By Michael Workman
Over the past decade, online outlets for makers and handmade goods in general have made participation in national and international maker markets increasingly possible, and the number of users continues to soar.
But more recently, destinations have started popping up throughout Chicago where small coteries of brick-and-mortar shops specialize in handmade and small-run specialty goods. These pockets of maker outgrowths are the beginnings of a map—a cartography of makers nestled in Chicago’s neighborhoods. We’ll begin with Lincoln Square/Ravenswood.
Increasing rents along the Square’s main drag at Lawrence and Lincoln Avenues seem to have reduced the pricier strip to a toothless row of for-rent signs between the more resilient, often better-financed, at times more corporate, businesses. “Things were just too pricey over there for us,” says Wissanee Blaine, co-owner of the newly-opened Amadara handmade shop at 4555 North Western (amadara.com), who just opted for a space on Western two blocks west of the commercial strip. Cheaper rents were, for Blaine, a primary motivation. Others appear to agree. A number of shops specializing in handmade makers have begun opening along Western Avenue and elsewhere in the neighborhood, starting with the Nomadic Ant (nomadicant.com) silver and brass store across the street and the celebrated new Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse (bakermillerchicago.com) with its quaint coffeehouse seating across the block. Add that to the already-existing Printmakers Collaborative (chicagoprintmakers.com), and a healthy locally owned, handmade-centric alternative strip has started to form on the block next to the Western CTA station.
Out from this traffic center, a number of shops are filling out the map, including Neighborly, Homesoul, Sacred Art, Enjoy, An Urban General Store, along with specialty craft-kitchen shops such as Flirty Cupcakes Dessert Garage, Savory Spice, and Hilary’s Cookies. Now, the new facial-hair centric Q Brothers opened in the annex to the Apothecary, and there’s a sense that, buoyed by acceptance and pride in local mom-and-pop businesses, the area is evolving into a maker mecca.
With momentum supplied by institutions like the Old Town School and Lillstreet Art Center, tactical short-term rent adjustments could draw more emerging makers and push the area over the top. Blaine agrees. “My clientele here are very well-educated and have traveled extensively. They recognize quality handmade goods, and are seeking environmentally conscious, organically-sourced merchandise.”
That cosmopolitan demographic, attracted by nightlife, a movie theater and coffee houses, has contributed to a feeling of village street life in the area. We’ll see whether it takes a village indeed to create the energy for a locally owned, community-supported Chicago version of Williamsburg—back when that Brooklyn neighborhood was still fun.
Five Questions for David McDaniel of Fuzzstew
We love handmade toys! Tell me how you got started?
I lived with my wife in Mexico for two years and I couldn’t help but buy all kinds of local folk art and handmade toys. At some point my wife, ever the capitalist, suggested that we buy a bunch of these beautiful handmade stuffed animals and try to sell them when we return to the States. That’s what we did, and it seems to be taking form as just a Christmastime business in our second year doing it. We most definitely want to do something original. We want to sell a product that is high-quality and handmade and that doesn’t have any corporate connections. We buy things we like from people who make them. This hasn’t been the most efficient business model but it has been enjoyable and thus sustainable.
What’s unique about what you do?
One thing that’s nice about the work that comes from Chiapas is that even if our makers have made a thousand toy lions, they use whatever fabric they have available and so every one becomes unique. One may have neon green hair with red bodies and another a striped body with orange hair.
Online or in-person?
Online, we do the best we can with photos. In person, the attention to detail, the size, the texture and much more about the toys becomes very important. They sell best when you get a gaggle of kids together and let them go running off with your product and then their parents are like, “where did you get that?”
I’d like to bring back more decorative indigenous art objects for adults. Right now, we sell mainly to kids but if we had something that parents might like, we could do better. There are great little wood and glass boxes in Mexico painted with scenes of skeletons doing normal daily activities. They are wonderful and super creative. I think I might bring a few of those back next time and see how they sell.