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The Price of Doing Business

When a man's home is his office

Wednesday Journal

July 15, 1992

One of only four such light pieces I did for Dan Haley’s Wednesday Journal. An eccentric choice for an archive of pieces about government, it verging on facetia, but Illinois local government verges on facetia sometimes too. Anyway, here it is.

A few weeks ago I received the application form for my 1992 Oak Park business license. The license is required of anyone engaged in, carrying out or conducting a "business, trade, calling, profession, exhibition or occupation" within the village limits. That is a comprehensive definition of "business" and under its terms the 10-by-10 room above the drugstore that I use as a workroom constitutes a business premises.

At first I was flattered. In the town where I used to live, what I do for a living was not deemed a significant enough threat to the public welfare (or a significant enough money-maker for the public treasury) to merit licensing. There, requiring a license of a freelance writer would be like making winos on the courthouse square take civil service exams.


Oak Park's regulations classify the magazine articles I write as "general merchandise," which is a more flattering judgment than some readers have made. My stock in trade is second-hand opinions, I reasoned, so why shouldn't I be classed on the village books with resale shops? I even added the words, "Licensed by the Village of Oak Park" to my business cards, by way of professional accreditation.


Even so, what I do certainly is not a business in the sense that it is a profit-making enterprise. Some people get audit notices from the IRS after the agency has read their returns; I get sympathy cards. The license adds $50 a year to my cost of doing business. I forget now the name of the guy who ran for the village board who pointed out that Oak Park's diversity policy made room for all kinds of people except those who used to be known as the decent poor. I wish now I'd voted for him. A plumber makes enough in one hour to pay for his license, while it takes me a solid day to earn that much, at least at the rates I am being paid for this piece.


Those 50 bucks theoretically recoup for the village the cost of inspecting my premises. Such costs consist mainly of the salary paid the fire inspector who drops by for a few seconds now and then to see if anything's on fire. Nice guy, but if he earns $50 for every such visit, his annual salary must approach that of a public school principal.

I can understand why restaurants should be inspected—it is my personal opinion that Granny's delicatessen burned down because some of Dino's gazpacho spontaneously combusted—and why banks should be inspected very carefully. But I keep no hazardous materials on the premises, apart from opinions, and the only citizen whose health is endangered by the practice of my trade is me; a caster keeps falling off my desk chair, threatening to pitch me over onto the floor and into disability, but no one from the village has ever asked to look at my chair.


In short, nothing goes on here that doesn't go on in hundreds of home offices in the village. The Oak Park of today has home offices the way certain of its neighborhoods had stills during Prohibition, and for the same reasons. The extra income earned from these upstairs-around-the-corner enterprises is essential to Oak Park's economy; without it, the home remodeling industry would wither, and au pair girls would be lined up at O'Hare's ticket counters like steel workers on the unemployment line.


The down-sized management guru, the merged-out-of-a-job financial wizard, the moonlighting tax lawyer, the academic-turned-consultant, the housewife-decorator all flourish in such quarters. But since home offices are not officially defined as commercial premises, they are not inspected. And since they are not inspected their tenants pay no license fees. The exemption favors people who own big houses with lots of spare rooms, but then most things do.


Business licenses should be required of all businesses in the village, no matter what kind of building they happen to do business in. But how will the village know which houses contain home offices? Unless the IRS rats on people who claim a home office deduction, the only way to find out would seem to be to put a police tail on every FedEx van that circulates in town.


The village might borrow a trick used by New York City zoning inspectors who, lacking the staff for a building-by-building search of old warehouse districts for illegal loft conversions, simply drove around and noted the addresses where they saw house plants hanging in the windows.


Village of Oak Park officials should look for open window curtains in rooms such as bedrooms that modesty would otherwise require be kept closed. I can't speak for lawyers or accountants or scholars, but I know that any room that has a past-deadline article manuscript in it is not a room that a writer will feel like having sex in. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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