Walking north on Clark Street in Andersonville, my friend and I thought we had hit the end of a treasure-studded shopping trail. But a lone sidewalk easel beckoned us further. Once we entered Room Service, we were glad we'd dragged our feet another half-block.
The tidy but well-stocked space with a masculine aura was full of restored and retro-style midcentury furniture and decor in a wide range of prices -- a rehabbed medicine cabinet for $495, gorgeous glassware, elegant dried giant palm fronds for under $30.
But the most unusual piece was a weathered, 7-foot-tall metal cage draped with vintage throws. It was an old prison locker, graffiti included.
"We've 'saged' it so there are no bad vibes," said store manager Brian Mattes. "It's just waiting for the right person."
The idea of shopping America's third-largest city is daunting, especially if you're not familiar with it -- which is why many weekend visitors never make it past downtown. But if you do a little online homework before you leave, zeroing in on specific shops or streets of interest, you're bound to find more to explore nearby.
During a long weekend shopping spree, we discovered a host of distinctive stores, both in chain-happy downtown and in three separate neighborhoods. Each one sells at least some pieces affordable to the middle-income consumer, and many offer bargain items and stocking stuffers for thinner wallets, gifts and indulgences you're not likely to find here at home.
This area well north of the city center was first settled by Swedish immigrants more than 150 years ago. A Swedish museum and bakery remain as vestiges, but, after a period of decline in the 1980s, the area is now home to a diverse population, including the most registered same-sex couples in the state of Illinois, and seemingly nearly as many indie home-decor shops. It's a 20-minute drive or 40-minute bus ride from downtown; you'll likely want to spend at least half a day here.
Besides Room Service, home-decor boutiques worth a spin-through are The Haymaker Shop, featuring furniture, prints and knick-knacks all handmade by Midwestern artisans, the urban-antique store Scout; and Brimfield, popular with local city folks for things Minnesotans have laying around their lake cabins -- red-plaid throws, hunting-scene art and vintage Thermoses.
Andersonville Galleria, a three-level consortium of more than 90 independently owned booths, features unusual gifts galore, from soaps and candles we hadn't seen elsewhere to original fashions. One particularly great score was a pair of hot-pad holders featuring beefcake construction-worker pin-ups for $20.
At Turley Road, you don't have to be in your 20s or a size 2 to find a unique blouse or jacket among a collection of very wearable but statement-making clothing in a mid- to high-end price range. We walked out with a gossamer-light cardigan for $65 and an unusual wide-wale corduroy coat for $400. Great mix of Chicago, British and other American designers we hadn't found elsewhere.
Presence is a quirky, low-budget place to rummage for boho young-women's clothing and gift bargains, like beautiful $15 wool scarves. The Monkey Gallery is worth a stop not only for the hodgepodge of floor-to-ceiling monkey-faced curios and folk art, but a chat with proprietor "Bernie Superfine," who may or may not look up from his beadwork the entire time he's talking your ear off.
Even after you've made your mad dash through Nordstrom Rack and strolled the big department stores, downtown's options are too vast to list, but here are a few good bets.
Topshop/Topman is the new Michigan Avenue mob scene for those drawn to mustard-hued ultra-skinny chinos, London punk glam and runway trends translated to lower prices as quick as they come. The British-owned international chain (yes, a chain, but the only others in the country are in New York and Los Angeles) snapped up a prime bit of retail real estate when Borders closed.
Across the street at Water Tower Place, where an Henri Bendel is set to open this month, Chicago designer Ava Black features original little black dresses and smart work-to-evening ensembles. Akira, geared mostly toward teen and 20-something women, offers trendy, middle- to lower-price fashion including great prom or homecoming dress options you won't see on a classmate (Akira Shoes is a separate store, up a level). Water Tower Place also has clean, cushy-sofa areas where shoppers can rest, an amenity that Chicago could use more of.
P.O.S.H., on State Street, is a must-browse for fans of vintage kitchenware and collectibles. They sell authentic and repro hotel silver, plates, linens, salt and pepper shakers and more.
Though we noticed several shuttered storefronts, this street in the upper-class neighborhood of Lakeview remains a worthwhile short shopping stretch for women fashionistas -- the locals agree, judging by the number of designer baby strollers we dodged -- and it's just a 15-minute El ride on the Brown Line north of downtown. The best of the bunch is Tula, where chic, friendly proprietress Laura Westgate projects the American embodiment of Kate Middleton. Many labels run higher-end, but my eagle-eyed friend Judy, whose weak spot is handbags, homed in on a smashing gray-plaid Sarna clutch for less than $140.
Once a scruffy bohemian 'hood, this area about 5 miles northwest of downtown has increasingly been infiltrated by upscale fashion, making shopping as lively as its nightlife. Elle magazine named Trillium a "top shop" this year for good reason: Another boutique popular with trendwatchers is p.45, featuring local designers. Virtu, a great stop for unique artisanal gifts, accurately bills itself as "the place to find something for someone who has everything."
There are many used bookstores in the city, but none we saw offer more atmosphere than Myopic Books on main artery Milwaukee Avenue. An incredibly wide-ranging selection no longer includes a first-edition Nelson Algren -- complete with a faded "25 cents" penciled on the cover -- that my friend secretly bought for me after noting my lustful gaze. Followers of the John Fluevog shoe cult will be in heaven across the street, where a huge Fluevog store offers more delightfully odd-shaped heels and bump toes than they could imagine in one place. Budget-watchers shouldn't miss Rudy's Roundup for fun and funky little gifts.
The jewel in the square, which otherwise has not much to recommend it, is the magical potion emporium known as Merz Apothecary. Walking in off the street, it feels as if you've traveled back in time at least a century. Behind the counter, a bowling lane's length away, the proprietor at the cash register looks like Merlin in a cardigan, framed on either side by umpteen shelves loaded with European-brand soaps, candles, hair care products, powders, lotions and homeopathic remedies. Department-store cosmetics counters may be less cluttered, but you won't find the exotic brands Merz stocks, or the experience. At Hanger 18 down the street, you can pick up $20 oilcloth tote bags different than any found in the Twin Cities, and novelty items like a "Yeti Pilot's hat" for $28.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046