Inkling in Lakeview and why we need the little shops
today at 7:40 am
There’s a Mariano’s on Broadway. It’s not a villain, it’s a grocery store. And we were excited to have one in the neighborhood. It was closer than Trader Joe’s and had better food than the Walmart Express.
But there’s a domino effect when a giant grocery store moves in, especially on a street like Broadway. Several of our great little shops had a hard time keeping up.
The first one to close its doors was a little flower shop. I remember going in there for birthdays and anniversaries, giving the florist a budget, and he’d create something meaningful for Ashley. His work would usually cost somewhere between $30 – $60. Compare that to Mariano’s, they’ve got pre-made bouquets by the door for $19.99 and less. And they look just fine.
The next to go was Pastoral. This one really hurt. I used to go in there for cheese, no name of a cheese in mind, just a general idea like: “I’m making burgers tonight, looking for a good cheddar or something,” or “What would be a good blue cheese?” The expert behind these big wheels of cheese would always nod, give this immediate, “Oh, I know just the one” expression and cut off a sample. Ah, that’s good. Pickup some olives. Pickup a loaf of bread. Head home.
But Mariano’s has all of the above – cheeses, olive bar, bread. It’s not quite the same, but it is more convenient. And less expensive. Within two years, Pastoral closed its doors.
In my lifetime, from as early as I can remember (about 1996) to now, there’s been this giant arms race to make things faster and more convenient. I grew up in what was probably the peak of the everything in one place grocery store. Walmart. Meijer. Kroger. These guys dominated the 90s. But nowadays they almost look like the little guy competing with the juggernaut of Amazon. The reality: you can always go faster. Now, grocery stores have been scrambling to keep up. First, it was the self-scan checkout. Then it was, “We’ll pick out your groceries and bring them to your car.” I imagine the only way to survive over the next 10 years will be things like delivery, online orders, basically imitating Amazon. Otherwise, we’ll think of Mariano’s as that little grocery shop down the street.
But there’s another way to compete with faster, faster, faster. You go in the opposite direction and focus on the experience. The store owner says, “What’s great about my store is that you’re not in a rush. It’s an escape from the fast-paced world.” Sure, there’s probably something cheaper. There’s probably a way to order an item online. But that’s not the race I’m running.
The Inkling Shop is one of these places. You can find it on Broadway between Apple Bite Mart and Manor Dry Cleaners. They usually have a small sign on the sidewalk with the words “Cute Little Shop,” a cartoon, and an arrow written in chalk.
You walk into Inkling and it’s not one of those in your face gift shops like the ones lined up in Times Squre with I Heart New York t-shirts everywhere. Inside The Inkling Shop, verything looks carefully curated. And by your 10th step into the store, you’ve already chuckled three times at some of the comedic items and greeting cards. Ashley usually heads to the apothecary section. I’ve usually got a stuffy nose so I can’t really enjoy the smells. I browse through the greeting cards from talented artists.
I could keep describing the store, but it’s probably best to let the creativity and comedy speak for itself:
Ten years ago, Inkling owner Stephanie Keller was a manager at a gift shop in Chicago. At the time, her friend Rebecca was in the process of opening her own shop called Wild Card in Pittsburgh. Her start-your-own-store excitement was contagious.
“Her excitement grew every month as she was closer to opening her very own space,” Stephanie said. “I was proud of her. Early in 2010, I questioned my own future. I spent my free time holed up in my apartment making products to sell at craft fairs, saving my profits, and living off my day job. That’s a lot to ask for, living in such a large city, but I wanted more. What did I want for myself? I wanted to spend my entire day immersed in art. Was that feasible in Chicago? Did I want to make art full-time, or did I want a space for myself? Why not both?”
And with any big dream, it seems like right after you have that, “This is what I want to do” epiphany moment, it’s immediately met with some level of reasonable fear. That matter-of-fact practical voice always seems to chime in. “Hey, now hang on a second. How are you going to make this work? What about bills?”
“I was scared,” Stephanie admitted. “Scared to fail, but more afraid of disappointing my friends since I needed their help. I am the sole owner of Inkling, but I did not do this alone. During my years selling my work at art fairs, I met incredibly talented artists that I wanted to represent in my shop. I worked with them to curate a unique selection of items to stock my shop and create the atmosphere I had dreamed of.”
Finding the perfect spot ended up being one of the easiest steps. Stephanie decided to stay close to home.
“I lived in Lakeview, so I looked nearby and found a charming stretch of Broadway near Oakdale,” Stephanie said. “Things started to get very real very fast. I think if I had slowed down at any point during the development I would have psyched myself out and frozen in fear. Ten years later, I wouldn’t change a thing. I continue to introduce artists that I admire to my community, I’m surrounded by art and creativity every day, and I am lucky to meet exciting people each time my doors open.”
Can you find greeting cards at a grocery store? Sure you can. Right by the self-service checkout lanes. Are they cheaper? Probably. But with Inkling, we can’t even round the corner on Oakdale and Broadway without our dog Crash making an immediate beeline for Inkling’s front door. He sprints in, one of those moments when he’s walking me, not the other way around. Goes right to the front counter and politely sits down, awaiting his treat.
Like Cheers, you want to go to a place where everybody knows your name. With Inkling, it’s the kind of place that knows your dog’s name and has a treat waiting for him. One of the staff members even gave us this awesome sketch of Crash she made in her spare time. And when I was getting quotes and notes for this article, Stephanie ended the email with: “Give Crash a good chin scratch for me.”
The big stores just can’t compete with that.
You can visit Inkling at 2917 1/2 N. Broadway. Depending on the COVID-19 phase restrictions and also your own comfort level going into stores, you can also shop at www.theinklingshop.com and follow on Instagram @theinklingshop.
Over the last several months, I’ve been using the Medium Rare blog in a different format, featuring local restaurants around Chicago and the Chicagoland area. These also, from time to time, drift into a little bit of philosophy and stories from my own life. To catch up on some of the posts and read about other great local spots, here they are below.
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
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