When one walks into Horwoods Mall from the Front Street entrance in downtown Whilehorse it’s hard to miss him. There, in one of the building’s charming nooks and crannies, sits John Houle with greyish hair protruding endearingly from a small, black skull cap.
Houle is the owner/operator of ProPass, a one-stop-shop for all your photo ID needs — including FACs, immigration documents, and status cards. But to many who visit the mall for coffee or haircuts, he is simply “that passport guy”.
Houle was born in Phoenix, but spent his time Calgary and Red Deer, Alberta before moving to the Yukon with his wife about five years ago. “I worked in Photovision,” says Houle of his pre-ProPass livelihood.
But in early 2013 he was told that the long standing Main Street business was shutting its doors, giving the passport-maestro some questions to answer. “I had a daughter being born at the end of May and I also had customers coming in saying, ‘Who’s going to do this (once Photovision closes)?’”
Houle decided he would carry on doing it himself. He just needed a location. So he found a tourist map of downtown Whitehorse and began investigating a “two-mile” radius, looking for a suitable storefront. Word of mouth led him to one of the aforementioned nooks in Horwoods Mall. In a previous life it had been a food kiosk, rendering the walls a jaundiced yellow.
Still, the place had “potential” written all over it. The cranny in question is shaped kind of like a microphone; the side that is visible to the public flares out bulbously and is connected to the more private section, which is a hallway-like room spanning about four feet in width and 20 in length.
The bulb would make a perfect place to seat clients; Houle snapped up the location. He opened the shop in the first week of May and two weeks later his daughter burst into the world — an auspicious month made even better by his new neighbours in the mall. “(After my daughter’s birth) I had about a dozen people show up with little gifts,” he says.
Houle realized he was going to have a good time here. “People walk (into the mall) and say, ‘It looks like you’re having a good day’. But I’m having a good life.” He recalls with a grimace the demeanors of the six-figure-salary crowd in Calgary. “You see their faces and they say, ‘is this all there is?’ There is a tangible sense of misery.”
By contrast, people in Whitehorse seem to be more self aware, he says: “I’m doing the right thing, in the right town, for the right people.” And to illustrate his commitment to life in the North, Houle tells a little story: “Now that you can get 10-year passports people get their picture taken and make a joke about seeing me in 10 years. Well, they will. I’m not going anywhere.”
Houle’s secret to a successful business is no secret at all; he just makes eye contact and nods at everyone who passes. Given his location, this constitutes a huge swath of the capital city population. “I learned my work ethic from my grandfather,” he says. “Work hard, don’t try to pay the mortgage with one job, and always smile at people. “I’m just a regular guy doing an old-school kind of business.”