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Tristan Cleveland is an urban planner who has also worked in Montreal, Guyana and Venezuela. Cleveland grew up in the south shore of Nova Scotia and has been an advocate for sustainable planning in Halifax since 2012.

Tristan Cleveland: Plan B Co-op in Halifax the ideal model for small business

What started as a place to hawk a Halifax hoarder's collection has turned into a 'department store of vintage retro' -- and the solution to the difficulty of getting a business off the ground.

Bob Chaisson of Plan B Merchant's Co-op in Halifax.

Jeff Harper / Metro Order this photo

Bob Chaisson of Plan B Merchant's Co-op in Halifax.

One of our country’s biggest problems has been solved in a little store on Gottingen Street and hardly anyone has noticed.

When I walked into Plan B, I found art, taxidermy, records, chemistry tubes and a giant batman spotlight. It can sell this crazy diversity of things because it isn’t one business. It’s 65.

Starting a business can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars and take every moment of your time. Too often, only the wealthy or those willing to lose everything are able to risk it. How vibrant could Halifax be if everyone who had a good idea could just give it a try?

That’s what Plan B has made possible.

Plan B has many different themed spaces, like this oddity room.

Jeff Harper/Metro

Plan B has many different themed spaces, like this oddity room.

It’s a “merchant co-op” where anyone can rent space to hawk their wares for as little as about “the cost of a pizza and a beer” per month, according to their president, Bob Chaisson. No downpayment, insurance, permits, equipment, renovations or employees.

Members take turns working the cash, so “you can still work a day job if you need to, or get or make new stock.”

Chaisson had no idea the co-op would become so diverse. It started as an answer to a simpler problem.

“I’m what you call a late stage 3 hoarder.” Chaisson started collecting odds and ends to use as props for his work in the film industry, but it got so out of hand, “I had seven storage units and two houses full of stuff.”

Plan B merchandise runs the gamut from oddities to geek collectibles.

Jeff Harper/Metro

Plan B merchandise runs the gamut from oddities to geek collectibles.

So he decided to open an antique shop. Trouble was, he didn’t have nearly the money for the startup costs.

“While commiserating with some other friends over a beer who were in similar straits, it hit me. One of them wants to do used records, one of them wants to do vintage clothing, someone else wants to do used books.”

“Oh my God,” he realized, “we could open a department store of vintage retro.” Together they could afford it, especially if they took turns running the shop.

But what it could mean for other small business was a surprise. “This was completely out of the blue, that we would turn out to be a small business incubator.”

Six businesses that started at Plan B have gone off to start their own brick and mortar stores, including Abode, Black Buffalo Records, Toxic Blossom, and Vivacious Vixen.

There are records on consignment from a local collector.

Jeff Harper/Metro

There are records on consignment from a local collector.

It’s for good reason we make businesses get fire inspections, food permits, insurance and much more. But in the process, we’ve lost something: the ability for anyone with imagination and energy to just try something.

In many countries, starting a business is even more common among the poor than the wealthy, a way to flexibly earn money. Plan B is a model that can handle all the permits, while restoring that freedom to experiment.

It’s a model that could easily expand. Why not have one in every business district? Sixty five merchants can attract more customers to a street than one, and it helps new potential tenants get off the ground.

All this, and you know how much this costs government? Chaisson tells me, “I’ve never really looked into any kind of government support.”

Bob Chaisson's collection grew into Plan B on Gottingen street.

Jeff Harper/Metro

Bob Chaisson's collection grew into Plan B on Gottingen street.

The vintage clothing section.

Jeff Harper/Metro

The vintage clothing section.

The local music section.

Jeff Harper/Metro

The local music section.

The front part of the store serves as a cafe. There is also a community kitchen available in the back of the space.

Jeff Harper/Metro

The front part of the store serves as a cafe. There is also a community kitchen available in the back of the space.

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