How’s this for putting the "small" in small business?
Alana Fiks and Angela Farkas are the co-owners of Black Market Provisions, a boutique grocery mart located at 550 Osborne St. Fiks was online in January when she stumbled across an Instagram page belonging to Jen Arnold, founder of Just Call Me Jen Sentimental Miniatures, a steeped-in-nostalgia enterprise that turns out meticulously built, scale-model versions of people’s childhood homes, family cottages and rural getaways.
Fiks’ immediate reaction: "We need one of these of the shop."
In early March, Fiks posted a pic of a Lilliputian replica of their store, with the real 600-square-foot deal in the background.
"We just got this teeny-tiny mini-BMP from @justcallme_jen_ and we are in AWE," she wrote alongside a photo of the end result on their Instagram page. "It is so detailed + every time we look at it we notice something different and we’re pretty much gobsmacked!"
She’s not kidding; not only did Arnold expertly copy the frosted lettering on the store’s bay window to read "Cute & Rad Goods," she also included a pint-sized passerby, affixing the plastic figure to an itsy-bitsy sidewalk bench made out of wooden stir sticks.
Well, you know what they say: there’s nothing like an Instagram account with 23,800 followers tooting your horn to help get the word out. Within a few hours of Fiks’ ringing endorsement, inquiries about Arnold’s wee abodes came pouring in. Things haven’t slowed down much since.
"As of today I’m mapped out right till the end of the year," Arnold said a few weeks ago, seated in a park near her downtown apartment block on an unseasonably warm spring afternoon. "It’s a good problem to have, but as a perfectionist who wants everything to be as accurate as possible, it’s also a little nerve-racking. I know it sounds hokey, but part of the payment I receive is seeing how happy people are with the finished product. I never want to get to a point where I feel like I’m rushing things just to get to the next job."
Arnold, 43, a social worker by profession, has always had a crafty side. She used to have her own line of jewelry, which she sold at markets in and around the city 20 years ago. In December 2018 she decided to make Christmas gifts for those on her list rather than handing out store-bought presents.
A friend of hers who lives in Vancouver always spoke fondly of the house she grew up in, a stately, two-storey Tudor-style home on River Road, near Lockport. She thought she’d start there by reproducing it in a size small. After finding an image of the house on Google Street View, she sat down with a pencil, ruler and pair of scissors and went to work, using an old Kleenex box for the walls and roof. It took her about two weeks to complete and although she wasn’t there for the "big reveal," having mailed it to British Columbia, her pal called to say she teared up the moment she laid eyes on it.
Inspired, Arnold made four more miniature homes as gifts the following Christmas, including a set for her mother representing all three houses she had lived in through the years. She kept at it the first six months of 2020, perfecting her craft by turning out imitations of whatever popped into her head; first the red-brick Georgian mansion that "starred" in the 1990 comedy Home Alone, followed by a likeness of the Darlings’ residence as depicted in the 1953 Disney animated flick Peter Pan and finally, a bang-on version of Jeanne’s Bakery, the venerable West End store that has figured in so many of her family’s birthday celebrations through the years. (No, the teensy Jeanne’s base wasn’t fashioned out of shortbread.)
Little surprise, as Arnold continued displaying images of her petite cardboard knock-offs on her Instagram page (instagram.com/justcallme_jen_/), curious parties began reaching out, hopeful she could duplicate a dwelling they held dear.
Hmm, Arnold thought; she might just have something there.
"Usually if it’s a childhood home that no longer looks the same — maybe it’s been painted or had an addition put on — or a cottage that’s been torn down or replaced, people will send me pictures of what it used to look like, to give me something to go off of," she said, mentioning that besides local lairs, she’s also fielded orders from a few people in Ontario, one in California and another for a person who lives in Winnipeg but wanted her to mirror her childhood home in Croatia that was recently heavily damaged by an earthquake.
Arnold tries to involve clients as much as possible by sending them work-in-progress photos, inquiring if they want her to add this or that. A while back a person supplied her with a pic that showed a laundry line in the backyard. She got back to the woman, asking if she’d mind if she hung a few things on the line she’d made, perhaps little pieces of cloth to represent towels and sheets. Yes, of course, came the answer.
As for the technique itself, Arnold has long since parked her X-Acto knife in favour of a device called a Cricut, a computer-controlled cutting machine that resembles a desktop printer. Once the various pieces have been portioned (nowadays, she mostly uses discarded cereal boxes), she secures the lot together with finishing glue. Following a few coats of paint, she inserts accents such as windowsills, door frames, shingles, even a sun deck if the job calls for it. Twigs she scoops up when she’s out and about and faux moss she buys from a dollar store are suitable stand-ins for trees and grass.
Finally, when she’s all done — each baseball-sized diorama takes approximately 50 hours to complete — she preserves it inside an acrylic cube measuring 10 by 10 centimetres. While some people, like the Black Market Provisions owners, display their model on a shelf at their place of work, most grant it space on a kitchen windowsill or fireplace mantle, she’s been told.
"It sounds funny to say but I almost always feel bad when it’s time to say goodbye to each one, because I’ve put so much of myself into it," she said, noting while she charges between $150 and $200 per configuration, she is aware of a woman in the States who does something similar whose set rate is closer to $1,000.
Putting a smile on somebody’s face is far more important to her than padding her bank account. Also, because her 9-to-5 job can be stressful at times — she deals primarily with individuals living with mental health issues — she has discovered that building a peewee this or that can be a welcome distraction from her day, not to mention all things pandemic-related. Ordinarily she’ll have a podcast or Netflix on while she works and more often than not she’ll get out of her chair to stretch and be astonished to learn it’s well after midnight, the time flies so fast.
If there is one downside to her venture, it’s the fact that she and her boyfriend can no longer go for a leisurely stroll without her stopping in her tracks to admire structures that catch her eye.
"I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’d love to do that church one day,’ or, ‘How long do you think it would take me to make that house over there?’" she says with a chuckle, adding, "Hey, don’t give me any ideas," when a scribe mentions she could always drop business cards off in mailboxes asking homeowners if they are interested in, you know, downsizing.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.