Credit: Bob Chiarito/Block Club Chicago

LINCOLN SQUARE — A longtime Lincoln Square record store, struggling to survive the coronavirus pandemic, received an unwelcome visit from a city inspector Thursday afternoon, informing him that he has to pay at least $400 for an awning permit.

Laurie’s Planet of Sound, 4639 N. Lincoln Ave., received a visit around 4 p.m. Thursday from an investigator with the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection’s Public Way Use Unit, according to shop owner John Laurie.

The investigator told Laurie that they had no permit on record for the awning, which extends over the sidewalk on Lincoln Avenue, and gave him a written notice that he would 90 days to either get a public way use permit or have to remove the awning. Laurie said he was told that the cost of the annual permit is based on the building size, but would be at least $400. 

He did not dispute that he did not have a permit, but said his store has been operating for 25 years and he was unaware that he needed one. He added that he thinks the city may be cracking down because of revenue problems.

“We probably have been in violation for 20 years for all I know and now they are cracking the whip because they need cash,” Laurie said.

But the need for awning permits and the enforcement of them is nothing new, according to Isaac Reichman, public information director at Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. 

“It’s not new and it’s something that is enforced. You need a public-way use permit for anything on, over or above the public way. Covid has obviously changed a lot of things and we’ve changed some of our enforcement. He received a warning, not a citation,” Reichman said, who added that the city’s revenue problems had nothing to do with Thursday’s action.

Reichman added that he was not aware of why an investigator went into Laurie’s shop, saying that typically the inspections are not random.

“In general, most of what we do is complaint based. We won’t necessarily go because we’ve received a complaint about an awning. We’ll go for any sort of complaint and once we’re there we’ll do a full business investigation,” Reichman said.

Laurie said the potential $400 cost of a permit is unwelcome at a time when he’s struggling to keep his business going because of the coronavirus shutdown and related restrictions. He said he’ll probably take the awning down, which will make the sidewalk more hazardous in the winter for pedestrians.

“The awning’s gone, I’m not going to spend the money. I rather spend $50 on rock salt a year than $400 plus,” Laurie said.  “I’ll get rid of the awning but then we’ll have more snow and ice on the sidewalk.”

“I’m trying to keep a business afloat. We had seven employees and now I’m down to three. Our hours are cut by a third, business is down by half and I have to deal with an awning?”

Kaitlin Fletcher, who owns art gallery Sacred Art at 4619 N. Lincoln Ave, just steps from Laurie’s store, said the inspector did not stop in her shop Thursday despite the fact that her store has an awning. She added that she had to pay for an awning permit a few years ago when the business opened.

Another small business owner, hearing Laurie’s story, said he should count himself lucky that he got away with not having a permit for more than two decades.

“I think this person needs to realize that they are in the city of Chicago, and have two choices — pay the fee or take the awning down. He should count his blessings that he got away with it for as long as he did,” said the business owner, who did not want his name published.

The fellow business owner added that like Laurie, he believes it’s nothing more than revenue grab by the city and said he’s been cited in the past for various things. 

“It’s a scam. All they do is go around to these businesses and ticket, ticket ticket and you go to the city, plead liable and pay a fine. If you plead not guilty, then you have to go to court and nobody wants to do that so basically they bring you into this room and they scare you by saying ‘We can issue all these fines or you can just pay us $400 or $500 right now and we’ll just call it a day.’ And this happens 300 times a day, 5 days a week. It sucks and I feel for the guy, but it is what it is.”

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