In century-old shopping strip, stores determined to hang on amidst weak economy
09/26/2012 10:00 PM
On Saturday afternoon, Weinberg’s Socks and More clothing store is a hive of activity. Mothers flip through the merchandise as they try to keep track of the children. A small line forms in front of the cash register as more customers come in. Manager Richard Nelson looks on and smiles.
“As you can see, we’re pretty busy today,” he told Chicago Journal. “It’s the first cold day, and people are realizing ‘Oh, we need socks.’”
Since the early 20th century, the stretch of Roosevelt Road between Desplaines and Clinton streets has been home to clothing stores and wholesalers. Many of those stores specialize in selling, tailoring and altering suits. An outgrowth of a business district that developed around the Maxwell Street Market, this shopping strip has seen some redevelopment, but much of its original character remains. And while the weak economy takes its toll, most of the remaining businesses are determined make it through.
The shopping strip emerged in the early 1900s as the Maxwell Street Market started to grow and expand. The clothing trade was becoming increasingly profitable, and wholesale clothing stores started to pop up along the nearby Roosevelt Road to meet the growing demand.
Before long, many Maxwell Street vendors earned enough money to establish their own businesses. While most set up shop along Halsted Street, a significant number of former vendors moved to Roosevelt Road.
At the beginning, most of the Roosevelt Road business owners were Jewish immigrants. But over time, the shopping strip became more multiethnic. African-American entrepreneurs began to open their own shops in the 1940s, and Chinese-American merchants started to make inroads in the 1980s.
The 1990s saw significant changes, as the market was moved from its original location and the surrounding area underwent massive redevelopment. In 2000s, the redevelopment reached Roosevelt Road. A new shopping plaza went up near the Union Station rail yard, and a Best Buy replaced several clothing and furniture stores between Canal and Jefferson streets.
However, the new stores didn’t have any direct effect on the older shops.
“Stores like Best Buy don’t sell clothes,” explained Nelson. “So it’s not like they’re competition.”
Nor did the changes around Maxwell Street necessarily affect the stores’ customer base. Even as the store’s customers moved away, the memories lived on, and, in many cases, got passed down to the next generation.
“We started out on Maxwell Street,” said Nelson. “We sold to a lot of people. People who grew up with us remember us, and they bring their children.”
Some businesses managed to develop a reputation well beyond the Near West Side. At Ike’s Tailor Shop, the walls are decorated will autographed photos of local celebrities, including former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Fox Chicago anchor Robin Robinson. When Chicago Journal visited the shop on Saturday, it had a mix of new and regular customers.
But few stores are as iconic as Fox Brothers Tailors Inc, which is widely credited as being the creator of iconic “zoot suits.” The shop has been making, altering and repairing suits for the past 83 years. The current owner, Elias “Leo” Zayed, said that most of his business comes from referrals.
“You get customers telling their friends, and their friends tell their friends. Old customers tell their kids, grandkids. We don’t get too many [customers] from the street.”
But while the neighborhood changes haven’t affected the business much, the recession is taking its toll. This is especially true for the clothing stores that sell suits.
“The people aren’t buying like they used to,” said Mohammed Butt, manager at formal wear store Bucci For Men. “The economy is down. People are more worried about buying food.”
Stores specializing in more mundane clothing fared better, but only to a point.
“We got busier on the retail end,” explained Nelson, “because people are looking for low prices. But we lost business on the wholesale end. Flea markets and vendors aren’t buying as much as we used to.”
Other wholesalers with retail components fared worse
“The number of customers has been reduced,” said Steven Lee, owner of Queen Bee Sales, “by about 20-30 percent, [compared to] three years ago.”
One long-running business, Sid’s Clothing and Hats, managed to weather the recession without significant losses. That may be partially due to its unique niche: Out of all hat stores in Chicago, few can match the size and variety of its inventory.
The situation also isn’t helped by the parking rates, which has been increasing since Chicago Parking Meters LLC took over the parking meters.
“It costs so much money to park,” said Nelson. “They charge the same rates as downtown.”
So far, the redevelopment hasn’t significantly affected the shopping strip. But that may change in the end of 2013, when the first phase of the Maxwell mixed-use development opens a block north, on the section of Taylor Street between Canal and Clinton streets. The Maxwell will feature 430 apartments and approximately 190,000 square feet worth of retail. It is unclear what sort of retail the developers have in mind, but a new clothing store could pose a serious challenge to the Roosevelt Road shopping strip.
Dennis O’Neill, executive director of Connecting4Communities, expressed hope that the stores will be able to make it.
“It would be a shame to lose them to more bland, big box, suburban-like stores,” he said. “These stores have history and character on their side, so it is hoped they can find a way to thrive.”
For now, most of the businesses appear determined to remain open, hoping that they’ll last long enough to see the economy improve.
Butt put it most optimistically.
“We always hope for a bright future,” he said. “A business is like a yo-yo. It goes down, but then it comes up.”