to make money, you need to make money to be in business. Watch your cash flow and keep on top of your books. Find a good bookkeeper before you do anything else. The values-based for-profit has not yet gained broad acceptance in our economy, so get ready to be pulled in both directions. Good luck!
What are the next steps for Homesteader’s Emporium?
We’re working on providing more resources for home-learning, as a way to complement the in-store experience. For example, our rentals program is really popular, and our staff can give some advice on how to use a rented item (e.g. a honey extractor or a pasta maker). Soon though, we’ll have instructional videos to go with most of them!
What is the change you want to see in the world?
We want to live in a world where people are connected again to how things are made and where things come from. Obviously everyone can’t do everything, but we think by making it easier to engage with products by making them, we can encourage more conscientious consumer behavior. It starts with food - learn to make cheese, learn about dairy cow welfare! But it doesn’t stop there. Making soap leads to learning about all the miscellaneous additives that go into modern consumer cosmetics. Learning to repair a cell phone reminds you that fixing electronics is possible - and if enough people do it, or even if enough people hear about it, we can drive demand for easily-fixable devices that don’t wind up in landfills. It can create benefits for society AND the planet on many different levels.
Thank you so much to all the team at www.homesteadersemporium.ca keep up the good work.
The next time you are in the supermarket maybe just stop and consider how many of the products you are are about to buy could you try making yourself...